Flip through any newspaper and go from the foreign news to the business pages and what can be seen is the “other” great geopolitical struggle in the world today. It is not the traditional one between nation states on land. It is the struggle between “makers” and “breakers” on the Internet.
This is a great time to be a maker, an innovator, a starter-upper. Thanks to the Internet, people can raise capital, sell goods or services, and discover collaborators and customers globally more easily than ever. This is a great time to make things.
However, it is also a great time to break things, thanks to the Internet. If people want to break something or someone, or break into somewhere that is encrypted, and collaborate with other bad guys, they can recruit and operate today with less money, greater ease and greater reach than ever before. This is a great time to be a breaker. That is why the balance of power between makers and breakers can shape the world every bit as much as the one between the US, Russia and China.
Consider what Robert Hannigan, the director of GCHQ, Britain’s version of the US National Security Agency, wrote in the Financial Times earlier this month: The Islamic State, previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, was “the first terrorist group whose members have grown up on the Internet.”
As a result, “they are exploiting the power of the Web to create a jihadi threat with near-global reach,” he wrote.
The simple fact is, he said: “messaging and social media services such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp ... have become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists.”
The Islamic State has used them to recruit, coordinate and inspire thousands of Muslims from around the world to join its fight to break Iraq and Syria.
Hannigan called for a “new deal” between intelligence agencies and the social networks so the companies do not encrypt their data services in ways that make breakers like the Islamic State more powerful and difficult to track.
This is an important debate, because this same free, open command and control system is enabling the makers to collaborate like never before, too.
In Cleveland, I met two Israeli “makers” whose company relies heavily on Ukrainian software engineers. Their 11-year-old, 550-person company with employees in 20 nations, TOA Technologies, is a provider of cloud-based software that helps firms coordinate and manage mobile employees. It was just sold in a multimillion-US dollar deal.
Since I do not know a lot of Israelis in Cleveland who employ code writers in Kharkiv, Ukraine, to service Brazil, I interviewed them.
Yuval Brisker, 55, was trained in Israel as an architect and first went to New York in the late-1980s to study at Pratt Institute. He later met Irad Carmi, now 51, an Israeli-trained flautist, who came to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Over the years, both drifted away from their chosen fields and discovered a love for, and taught themselves, programming.
An Israeli friend of Brisker’s started a company in the 1990s dotcom boom, MaxBill, and eventually employed them both, but it went bust after 2001.
“We were both dotcom refugees,” Brisker said. “But one day Irad calls me up and says: ‘My father-in-law just came back from the doctor and asked: “Why is it that I have to wait for the doctor in his office when he knows he’s going to be late and running behind? There must be a technological solution.” The doctor knows he will be late and all his patients have cellphone... Same with the cable guy. This is wasting millions of man hours.’”
In 2003, they started a company to solve that problem. However, they had no money, and Carmi was working in Vienna. Carmi second-mortgaged his Cleveland home; Brisker took out loans. They communicated globally using e-mail, Yahoo Messenger and an early Yahoo system that worked like a walkie-talkie. They wrote their business plan on free software without ever seeing each other face-to-face.
Carmi, in his travels to Spain, discovered Alexei Turchyn, a Ukrainian programmer, who managed the creation of their first constantly updated cloud-based enterprise software. Eventually, they headquartered in Cleveland. Why not?
As they say: “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog” — or in Cleveland or Mosul.
It still matters though, being seen as an “American company,” Brisker said.
“People know you represent that kind of entrepreneurialism and freedom of thought, and creative expression and bold energy, and they want to be a part of it. They know it can transport them out of the malaise of their local world and enable them to build a new world in its place,” he said.
Malaise? Why do some people respond to malaise with constructive, creative energies and use the Internet to scale them, and others with destructive creative energies and use the Internet to scale those? I do not know.
However, increasing numbers of people are set to be super-empowered by the Internet to make things and break things — and social networking companies and intelligence agencies working together, or apart, cannot save people.
When every individual gets this super-empowered to make or break things, every family and community matters — the values they impart and the aspirations they inspire. How the US nurtures its own in the US and in other nations to produce more makers than breakers is now one of the great political — and geopolitical — challenges of this era.
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