Anticipating The Age Of Surprise

We live in an age of many things.

The Age of Technology.  The Age of Innovation.  The Age of Declarative Titles.  Okay maybe not that last one, but you get what I’m saying.  This 21st century is riddled with exciting invention, progression and descriptive words, so I’m not for a lack of topic when it comes to discussing the now.

But what about the future?

Ominous, no?

Ladies, gentlemen, aliens, robots of all makes and models…Welcome to the Age of Surprise.  Blog post.

Air Force Colonel Edward L. Vaughan is the ANG Advisor to the Commander and President at Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.  His job?  Thinking ahead.  Specifically technologically.

“You’ve got be ready for something to happen that you’re not ready to have happen.”

Meaning it’s time to expect the unexpected, which can be a bit of a challenge (contradiction notwithstanding).  So how is Col. Vaughan and his team there at Air University doing just that?  By using YouTube, of course.

No, seriously.

“I’d like to invite your readers to go watch the video for themselves –no doubt you’ll post a link to that – and we look for their feedback via the YouTube comments function.”

Asked and linked, sir.  I give you the Age of Surprise.  Video.

“We read all the comments.  Especially the bad ones,” he says.  “That said, the video essentially offers insight into the Blue Horizons annual student research project.”

So what is the Blue Horizons student research project?  Well I wrote a whole story about it here, but Col. Vaughan describes it as a program run by the Center for Strategy and Technology where each year they handpick 15-16 senior level students (the classrooms are filled with lieutenant colonels and colonels from all the services) and they engage in an annual research project.

The goal of the project is to look long.  That is, 25 to 30 years into the future and come up with some ramifications and strategic insights and strategic discussion points for the Air Force senior leadership.

But why is the Air Force looking so far ahead when naysayers could argue we can’t know what we’re up against in thirty years?

Simply put, we’d rather not be caught off guard.

Think about it.

“This exponentially increasing technology is going to alter the future of conflict,” Col. Vaughan explains.  “It’s going to redefine Air Power’s role in that future, and it may do it in ways that we can’t even imagine right now.  Hence the term ‘the Age of Surprise’.”

Obviously that’s no coincidence.  The name and definition of the video is aptly titled and, naturally, there’s a reason for that.  Even if it’s not obvious right off the bat.

“I know there are folks that watch that video and they go ‘well that doesn’t accurately describe the Air Force strategy or the Air Force mission’ and they’re right.  It doesn’t   That’s not the point of it. The purpose, the goal of this Age of Surprise video, is to generate thought and discussion and actually debate.”

He goes on to say that he doesn’t even mind if it’s heated debate.  Now, that’s not a free ticket to troll town (I’m looking at YOU, YouTube commentators), but ultimately the goal is to take these discussions and use them to inform [leaders] on future national security strategy.

Why?  Col. Vaughan says it’s because senior leaders need to see this kind of dialogue occurring.

“We need people across the spectrum; people in industry, people within the military, people from other countries!  We need to hear what they think – and what they have to say – about what might happen in a landscape twenty to twenty-five years in the future.  That will help us make minor course corrections now so that when we get there the surprise is less of a surprise.”

So why is the Air Force reaching out via a YouTube video to get the message out?

Well…how else would you do it in this day and age?

Social media is something I like to call an ubiquitous media medium (say that ten times fast).  It’s all over the place.  It’s in our face on the computer, on TV, on our phones, even IRL.  I can’t walk into a restaurant without being asked if I’d like to follow my lunch-making diner of choice on Twitter.

You think this is interactive, wait until we get holobands. (Screen shot from Age of Surprise video, CSAT)

Social media is redefining the way we communicate with each other.  And the military is jumping right on this bandwagon.

“What makes the Age of Surprise significant is that we took that next step,” says Col. Ed Vaughan.  “And that was to put out a video to express what we do in a different format and a different medium.”

In the years prior, Col. Vaughan tells me, the message of forward-thinking through technology was illustrated through enormous PowerPoint presentations.

O_O  Ugh.

The military is notorious for their “death by PowerPoint” presentations.  I’ve barely survived a few hefty ones myself.  Because nothing says “using technology to communicate” quite like a clipart-laden slide-by-slide depiction of all the things you’re not doing with that available technology.

The significance of the Age of Surprise video is that it’s not following the forceful trend of PowerPoint prognosticating, and has embraced the very technology we’re talking about and trying to understand.

“Now we’re reaching an audience that we previously couldn’t reach,” he says.  “Now we’re putting something out there that’s easy to consume; a two minute video.”

One of the greatest benefits of this video is that it will help leaders of all levels to think about the future in a more coherent fashion.  It opens the aperture on strategic thought and strategic clarifications for the future.  Including preparing for unknown threats to the United States.

Like super-empowered individuals, for example.

Yeah, we’re hip to your jive, Dr. Forrester.

Yeah, you read that right.  Super villains are a threat on the list.

Hey now, don’t laugh.  It’s happened before where the world was threatened by the dangerous might and unwavering wicked persistence of one person.  On several occasions.  I think there are more than a fuhrer I can mention, but it goes to show that considering all options is not such a bad thing.

Because when it comes down to it, the Age of Surprise video serves as a vehicle to get people – especially leaders – thinking about the future.  Even if right now that future seems a little fanciful.

“Most of our science fact has its roots in science fiction.  These labs have to figure out some direction to go and something to invest in, and the guys sitting around coming up with the ideas on what we’re going to look at next – these are all science fiction fans.”

And there could be more truth to this science than fiction. 

Arthur Clark said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

This video gives people the possibility to see the plausible reality in that “magic”, and to consider the possibilities.

Just because those possibilities seem a little far-fetched today does not mean that they won’t be commonplace realities someday.

And speaking of science fiction, how would Col. Vaughan feel about extraterrestrials getting their hands (or tentacles, phalanges, what have you) on this video?

[laughs] “Well before we made the video, the faculty and the students involved in the Blue Horizons project sat down to brainstorm and determine ‘who is our audience, who are we making this for?’ We ABSOLUTELY do not want aliens to watch this.”

He went on to mention that he answers the question as a hypothetical, but this video was intended for Earthling eyes only.  We can’t have those E.T. folks gaining insight into our future strategy, after all.

All right, move it along. Nothin’ to see here. Just keep on truckin’, mister.

So I guess the Age of Surprise will have to remain a mystery for all those off-world fans.  I guess this means the aliens will be left with cat videos and dubstep teen pop stars gallivanting all over stages in bright clothing.

Just like the rest of us.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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