In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman first advanced the concept of the “super-empowered individual.” Friedman wasn’t describing Wolverine, Magneto, or the Incredible Hulk, but a supposedly new kind of individual who posed a crucial challenge to the nation-state. Friedman’s main argument was that globalization had radically “flattened” the globe, creating new pressure points that individuals seeking to effect systemic change could target, leverage, and exploit. John Robb, Thomas P.M. Barnett, and Zenpundit followed up on this argument by noting that network mobilization power, the increasing power of personalized weapons and technology, and the weakness of the global supply chain provided crucial opportunities for the super-empowered individual to take on the state.
In my own article for Defense and the National Interest on the subject, I argued that the real power of the super-empowered individual lay in his or her ability to exploit the increasing realism of communications technology to achieve a mass psychological ripple effect. At the time I was unaware of Dr. Robert Bunker’s concept of Bond-Relationship Targeting, which expanded on the psychological aspect of super-empowerment in much greater detail.
The true super-empowered individual–as opposed to the global guerrilla or the media-enabled lone wolf–is still somewhat of a dodgy concept. No one has used a loose nuke, and real-life usage of chemical or biological weapons in terrorism is nothing nearly as apocalyptic as 24. The odds of someone acquiring that kind of power are very low–hence the “black swan” effect if and when it does occur. What I find more interesting at present are the political and normative questions that come to mind when one thinks of a super-empowered individual scenario.
Sam Liles, in the course of a post on cyber-warfare examines the super-empowered individual’s larger role in political theory:
“The relative superiority of national and organized force will keep the individual from rising in the open to challenge that superiority. The individual using cyber assets will only be empowered through guile. Most nations simply would not stand for an entity able to challenge their power domestically. A safe haven for an individual would be difficult to find. Whereas, it might seem terrible and risky for the individual to rise in capability there is an interesting issue. The individual through treaties and international law is protected from the might of a nation state. Nations rarely wage war on a person. Organizations can be labeled as terrorist targets, leaders can embody the issues of political discord, but in general the principle is that the combatants are treaty capable organizations. Everything below the level of nation-state is basically organized crime or general strife. In other words the activities not considered rising to the level of war …Another form of the individual though is the corporation. We have already seen examples of corporate espionage waged in a burgeoning field of corporate warfare. As the nation state erodes under the abrasion of globalization the corporate state as an adversary is rising to challenge and be challenged by the individual.”
Liles also notes that societies often have a complex attitude towards individuals:
“The individual is an interesting phenomenon. Not all societies even acknowledge the individual and some revere it to the point of unsustainable action. The Geerte-Hofstede index is a good example showing collectivist cultures versus independent cultures in stark light and with multiple other elements to compare against. As such, the rise of a independent entity taking on the nation-state, is both cherished and terrorizing at the same time. The individual represents in some cultures nearly the embodiment of evil and narcissism and in other cultures the preeminent expectation of societal goals.”
America is both attracted to and repelled by super-empowered individuals. From Jesse James to John Dillinger, the public reveres outlaws and mythologies them as folk heroes standing up for “the little guy” against large, coercive, and impersonal government and corporate entities. There is also a very intense attraction to them because they transgress against the boundaries of social order in ways that most only dream of–and seem to get away with it. Perhaps the most interesting cinematic depiction of this is Neo in The Matrix, who literally changes the rules of the system in order to defeat it. At the same time, we also fear these powerful individuals, and relentlessly seek to suppress them. Prohibition-era law enforcement agencies engaged in massive manhunts for bootleggers and bank robbers–and often killed them. Bonnie and Clyde, for example, were caught in an what many consider a planned ambush and killed with Browning Automatic Rifles loaded with armor-piercing rounds. If the kind of super-empowered individuals military futurists theorize about ever emerge in America, they will be objects of both fear and admiration. And they will also be suppressed with the full force of the state.