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The Strategist and the Web: Guide to Internet Resources

Authored by LTC James Kievit, Dr. Steven Metz. | February 1996

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SUMMARY

For strategic analysts, the ability to collect information rapidly and to evaluate its relevance and validity is a crucial skill. By allowing the nearly instantaneous transfer of information, computers are now helping to assure it is timely. The Internet offers access to millions of documents and files on a vast range of topics. But to make maximum use of it, researchers must understand its strengths and weaknesses. Analysts trained in library, archive, and word-of-mouth research must learn where to look for salient electronic information.
The Strategist and the Web provides an Internet "Primer"--an introductory road map of the 'net explaining its most important features: the World-Wide Web, news groups, and electronic mail ("email"). Then it examines numerous Internet sources. From these it identifies both sites of current value to a strategic analyst, and those with the potential to become important resources after further development.
Although sometimes valuable, the Internet today is not a solution to the analyst's need for relevant, timely information. New resources and methods appear and others fade away on a daily basis. Within a few years, though, presence on the web is likely to stabilize somewhat. Once that happens, an analyst's collection of Internet "bookmarks" will be nearly as valuable as a rolodex of personal contacts is now. The astute analyst will prepare for this. By exploring the web today and developing effective methods for finding and using electronic information, he or she will be ready when the Internet finally does make the leap from luxury to necessity.
To help make this exploration easier, Appendix A provides the URLs (electronic addresses) for all the sites reviewed in the essay. Alternatively, look for SSI's "Strategic Hotlist" on the Strategic Outreach Program page at: http://carlislewww.army.mil/usassi/ssioutp/.

INTRODUCTION

Information has always been the lifeblood of strategic analysis. Once it was difficult to acquire enough information to assess the security environment, monitor changing events (especially those far from the major media centers), and draw reasonable conclusions. Today, technology has changed things--analysts now have access to a virtual torrent of information. But while the quantity of information is no longer a problem, assuring its timeliness and quality can be. For strategic analysts, the ability to collect information rapidly and to evaluate its relevance and validity is now a crucial skill.
To a large extent, the computer has become the tool of choice for strategic research. By allowing the nearly instantaneous transfer of information, computers certainly help assure it is timely. But computer-based research has its own set of problems. Analysts trained in library, archive, and word-of-mouth research must learn where to look for salient electronic information. The Internet offers a partial solution to this problem. Through it, nearly everyone with a microcomputer and a modem can easily access millions of documents and files on a vast range of topics. But the Internet is not a panacea for the problems of strategic analysis. To make maximum use of it, researchers must understand its strengths and weaknesses.

CONCLUSION

Is access to the World Wide Web a necessity for contemporary strategic analysts? Probably not. The web is still in its infancy. The bulk of information remains brochure-level and most web sites are marketing devices rather than sources of data. Analysts wading into the Internet for the first time will find it a jungle. Not only is a small proportion of the available information truly useful, but that tends to be badly organized. Nearly all relevant information of value can be found elsewhere in printed form. In many ways, the web is for a national security professional as a microwave oven is for a cook. A cook with plenty of time and a well-stocked kitchen doesn't need a microwave. Without these, though, a microwave can be crucial. So too with the web. A strategist with few time pressures and access to a well-stocked library doesn't need the web. Strategists facing time pressure or who don't have a well-stocked library available will find it more useful.
Yet this is changing rapidly. With the exception of a handful of electronic magazines ("e-zines" or "cyberzines"), contemporary providers of information see the web as a supplement to conventional publishing and distribution rather than a substitute for it. But eventually there may be vital information on the web not available in any other medium. Today, the Internet is far from a mature resource. Users and information providers are still experimenting to find out what works and what doesn't. Change is extensive and rapid. New resources and methods appear and others fade away on a daily basis. Within a few years, though, presence on the Internet is likely to stabilize somewhat. Then an analyst's collection of Internet bookmarks will be as valuable as a rolodex of personal contacts is now. The astute analyst will prepare for this. By exploring the web today and developing effective methods for finding and using electronic information, he or she will be ready when the Internet finally does make the leap from luxury to necessity.