For parts of my childhood on a sunny wooded hillside in California, we got our international news from this damp country where I now live, in the overseas weekly edition of what was then called the Manchester Guardian. We got that paper not because my parents had any connection to England – neither of them had even been there, or done any foreign travel at all other than my father’s time in the Pacific during the war. But it was still the depth of the Cold War and the escalation of the Vietnam war and the perspectives on international affairs published in US daily newspapers were, shall we say, limited. Hence the subscription.
So my breast wells warm with nostalgia to see in today’s Guardian that the US Army is blocking access to the Guardian on large parts of its network: the paper is still playing the same role of bringing in news that’s a bit hard to find at home.
The most visible aspect of the US military is its role as what Tom Lehrer called America’s “number-one instrument of diplomacy“. Whatever your views of it in that capacity, it is best not to overlook the fact that this very large, well-funded and technologically ambitious organization also affects our lives through its procurement and management practices. You know some of the stories: the invention of the Internet; bringing the production of transistors quickly to a commercially viable scale by mandating their widespread adoption; creating the ISO 9000 quality assurance system for use by its contractors – who, since they included many of the world’s largest corporations, passed them on to thousands of other companies upstream on the supply chain; or, if we go back a couple of centuries, roughly fifty years spent making the concept of interchangeable parts – until then, an un-implementable item of French military doctrine – into an industrial reality (for details on this last, see Hounshell’s great book From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932).
So if the Pentagon really is shifting toward an open-source approach to software development, you know where to lay your bets.