The Illusion of Being Connected: Gen. McChrystal at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Thanks. The reality is we’re in a country and a society where you tend to want more. You want more money, you want more friends, you want more shoes, in case of my wife, I think that’s not possible. But if you have soaring ambitions, what you really want is you want to have more of something than everybody else.

And in 2006, commanding a task force in Iraq, I had more connectivity than any military commander in history. More full motion video, more computer linkages, more radio linkages, I could talk to more places, more people than Napoleon, than Alexander, than Wellington, than Robert E. Lee.

Now, I didn’t say I was a better general than them, but I had more connectivity. I could reach prime ministers and presidents, sergeants and privates. I was really connected. But I couldn’t reach this guy. Now, this is not one of my special operations commanders. He looks like one. But in reality, this is Rooster. He is my daughter-in-law’s cat. He lives in the DC area, he’s a little overweight. He doesn’t do anything. He’s thinking about running for Congress where I told him he’d fit in.

But the thing about Rooster is, I send him email, I sent him chats, I call him now and again, I don’t hear a word. But I go over to their house and I rub his belly, and I think we are connected. Because where I grew up, if somebody rubs your belly, you are connected.

Now I’m gonna ask you as leaders, and you are all leaders, not just generals, commanders in the Army, CEOs at corporations, but also nurses in operating rooms and teachers in classrooms, and parents and families. You are all leaders. So the question to ask yourself: are you connected? And typically if I ask you that, you reach down to see if you got your cellphone and how many bars you got. Or do you have Wi-Fi for your iPad. And if you are really an important person, you don’t carry those things, but you look over to your right or left and your assistant is burdened down with all that stuff, and your assistant goes, “Roger, I got it.” And you are reassured that you have connectivity.

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But the question to ask ourselves is: do you have real connections? Because I believe that connectivity in today’s world doesn’t guarantee that you have the connections that matter. Connectivity has always been the Holy Grail. How we could talk better. If you look at the march of technology, particularly for military forces, every leader wanted to be connected to more people in real time than ever before.

And you go back in history, at the battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington used flags, but he also rolled up little pieces of paper and put them in the button holes of his waistcoat, and when he wanted to communicate with somebody, he’d write a real quick message, he’d give it to the messenger, they’d ride it over. That was connectivity for him.

General Meade at the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union commander, was linked by telegraph to Washington DC, which I am not sure he was happy about, but he used flags, bugles, and runners on the battlefield to be connected, to have connectivity with his commanders.

During the First World War, General Pershing who commanded American forces, had a huge wire system where they would run telephone wires from the very fore trenches all the way back to the headquarters, and it allowed him to speak to all parts of the forces at the same time.

But because the wires couldn’t be moved very easily, it also stuck him in that location, because as soon as he moved away from where all the wires connected, he moved away from his connectivity. Suddenly he lost the ability to have that what he had wanted so much. And for those of you who are familiar with the war in the Vietnam, we had radios by that point, but we also had helicopters. Commanders would sometimes fly over a unit on the ground and they’d talk by radio to them and they’d watch them. And they had a sense that “I am connected to the people on the ground”.

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Well, all that paled in comparison to what we had in Iraq. In my situational awareness room our operation center, we had banks of big flat-screen TVs where we’d get predator downlink, what we called full motion video. You could watch all of our operations in real time. You could listen because we pumped it through our secured Internet. You could listen to every radio conversation from the senior people down to the lowest team leader of every fire fight, not just in Iraq, but in the other countries we were operating in, all simultaneously.

Sitting right at that one place, I could call, watch, video teleconference, I could do all of those things with this extraordinary range of people and places for the first time ever. When you brought people in, particularly outside visitors, they would just be amazed and they’d say, “You know everything.” And there’s a temptation and I found it myself, I would sit there and I would say, “I know everything.”

And what really happened was, the technology that was so good, had first enamored me, and then it had seduced me, and then I was bound by it. Those which we think are our servants become our masters. Connectivity, which we’ve always wanted in particularity great amounts, gives us the illusion of knowing. What I mean is, if you see what happens outside a window, people on a street, and you see them talking, you start to say, “I know what’s happening.” If they look like they are arguing, you have a sense, “I know there’s an argument going on.”

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