By Ryan Derousseau
November 23, 2015

Most people first heard the term “asymmetric warfare” after 9/11, when the world saw that in the modern age a few people with a little money could credibly threaten giant entities with tons of money, and the conflict between them would be waged on principles that no one had fully figured out. The trend has expanded into a far more general, tech-based phenomenon – call it the rise of the nobodies – and this week we see it playing out in varied settings worldwide.

The most dramatic example is of course Europe’s own 9/11, the ISIS-related terrorist attacks in Paris and, now for the third day, the transformation of Brussels into a ghost town as authorities shut down subways, close schools, and tell residents to stay indoors because of a potential “imminent” attack. French President Francois Hollande will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday and with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday to plan a response. Great powers are struggling to counter a tiny organization that could not succeed without, among other necessities, mobile phones and the Internet.

In a starkly different realm, Reed Hastings’s Netflix is confounding the great powers of mass communication. There was a time when three TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) together attracted 90% of all U.S. TV viewing. Now a new survey shows that more than half of all Americans use Netflix to watch TV shows and movies online. And unlike the big TV networks, Netflix is expanding quickly and aggressively around the world. The broadcast networks are under attack on many fronts, but the sudden, highly successful rise of Netflix is most striking. This is a company that just rented DVDs by mail until 2007.

Eighteen months ago, how many people had ever heard of Ben Carson? Today he’s the No. 1 or No. 2 candidate favored by Republican voters. His rapid rise would have been impossible before the rise of Net-based media and communication. Though enormously accomplished as a surgeon, he was unknown beyond the medical world until he spoke at a Washington prayer breakfast with President Obama in attendance in 2013. His blunt criticism of the Affordable Care Act made him a Republican hero, and the Internet enabled video of his speech to go viral. The net has also enabled his campaign to raise impressive sums in mostly small donations, Obama-style. The great powers of the party, embodied in Jeb Bush, are far behind and struggling.

Campbell Soup reports earnings on Tuesday, representing another set of great powers losing ground to nobodies playing by different rules. Big Food, which ruled America’s tables and supermarkets for decades, is being defeated by hundreds of smaller companies purveying fresher, healthier, more natural, or just more cleverly marketed products. Campbell CEO Denise Morrison has been most outspoken among Big Food CEOs acknowledging the problem, but whether she can implement a winning strategy is another matter.

Every day, great powers of every kind are waging asymmetric warfare. Figuring out how to win is proving remarkably difficult.

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