• Goto NetFuture main page
  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #137                                                October 22, 2002
                     A Publication of The Nature Institute
               Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                      On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
    in submission to its inevitabilities?  NetFuture is a voice for
    responsibility.  It depends on the generosity of those who support
    its goals.  To make a contribution, click here.
    Tech Knowledge Revue (Langdon Winner)
       Complexity, Trust and Terror
    About this newsletter
                           COMPLEXITY, TRUST AND TERROR
                                  Langdon Winner
                                                          TECH KNOWLEDGE REVUE
                                                        3.1   October 22, 2002
    The beguiling but ultimately mistaken notion that technologies are "merely
    tools" — things we pick up, use and then easily put away — poses
    a major barrier for understanding how we live today.  Missing in the
    tool/use perspective is acknowledgment of a basic fact about people's
    relationship to the technological realm:  our utter dependence upon the
    large, complex, artificial systems that surround us on every side, giving
    structure to everything we do.
    For countries in the North, such dependence is welcomed with open arms
    because it seems crucial to prosperity and freedom.  Large-scale,
    geographically extensive technologies enable us to move about as we wish,
    to communicate freely and to be released from the urgent demands of day-
    to-day survival that confronted previous generations and that still vex
    the less prosperous nations around the globe.
    But now another, more troubling dimension of technological complexity
    demands attention.  Dependence on complex technological systems looms as a
    source of vulnerability.  If any major component in the systems that
    support modern life ceases to function for a significant period of time,
    our prosperity, freedom and comfortable lives are threatened.  This was a
    major concern in 1999, you'll recall, as people agonized about the
    possibility of disastrous system collapse caused by Y2K programming.
    There were widespread fears that the energy grid, airline transportation,
    banking system, and other systems would be disrupted by computer
    malfunctions, plunging society into chaos.  It turned out that, despite
    minor glitches here and there, the predicted Y2K chaos never arrived.  But
    during the last months of 1999, the perception of vulnerability bordered
    on mass hysteria.
    Responses to Vulnerability
    There are several ways that our society routinely deals with the specter
    of vulnerability.  One strategy is to ensure that technical devices and
    systems are well-engineered and protected from calamitous failure.
    Engineers and systems designers make sure that structural parts can hold
    an increment more than the normal loads they must support.  Redundancies
    are also built into many systems so that if one part fails, another part
    takes over.
    But good engineering is only part of the story. In free, democratic
    societies there is another way in which ordinary people have managed their
    relationship to vulnerability:  they embrace an attitude of trust, holding
    on to the reasonable expectation that key technologies will always work
    reliably and not break down in ways that jeopardize our health, safety and
    comfort. This relationship is reciprocal; trust also informs the structure
    and operation of technological systems themselves.  Many key components
    are built in ways that leave them open to the possibility of inadvertent
    or deliberate interference.  Electrical power lines, phone lines, gas
    pipelines, dams, aqueducts, railroads, airplanes, elaborate works of
    architecture, and the like are often more or less naked to the world, open
    to view, minimally guarded from the kinds of interference that could
    render them inoperable. For many decades a common but largely unspoken
    expectation has been that people in prosperous industrial societies can be
    trusted not to disrupt or destroy the workings of the key parts of the
    global technological order.
    Most people accept the presence of major complex technologies because
    their well-being hinges on them, because there's no good reason to act
    destructively and, of course, because the law punishes overt acts of
    sabotage. Exceptions include occasional bombings by anarchists in the
    early twentieth century, acts of destruction by the Weathermen and
    political extremists in more recent times, Timothy McVeigh and the
    Unabomber, among others.  But for the most part, the relationship of
    openness and trust between individuals and complex systems has proven
    fairly resilient.
    A much different understanding of how to manage large, complex systems
    characterizes closed, guarded, totalitarian societies such as the Soviet
    Union under Joseph Stalin and Kim Il Sung's North Korea.  Regimes of this
    stripe have hardened the design of their technologies and installed vast
    systems of policing and surveillance because they did not trust their own
    people.  For any society that adopts strategies of this kind —
    pervasive suspicion and obsessive protection of core technologies —
    an inevitable consequence is the destruction of civil freedom.
    What would happen to our own society if the long-standing conventions of
    openness and trust were suddenly afflicted by a pervasive sense of
    vulnerability and dread?  Would our rights, liberties and democratic
    institutions survive?
    Vehicles for Destruction
    In the aftermath of the attacks upon the World Trade Center and Pentagon,
    along with the subsequent anthrax scares, such questions have renewed
    urgency.  Americans are now profoundly aware of their vulnerability.
    Dams, reservoirs, bridges, power plants, chemical plants, aqueducts,
    electrical transmission lines, liquid natural gas tankers — even the
    daily mail and systems of food supply — all seem wide open to attack.
    As far as I can tell, both planes that left Boston on September 11 on the
    way to the twin towers of the World Trade Center flew right over my house
    in The Hudson River Valley.  If the pilots had wanted to do maximum damage
    to the region, a far better target would have been the nuclear reactors at
    the Indian Point electrical power plant about sixty miles south.  Since
    these facilities were not designed to withstand a direct hit by an
    airliner, targeting them might have caused catastrophic failure, and
    possibly a core meltdown as the fuel sank into the mud and water of the
    Hudson River.  The resulting plume of radioactive steam and debris would
    have killed thousands of people very quickly and rendered much of the
    Northeast permanently uninhabitable.  Perhaps we are lucky that the al
    Qaeda terrorists were so obsessed with the symbolic value of the World
    Trade Center that they neglected what may have been more productive
    targets, America's 103 nuclear power plants.
    Within the collection of infrastructures upon which we depend, there are
    many others that are essentially wide open, loosely protected.  The
    nation's containerized cargo system provides a good example.  Each year
    some six million sealed containers arrive from all around the world.  At
    present, only two percent of these are ever inspected (although a new
    international program aims to boost the level to 5-10 percent).  If anyone
    had the ability to make or purchase a nuclear device or dirty bomb, a
    convenient way to deliver it would be to ship it by containerized
    freighter and at the appointed moment, set it off.  A recurring nightmare:
    One morning we turn on our televisions to find that San Francisco, San
    Pedro or New York has been leveled by a nuclear blast from a weapon hidden
    in one of those large steel crates.
    There are many other horrifying scenarios, of course.  If anyone had the
    desire to use it, a readily available, flexible delivery system for
    maximum destruction is the automobile, a fact all-too-clear in Ireland,
    England and the Middle East in recent decades.  There are now some 230
    million registered cars and trucks in the USA. The Oklahoma City bombing
    demonstrated how easy it is in an open society to fill a rental vehicle
    with explosives made of readily available chemical fertilizers and set it
    off in the middle of town.  Just as we previously had not thought about
    commercial airliners as flying bombs, Americans do not regard their
    beloved automobiles as flexible, ubiquitous instruments of destruction,
    although they sometimes serve that role in the Middle East and other
    troubled regions of the world.
    Recognition of the vulnerability of open, complex, geographically
    extended, technological systems is by no means new.  In 537 A.D. the
    Gothic chieftain Vitiges and his forces laid siege to Rome.  A crucial
    part of Vitiges' strategy was to cut the aqueducts leading to the city,
    forcing the Romans to rely on the inadequate stream of water from the
    Tiber River.  As a result, the population fled Rome in droves, as much in
    response to water shortage as to flee the sack of the city.  Scholars have
    long debated the various developments that caused the fall of the Roman
    empire.  But as geographer Gray Brechin observes in Imperial San
    Francisco, "the destruction of the aqueducts conclusively ended the
    rule of a city that had once boasted of itself as the caput mundi —
    the world's capital."
    The Withdrawal of Trust
    Following the atrocities of September 11, the world's current caput mundi,
    the United States, has struggled to find ways to confront revelations of
    its own vulnerability.  To this point most of the emphasis has centered on
    a rapid shift from trust to mistrust, installing muscular sociotechnical
    fixes that promise security against terrorism and place our whole
    population under suspicion.
    Most prominent of proposed remedies is the USA-PATRIOT Act — "Uniting
    and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to
    Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism."  This astonishing piece of legislation
    broadens and extends the government's power to listen in on private
    conversations, including cell phone conversations, nationwide; authorizes
    surveillance of email, web browsing and other Internet communications; and
    allows police to obtain a warrant to search a person's home without the
    person's knowledge.
    Other steps in this vein include changes in America's immigration rules
    that allow the Attorney General to keep foreigners in detention even
    though an immigration judge orders them released.  President Bush issued
    an executive order aimed at creating special military tribunals for
    foreign nationals suspected of terrorist acts, courts that lack many of
    the protections afforded by our laws and Constitution.  Along this path
    hundreds of Muslim and Arab persons have been detained before being
    charged with a crime or breach of immigration status, in direct
    contradiction to the U.S. Constitution.  Even now, more than a year after
    the attack, it is difficult to obtain accurate accounting of who is being
    held and for what reason.
    As the shadow of secrecy and suspicion has fallen across the land, useful
    government information about the nation's technological infrastructure
    — web sites on water systems, nuclear power plants, chemical plants
    and the like — have been removed or are severely restricted in
    content.  For scholars, it is now much more difficult to study what used
    to be regarded as a perfectly mundane question: the structure and
    operation of technological systems.  What used to be public information
    freely available to citizens, is now regarded as crucial national
    "intelligence" to be shielded from the grasp of spies and saboteurs.
    The wave of new federal legislation and regulation is now mirrored in a
    host of anti-terrorist laws passed by state legislatures, ones that
    feature strengthening the power of police to monitor the activities of
    citizens who for one reason or another must be watched.  In this new mood,
    the definition of terrorist activity is sometimes so broad and vague that
    it casts a shadow over a wide range of political activities —
    organizing public protest marches, for example.  Civil liberties groups
    are concerned that ordinary forms of political protest could be defined as
    terrorist and suppressed.  This might include, for instance, the public
    gatherings to protest globalization like those in Seattle and other cities
    in recent years.  Unfortunately, episodes of political repression during
    times of civic distress — the Palmer raids after World War I, the
    incarceration of American citizens of Japanese decent during World War II,
    the malicious persecution of dissidents during the McCarthy era of the
    1950s, and so on — are all too common in American history.  When the
    nation feels threatened, freedom takes a beating.
    A Public Chill
    On radio and television talk shows and in newspaper editorials since the
    9/11 attack there has been a strong tendency to define terrorism in broad,
    loose, inflammatory terms.  The same penchant also afflicts lawmakers at
    all levels.  Last spring the Maryland House of Delegates passed an anti-
    terrorism law extensive in its sweep.  Dana Lee Dembrow of the Maryland
    House of Delegates remarked, "I realize that this bill basically says you
    can tap someone's phone for jaywalking, and normally I would say, 'No
    way,' ... But after what happened on September 11, I say screw 'em."
    The nation's obsession with security now casts a chill upon public life
    and the only question is "How cold will it get?"  For example, since the
    1960s there has been a lively debate about privacy and personal liberty in
    the age of electronic data.  A rough consensus formed that citizens ought
    to be free from the snooping of government, corporations, and private
    individuals.  That consensus has now been demolished by the belief that
    widespread surveillance is necessary and that ingenious systems like the
    FBI's Carnivore (which can monitor everyone's email and Internet
    activities) are exactly what is needed to defend the country.
    Within post-9/11 security measures, protections of the U.S. Constitution
    have been seriously weakened.  Thus, the fourth amendment insists, "The
    right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and
    effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be
    violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported
    by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be
    searched, and the persons or things to be seized."  But under provisions
    of the USA-PATRIOT Act, authorities can now search everywhere,
    indefinitely, online and off, with one general warrant.
    There is, alas, widespread spillover of these measures into civil society
    as a whole. Hoping to deflect suspicion, many Americans have become
    guarded and self-censoring.  How often in recent weeks have I heard people
    say, "No, I don't worry about anti-terrorist legislation.  I'd never do
    anything the authorities would be interested in anyway." Evidently,
    patriotism requires us to be compliant and predictable.
    Typical of the mood of panic just after the 9/11 attacks, there was a news
    segment on NPR that asked security experts about everyday vigilance
    against terrorism. What should ordinary folks watch out for?  Look for any
    signs of "unusual behavior," one expert advised. This would include people
    wearing clothing that seems out of place, or saying things or making
    gestures that were not appropriate for a particular place or occasion.  As
    I listened to the story, it struck me that what was identified as
    dangerous "unusual behavior" were simply varieties of freedom —
    wearing what we like, saying what comes to mind, acting freely in public.
    When Stable Structures Dissolve
    We cannot know the specific intentions of the September 11 terrorists. But
    if one of their aims was to render our way of life much less open and
    free, they have surely succeeded.  At present Americans are restricting
    freedom of travel, limiting access to information, and narrowing the
    boundaries of political speech.  In programs like the Justice Department's
    "Terrorist Information Protection System" (TIPS) we are modifying social
    life in ways that define people as suspects rather than citizens.  In all
    deliberations about public policy (regardless of topic) terrorism and
    security have become the overriding concerns.
    Just as sixth-century Romans abandoned their city when the aqueducts were
    cut, Americans seem to be abandoning essential parts of the democratic
    civic culture that developed during the past two centuries.  This
    appalling turn of events is certainly evident in the material features of
    public buildings and grounds.  A visit to Washington, D.C., shows the
    place transformed by ever-present ugly cement barriers, recurring security
    searches and ubiquitous surveillance cameras.  The city has been redefined
    as capital of Homeland, a strange new country where once-cherished
    freedoms of thought, expression and movement are regarded as luxuries too
    dangerous to afford.  (Citizens should ask: Is Homeland governed by same
    constitution as the old U.S.A.?)
    In the current mood, people view terror as something that has suddenly
    arrived from outside, inflicted upon an otherwise contented, harmonious
    society by "evil doers" from distant parts of the world.  Obviously,
    there's much truth in that view. There are malevolent actors out there
    prepared to inflict death and destruction.
    But seen from another vantage point, the terror we experience — the
    dread that now afflicts everyday life — resides in the very systems
    we have so ingeniously built during the past century.  Modern, complex
    technologies succeed by wresting enormous stores of power from the natural
    realm, seeking to direct these powers in ways that are controllable and
    useful.  An unhappy possibility can never be entirely eliminated, however:
    the prospect that these enormous forces will somehow be unleashed
    uncontrollably from systems and infrastructures originally built to
    contain them.  In recent years, fears of this kind have focused on rare
    technological accidents — the explosion of the Challenger space
    shuttle, for instance.  Such misgivings also underscore contemporary
    evidence about environmental ills, including global warming.  Our
    technology's controlled use of fossil fuels over many decades has
    generated uncontrollable, highly destructive shifts in climate.
    Following the 9/11 attack, the horizons of catastrophe have shifted. The
    accomplishment of a jet airline is to contain and direct the high energy
    fuel whose combustion enables rapid flight; the achievement in the
    engineering of skyscrapers is to defy gravity by ingeniously stacking tons
    upon tons of steel and other materials in high structures so that —
    despite their obviously precarious position — they will not fall
    down.  But what if the physical potential in these achievements were
    suddenly released in ways not part of the original blueprint?
    The horror of the World Trade Center attack was that the power of two
    wonders of modern technology — the skyscraper and the jet airliner
    — came crashing together causing the carefully contained power of
    both systems to be released in catastrophic explosion, inferno and
    collapse. In this light, the ingenuity of the terrorists is to trigger
    processes that cause stable structures to dissolve.
    Deeply buried in our experience of modern technology is the elementary
    terror that powers we sought to control will escape our command and come
    back to injure or destroy us.  Perceptions of this kind have surfaced in
    countless science fiction novels and cinema of the past century, turning
    our worst fears into mass entertainment.  But beyond the paperbacks and
    movie screens an urgent question now sounds.  How many systems of
    megatechnical might can one introduce before they begin to overwhelm the
    culture of democracy?  As we construct complex, tightly coupled,
    geographically extended, powerful, but ultimately precarious systems, one
    result is a world filled with ticking time bombs waiting to go off.
    A Fortress Mentality
    America's knee-jerk response to this terror at present is the familiar
    strategy of hardening systems to prevent disruption.  We are building new
    barriers around crucial systems and strengthening their internal
    components, surrounding them with elaborate methods of policing and
    surveillance. If it continues, this strategy of hardening technological
    systems will be a major drain on our economic resources and a hazard to
    both freedom and civility.  But for the time being Americans and their
    leaders seem prepared to pay these costs, even though they will rapidly
    degrade our institutions — further starving schools of funds and
    commitment, for example — and weaken the fabric of democratic
    Unfortunately, it is far from clear that the new measures will succeed.  A
    study by the Department of Transportation released last spring found that
    in attempts to smuggle weapons through newly bolstered airport security
    gates, thirty percent of the guns and seventy percent of the knives got
    past the guards and scanning devices.  Similar tests of security at
    nuclear power plants also produced disappointing results; breaching the
    barriers around these facilities seems to be fairly easy.
    The human demands of policing complex systems are, over long periods of
    time, probably beyond people's ability to bear.  You may recall an episode
    just after 9/11 when the Golden Gate Bridge was rumored to be a terrorist
    target.  Passage was closed for a while and then national guard troops
    were brought in to screen the traffic.  But television coverage showed
    exactly what you'd expect, guardsmen standing around, bored, shooting the
    breeze, not paying attention to the vehicles going by.  And this was a
    nationwide terrorism alert at the highest level!
    Faced with shortcomings of this kind there are calls to redouble our
    efforts by spending even more money, installing more sophisticated
    equipment, hiring more security personnel, subjecting the public to
    spiraling levels of hassle, search, surveillance and mistrust.  An
    impartial observer looking at us from afar might be puzzled by how quickly
    and thoroughly these initiatives have begun to modify the American way of
    life. Why didn't the nation explore more fruitful ways of responding to
    the terror people feel?  Why didn't Americans try harder to preserve their
    traditions of openness, trust and freedom?
    In quest of security the nation is now preparing to go to war with a large
    nation said to belong to an "axis of evil."  Again, this conveniently
    defines terror as something "out there" rather than acknowledging some of
    its foundations "in here," within the very frameworks that support high-
    tech ways of living.
    Toward Safer Systems
    In my view, there are far better ways of responding to 9/11 than the kinds
    of knee-jerk militarism, Orwellian surveillance and pre-emptive strikes on
    human rights that our leaders currently prefer.  Urgently needed are
    measures that would address sources of insecurity and terror found at the
    very roots of modern civilization.  Hence, it seems wise to design
    technical systems that are loosely coupled and forgiving, structured in
    ways that make disruptions easily borne, quickly repaired.  Certainly it
    makes sense to rely upon locally available, renewable energy and material
    resources, rather than foster dependency on global supplies always at
    risk.  It seems sane to rely on technologies operated by people in local
    communities whom we get to know in a variety of roles and settings, not
    just as technical functionaries.  It also seems high time to begin
    reducing our dependence upon overwhelming, risk-laden powers wrested from
    nature.  Now we know:  these powers may destroy not only fragile
    ecosystems, but the habitats of freedom as well.
    Fortunately, the richness of human knowledge includes workable systems
    alternative to today's complex, power-centered, globally extended,
    increasingly war-hungry dinosaurs.  The construction of more peaceful,
    resilient systems can be accomplished through imaginative efforts (many of
    them well underway) aimed at living lightly on the earth with justice and
    compassion.  Moving steadily along this path could also help eliminate
    grievances in the world's population that now serve as spawning grounds
    for terrorist attacks.
    As the present atmosphere of hysteria, acquiescence and political
    opportunism subsides — and I believe it will — we must renew
    efforts to build institutions that merit our trust rather than fuel our
    Tech Knowledge Revue is produced at the Chatham Center for Advanced Study,
    339 Bashford Road, North Chatham, NY 12132.  Langdon Winner can be reached
    at:  winner@rpi.edu and at his Web page:  http://www.rpi.edu/~winner .
    Copyright Langdon Winner 2002.  Distributed as part of NetFuture:
    http://www.netfuture.org/.  You may redistribute this article for
    noncommercial purposes, with this notice attached.
    Goto table of contents
                              ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER
    Copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
    newsletter for noncommercial purposes.  You may also redistribute
    individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this
    paragraph are attached.
    NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not
    survive without them.  For details and special offers, see
    http://netfuture.org/support.html .
    Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:
    To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:
    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #137 :: October 22, 2002
    Goto table of contents

  • Goto NetFuture main page