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<nettime> COMPLEXITY, TRUST AND TERROR (Langdon Winner)
Jon Lebkowsky on Thu, 31 Oct 2002 18:57:45 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> COMPLEXITY, TRUST AND TERROR (Langdon Winner)


                    Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #137                                                October 22, 2002
                 A Publication of The Nature Institute
           Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet {AT} oreilly.com)

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Tech Knowledge Revue (Langdon Winner)
   Complexity, Trust and Terror


About this newsletter


                       COMPLEXITY, TRUST AND TERROR

                              Langdon Winner
                             (winner {AT} rpi.edu)

                                                      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 {AT} 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.

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