Michael H Goldhaber on Wed, 6 Nov 2002 02:04:02 +0100 (CET)


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[Nettime-bold] Re: <nettime> COMPLEXITY, TRUST AND TERROR (Langdon Winner)



Below is my letter that will be mostly published in the next Netfuture
in response to Langdon Winner's piece.


Jon Lebkowsky wrote:
>
>                                   NETFUTURE
>
>                      Technology and Human Responsibility
>
>  --------------------------------------------------------------------------
>  Issue #137                                                October 22, 2002
>  --------------------------------------------------------------------------
>                   A Publication of The Nature Institute
>             Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@oreilly.com)

>                    On the Web: http://www.netfuture.org/
     
>
>                        COMPLEXITY, TRUST AND TERROR
>
>                               Langdon Winner
>                             




LETTER TO NETFUTURE by Michael H. Goldhaber

Langdon, I was frustrated by your piece  Complexity, Trust and Terror.
Normally I like what you have to say. But this time, your main point that
technological complexity leaves us particularly vulnerable  say to
terrorism 
strikes me as clichd and mistaken. While it is no doubt the case that the
complexities of our society, technological, and otherwise , present a
great many
problems ranging from global warming to lack of active political involvement,
the truth is we are far less vulnerable, even to these worries, then less
sophisticated societies. Complex systems, among other things, tend to
have great
redundancy built in or simply lying around ready to be utilized if need be.

History doesnt teach what you say. The example of the Goths attack on Romes
aqueducts in 537 misses the context. After lasting for many centuries,
and then
undergoing centuries of decline, probably brought on by its inability to
find a
political form that could handle its size and diversity, the Western Roman
Empire finally fell in 476.  Sixty years later, it had been briefly reconquered
by the remaining Eastern Roman or (Byzantine) Empire, which then failed
to hold
it. But by then Rome was far from being the technically sophisticated and
advanced capital it had been centuries earlier. The aqueducts had
survived, but
not the engineers who had built them.

The post-World War II Strategic Bombing Survey of Germany revealed that contrary
to its intent, the unprecedented level of allied bombing had not significantly
reduced Germans output of war machinery and materiel. Compare how
quickly the
less technologically complex Taliban fell when subject last year American
bombing at a much smaller scale. Or consider how Sierra Leones society
collapsed from an onslaught of ill armed rebels a few years ago.

 As a more homely example, I offer my own experiences after the 1989 Magnitude
7.1 Loma Prieta earthquake, which killed about a hundred people in and around
the heavily populated San Francisco Bay Area. I was living in San
Francisco at
the time, and with the Bay Bridge out was concerned that food might not
get into
the city. My worries evaporated however, when I realized that the
artisanal Acme
Bread Bakery of Berkeley, which had only recently started supplying one
store in
my neighborhood, was sending its trucks around the Bay via San Jose to
keep up
deliveries. We were not only not going to starve, we would still have our
luxuries. Contrast that to less technologically complex parts of 
Turkey, Iran,
China, or Central or South America hit by similar magnitude quakes. The death
toll is often in the thousands or
tens of thousands; food and water supplies disappear; disease runs rampant.


Your explanation, "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," is simply inapt. The Internet,
complex as it
is, ought to be subject to that definition, but just isnt. Even as  a
description of a skyscraper, the thought seems tortured, at best. The World
Trade Center might well have been ugly and dehumanizing, but the reason it
collapsed had to do less with  its "wresting stores of power from the natural
realm" than an inadequate fire-proofing system, inadequate concern for safety,
etc.


To some extent these problems and some others that you mention can be ascribed
to trust. On the other hand, as you hint, our
normal trust that mild levels of security are all that are needed for our
safety from terrorists have mostly proved accurate. But the system just
is not
as vulnerable as you claim to the kind of attacks
we witnessed. Saying otherwise feeds into the anti-terrorist hysteria.
(I'm not saying no one will die, but even thousands of deaths, though horrible,
are not the same as system breakdown.)

Certainly it is true that the response to 9/11 especially in the days
immediately afterwards was hysterical, a hysteria deliberately fueled and
used by the Bush administration as well as by the media. Anti-terrorist hysteria
has had much less horrendous effect on civil liberties so far than long-lasting,
carefully nurtured anti-drug hysteria, with its low
technological component. Apathy on this score is nothing new. Polls have
repeatedly shown most Americans don't support the Bill of Rights, when its
contents are described. (That of course is precisely its value.) Bush was
against much of the Bill of Rights before 9/11, except as it affected his
wealthy supporters. Politics has been shanghaied by the monied elite, in
part as
a consequence of widespread apathy, in part as a cause of that apathy.

If you were to argue that the complexity of modern life dumfounds the electorate
I think you would have something. Part of what you call trust is simply
inattention resulting from the simple impossibility of taking seriously
all the
issues, etc.,that seem to call for attention.

(Some of the pieces, including those about terrorism, on my website
http://www.well.com/user/mgoldh/ might be relevant)

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