Michael H Goldhaber on Sun, 10 Nov 2002 17:47:20 +0100 (CET)


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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 cliched 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 doesn't teach what you say. The example of the Goths' attack on
Rome's 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 German's 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 Leone's 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 isn't. 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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