Terrorism & Technology – Ignorance is Bliss

I can’t sit idly by any longer keeping my view on this matter to myself or limited to select conversations. The House’s recent vote to approve the FISA bill with provisions allowing immunity for the Telco companies that participated in the blatant violation of constitutional rights has left me steaming. Call it the straw that broke the camel’s back if you’d like but it’s time to take a real look at everyone’s favorite word – terrorism – and the delusional behavior that’s allowed otherwise intelligent Americans to sign off on atrocity after atrocity while selling the constitution and bill of rights off wholesale.

Willing to give up our constitutional rights in the name of security? All because you’ve been told and believe it will prevent Islamic terrorist attacks and that air travel, buildings, etc. will be safer and that you and your fellows will no longer be at risk if we give up enough of our liberties or allow enough supervision? I’ll let you in on a little secret. Not only are you wrong, but you’re so far off base you should be embarrassed. You want something to be afraid of? I’ll share the TRUTH with you and let me assure you it’s FAR scarier than the cinematic garbage you’ve been cowering from for the last 7 years. Only, these threats are hardly mentioned. These are just a taste of the real threat you face and the sad reality is that the steps being taken, and the rights you’ve offered up for sacrifice won’t make you any safer from them.

Edit: In reviewing this post I’ve decided that I need to attempt to clarify a key point before going into the following illustrations. I’m sharing these threats not to illustrate the danger we are in, but rather to illustrate the general dangers out there…To paint a big picture in the hope it helps you understand better, the real situation.  I believe that once you understand the situation better that you will, I hope, be less willing and susceptible to fear tactics based on over exaggerations/lack of perspective. I’ve included the following illustrations because while useful, I don’t believe big picture statistics such as the following register for the average individual. On the off chance that they do please note that the CDC has reported the following top 10 causes of death in the U.S. in 2005: Heart disease: 652,091, Cancer: 559,312, Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 143,579, Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 130,933, Accidents (unintentional injuries): 117,809, Diabetes: 75,119, Alzheimer’s disease: 71,599, Influenza/Pneumonia: 63,001, Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 43,901, Septicemia: 34,136.  When you add up these 15 diseases they killed 1,891,480 in 2005. Keep in mind that these statistics do not accuratly include the estimated 400,000+ people who die from smoking each year, or the 43,000+ estimated car accident fatalities which occured in 2005.  Consider how these threats impact your behavior and then consider how your behavior and ability to live life to its fullest has changed given your reaction to the threat of terrorism.  Now please consider these illustrations. I remind you they are real and shared not to drive you to give up your constitutional rights but rather the exact opposite. These are shared to educate and to give you perspective. Before you give something up paramount to the quality of your life, consider the relative nature of the alleged threats to your life.

Illustration I: It’s 113 degrees outside right now, tonight’s low will be 77 degrees. My air conditioning is running, I have constant access to cooled water, and I still go home dehydrated. In fact when I walk into my apartment I have to take off my shoes, or wait for the tar that’s melted onto them from the asphalt in the parking lot to melt. On my way home from work I’ll pass through at least 10 traffic lights. When I get home and go to cook dinner I’ll pull a T.V. dinner out of my freezer and microwave it. Now imagine the death toll that we could expect among Phoenix’s 6 million residents if the power went out for 2 days. The death toll aside, imagine the catastrophic economic impact?

Don’t think that’s possible? The Washington Post, January 19th 2008:

In a rare public warning to the power and utility industry, a CIA analyst this week said cyber attackers have hacked into the computer systems of utility companies outside the United States and made demands, in at least one case causing a power outage that affected multiple cities.

‘We do not know who executed these attacks or why, but all involved intrusions through the Internet,’ Tom Donahue, the CIA’s top cyber security analyst, said Wednesday at a trade conference in New Orleans.

The article goes on to quote:

Over the past year to 18 months, there has been “a huge increase in focused attacks on our national infrastructure networks, . . . and they have been coming from outside the United States,” said Ralph Logan, principal of the Logan Group, a cyber security firm.

At the time MSNBC noted:

In a test last year, the Homeland Security Department produced a video showing commands quietly triggered by simulated hackers having such a violent reaction that an enormous generator shudders as it flies apart and belches black-and-white smoke.

Illustration II: The power issue aside, let’s talk about Nuclear threats. We are, after all discussing invading Iran for continuing to pursue nuclear weapons – but again, let’s look at the REAL threat to Americans. Compare the impact of a foreign nation located on the other side of the world in which, despite all of the posturing and what’s happened in the middle east over the last 6 years, has a relatively positive view of the U.S. or…the potential harm just one or two rogue hackers could inflict if they were able to hack our nuclear facilities. Let’s look at Arizona again. Arizona is home to the Palo Verde nuclear power plant which has 3 reactors and is the largest in the U.S. It’s also located less than 50 miles from DOWNTOWN Phoenix. Anyone in the mood to speculate what might happen if hackers were able to compromise the facility and initiate an overload resulting in an enormous generator literally ripping itself apart? Oh, and I forgot to mention Presidential Candidate John McCain stated last week that his future energy policy would focus on building 45 new nuclear reactors in the U.S. by 2030 (NY Times).

Illustration III: Feeling nervous? That’s hardly anything compared to what would happen if malicious hackers penetrated the FAA’s flight system. You thought Sept. 11th was bad? As I’m writing this I did some flash research. According to FlightAware there are currently over 5,500 airborne aircraft being tracked by the system right now, with over 53,000 arrivals tracked in the last 24 hours. What happens if the software coordinating part or all of that traffic is compromised?

Illustration IV: Attended a major concert or sporting event recently? Pretty tough security right? Pat downs, searches, no opened water bottles or containers. Heck, more than a few of us have had our small nail clippers confiscated for “safety” reasons. All in the name of preventing terrorism and keeping you safe – it makes you feel better, right? One catch – when I was a student at ASU we snuck all sorts of things in through those security measures. Luckily we were focused on getting in tortillas and bottles of alcohol not plastic explosives and marbles. The student section typically holds several thousand of Americans best and brightest youths, packed shoulder to shoulder. The pathetic thing is, that despite all the money being spent and time being wasted, those security precautions still miss more than they actually catch. Just last week I was talking to a friend, who realized after the fact that she’d accidentally flown with a can of mace in her handbag. It’s an uneasy feeling I’m sure more than a few of you have shared.

Illustration V: Let’s put death, destruction and devastation aside and look at the information wars. Earlier this month an important, though little covered, news story broke noting that at least 3 members of Congress have reported that their computers had been compromised by Chinese hackers looking for information on dissidents. Even more interesting is this quote;

The Pentagon last month acknowledged at a closed House Intelligence committee meeting that its vast computer network is scanned or attacked by outsiders more than 300 million times each day.

Do I have your attention yet?

The Reality: These dangers are a basic snapshot of the threats out there. I’ve shared them with you to 1) educate you and to 2) offer illustrations of the extreme dangers out there in the hope of illustrating the triviality and blatant stupidity of the fear tactics currently being used on the American public 3) illustrate why terrorism is not sound grounds for giving up our constitutional rights. The panic-laden behavior of the current atmosphere of fear is a very real type of terrorism. The talking heads also have it right, in part. The target IS America and the American people. The unsettling and unpopular truth, however, is that we face two distinct groups of terrorists. The Islamic extremists we’re all more than familiar with and then a second, equally insidious group. The politicians, corporations, and consultants encouraging an atmosphere of fear for political and economic benefit. Since the viewpoint I’m about to cover is extremely controversial let’s start out with a basic definition:

“terrorism“ noun

1. The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.
2. The state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
3. A terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

In a post 9/11 world we are all more than familiar with this definition. Most of us have used the words terrorist, terrorism, etc. on a weekly basis over the past 7 years. However, this post is about what happens when we take a close look at the actual definition – at the significance of the word, the meaning, and what it truly means for American’s health, freedom, and safety as it relates to domestic threats.

For the sake of this post the two parts of the definition we need to focus on are the 2nd and 3rd points. In respect to the 2nd, I’d like you to take several moments and to reflect. Ask yourself who are ALL of the parties that have played a role in the creating and perpetuating the current atmosphere of fear and submission in the U.S.? Second, I want you to ask yourself who has capitalized the most on those fear and used the threats posed by terrorism to the greatest advantage? As you ponder these two questions keep in mind, that no one can hear you right now. No one is there to judge you. Now is a moment for true, honest reflection, for you to look at the concepts fairly. Ask yourself if you’ve been correct in your assumptions, and if you feel you have to defend those assumptions to yourself.

Now – consider the 3rd definition. This is of paramount importance as it’s something we seldom look at fairly. When we discuss terrorism it is typically as a tool for resisting government, as is the case with the Islamic zealots. Occasionally, as was the case with Saddam, we apply it to foreign dictators who have shown a blatant disregard for human rights, who typically operate above the rule of law, who imprison political prisoners, and who discourage opposition through fear. Say it again, “A terroristic method of governing a government” and now ask yourself how that fits against what has occurred in the U.S. under the Bush administration. Consider it relative to the questions you answered in regard to the previous point and keep in mind that the current administration and it’s supporters have violated the Geneva convention, made a mockery of habeas corpus, have made proven use of reported terrorist threats to shift elections/political favor, has ousted secret agents for political gain, has facilitated countless no-bid contracts, forced into retirement or disgraced any qualified dissenting voice, and illegally spied and detained Americans among a plethora of other scandals and violations.

Realistic Threats

Don’t mistake my words. I’m not saying that religious zealots are not a threat. I’m not saying that we should ignore their preferred use of hijackings and suicide bombings. I AM saying that they are a relative threat. I AM saying that the fear of boarding an airplane and having it hijacked should be kept in perspective. That if we give in to fear and are willing to sacrifice everything America stands for, and even our morality for a false sense of security, then we are anything but patriots. The war on terror hasn’t just been a war against a small minority which attacked us. It hasn’t just been a war on the government (Afghanistan) that supported them. It has been a war on an entire religion, a war against sovereign nations under false pretense and most disturbingly, it has been a war against what America truly stands for carried out by self proclaimed American patriots. The real threats to America come not only from extremists but those bereft of morality seeking power or financial gain. It doesn’t matter if the threat comes from an Islamic zealot, a Christian zealot or an Atheist hacker. This is not truly about religion. It’s about money and power.

My only hope is that from this point forward, when faced with new legislation, or a decision that affects the future of the world, that you will pause. Ignore the false appeals to fear. Transcend the impulse to sacrifice anything and everything for the illusion of safety. Judge the measure, bill, action, or statement by its legitimacy instead.

Let the words of our founding fathers guide you:

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
-Benjamin Franklin

It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others: or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. -Thomas Jefferson

For further reading: A recent Forbes article on tech threats.

Something unclear?  Want more information?  Have a question? Disagree? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

The Technological Revolution – A 2nd Look

The Industrial Revolution is Dead

On April 8th, 2008 I wrote an article entitled “The Technological Revolution – Lessons from 1770″ outlining my belief that we are at a pivotal point in American history. One that will have sweeping social, technological and economic impacts on a par with those that occurred during the American Industrial Revolution. I theorized that some of the social and economic shifts we are currently experiencing are elements of the first wave of a modern technological revolution.

Jonathan Pfeiffer, Author of the blog Multivoiced recently wrote an intellectually stimulating response exploring a number of powerful, intriguing counter points. In place of a private discussion about the points and in the name of further exploration of the concepts discussed in our collective posts, I’ve elected to respond here, in the form of a full post. I encourage you all to review his blog, he has some excellent, thought-provoking posts.

My Thesis: We are well into the early stages of the technological revolution and the window of opportunity is quickly passing during which the U.S. can change the way we operate while working to maintain our spot at the leading edge of the new social/political/financial structure that will eventually transform the global landscape. We are faced with an opportunity to not only maintain but strengthen our status as the world’s super power for another 100 years but only if we adjust.

Jonathan’s Counter-thesis 1: While it is obviously true that a certain kind of economic development is a very good thing, the demand to consolidate the U.S. position at the top of the world is not. What I don’t think Alex understands is that international relations are a non-zero-sum game. The technodevelopmental transformations which Alex finds to be so awe-inspiring should not lead us to an us-versus-them attitude toward our partners around the world.

My Response: While this shouldn’t lead us to an us vs. them attitude toward others around the world, we don’t have to stop our leadership and growth to allow others to catch up and be equals. We must vigorously continue our research and development; we must not be constrained by reactionary policy or an idealistic view of global politics.

To clarify, my world view is largely based on the belief and observation that humans are fundamentally simple animals. Our core social behavior is, in many respects, not unlike a complex version of that found in packs of apes and wild dogs. This social behavior relies on a constantly shifting, evolution-driven, hierarchical structure of Alphas, Betas, Gammas etc. On a more macro level, this system is commonly divided into the small percentage who choose to lead and the majority who choose to follow. Can you imagine what humans could achieve if every member of our species took charge of their individual potentials and chose the enlightened paths of productive intellects? It is a wonderful thought, but sadly, not one that is realistic.

Due to our nature, all social constructs we build defer to a hierarchical system. From personal friendships to governmental power each interaction is subject to these considerations. This phenomenon can be seen in the rise and fall of empires. One popular counter argument to this claim, is that as global communication, the internet, and transportation has improved we have begun to shift into a new global era in which the conventional governmental and social hierarchy have shifted in a fundamental way (eg: the concept of globalism). I disagree. I’m more than willing to acknowledge a shift in the way we receive information, the way we perceive things and how individual dynamics operate.  However, this does not change the basic hierarchical behaviors that drive our system – as has every past system.

In his Counter-Thesis 1 Jonathan makes two specific points. International relations – a zero-sum game? For the sociological reasons outlined previously, I do believe and must counter with stipulations, that it is. While I do believe there is an absolute winner, I do not believe as the concept of a zero-sum game can imply, there must be an absolute loser. Even the individual/organization or nation that might be ranked in last place still benefits, as long as the social structure on a macro level moves forward. If it did not, we would still be pack animals bereft of language. For example, even the Zeta wolf in the pack is safer, stronger and better off as a member of the pack, when compared to how that same wolf would fare operating independently.

The goal of the leader, be it Alpha Wolf or Super Power, is not the zero-sum obliteration of all lesser competition but rather the pursuit, attainment, mastery and maintenance of the pinnacle position and benefits associated therein. I suppose, as Jonathan mentions later in the article, this could be construed as a capitalistic view. I must also argue that despite the attempts of other systems to overcome our hierarchical structure as a species, they suffered many of the same obstacles and corruptions that made it’s implementation neigh impossible. Communism is a primary example.

The second point Jonathan notes, which is integrally connected to the first, has already partially been addressed. It is the nature of a technologically-based us-vs-them mentality. To a degree, I agree with Jonathan. Central to the health and hope of staying competitive in a global economy is our need to integrate, connect, and work together. However, in instances of internet-like technology, each nation is bound by the establishment, maintenance, and most importantly, the control of their own infrastructure. An individual with phone and mail capabilities can respond more quickly and accurately than an individual limited to mail exclusively. America must work to develop and embrace new technologies to maintain a competitive edge. Regressive legislation and the myopic mentality behind it has disastrous potential to limit our advancement and do harm to our global position. This is evidenced in the current pay-per-gigabyte campaign, the leaked treaty information which, as I understand it, would ban, among other things, all P2P technology and other major anti-technology legislation.

My Thesis: Right now America is falling further and further behind every day. Luckily with powerhouses like MIT, Silicon Valley, Microsoft, Google, Dell and a plethora of brilliant individuals and infrastructure we have a slight advantage.

Jonathan’s Counter-thesis 2: We actually do not have an advantage, if “we” means all of us who are stakeholders to the transactions and public decisions that sustain U.S. supercapitalism. Alex seems to be measuring advantage by way of places and institutions that represent an educated and moneyed elite. (This is a common mistake that even Democrats make. See section V of Mike Davis’s 2007 essay, The Democrats After November.)

My Response: If I understand this statement correctly Jonathan is putting forward the classic and difficult to answer question, “But what of the poor?”. As we focus on the future, creating strong platforms for the 20% – or even the 70% – to continue building upon, what happens to that final 10? What is the responsibility to that Zeta piece of the population, individuals without roofs over their heads, struggling from hunger and all the while living in a first-world nation. On the one hand, as a compassionate human being,  I do feel as though it’s a relevant issue. On the other hand, I also feel it’s an issue more macro in nature than something just tied to technology which is the current subject of this discussion.  As a species we have defied nature by striving to protect and aid the weak. We choose to perpetuate the survival of the “unfit” and that is a tribute to humanity even though we still have a long ways to go.

The article you linked to discusses the technological platform as a political tool;  a prop which has been adopted by political mouths as an end-all solution. The same article also notes that these political representatives are relying heavily on/loyal to major players in the tech industry. I’m advocating something larger and more general than that. I’m advocating the necessity of a shift in the way we view technology as a culture and how we treat it in our cultural dialog. Investment in technological infrastructure, encouragement of up and coming technologies, and the associated industry, needs to become complete fact in place of theorized agenda. It’s an issue that transcends political party or agenda, even economic policy. It’s simple necessity. Review the leaked treaty I linked above – the names on that treaty are mostly democrats, democrats who also receive the lion’s share of their donations from lobbyists in the media and music industries. While these industries are technologically based, they have shown a vested interest in blocking the US’s forward movement and our steps towards maintaining a competitive technological presence. Their unwillingness to adapt is strangling the country’s ability to lead. While not directly related a wonderful lead on the subject is Brafman and Beckstrom’s the Starfish and the Spider.

My Thesis: For America to ride the current wave we need to adopt, embrace, and acknowledge the new role of technology and the worldwide web (WWW). Our political policy and legal approach to internet/technological issues cannot cling to our old systems while stifling growth with regressive policies. We must embrace invention and focus on creating a culture that not only understands technology, but is driven by it. Already, every aspect of an average American’s daily life has been effected. We may not acknowledge it, but from entertainment to food distribution, our lives are now driven by modern technology, especially the WWW.

Jonathan’s Counter-thesis 3: As Dale Carrico explained, there is no such thing as technology. This means that we cannot oppose, or as Alex calls us to do, favor, technology in general.

Much of the remainder of the essay, which Alex obviously put some significant thought into, is a list of ostensible historical parallels which reads like something out of a Ray Kurzweil book on the Singularity. We have all the usual suspects, like the proliferation of railroads and canals compared to the up swinging curve of computational power. It’s all nothing more than transit and commercial infrastructure, writes Alex.

My Response: Carrico makes an interesting point. Though to me it focuses on the semantics of words, instead of the nature of the core issues. From an anthropological point of view, every advancement we make is based on improved technology. (Defining technology as the application of science to industry.) Referring back to my initial example citing the Industrial Revolution as an illustration – I imagine we can all agree that the Industrial Revolution was nothing more than another technological revolution at its core. A drastic shift based on new processes and machinery. In that respect there are without question more fitting titles – some might say the Digital Revolution, yet others might prefer the Internet Revolution.

Regardless of the title we choose, I believe Cerrico’s argument makes the assumption, perhaps rightly so, that we are always advancing and that as a result we are all inherently technologically open. What it fails to give credence to, however, is eras of accelerated adoption and significant technological inventions which drastically shift and alter the nature of civilization. The canal, the highway, the mapping of the stars, flight etc. the flip side of which are also eras like the Dark Ages, the fall of the Greek Empire, the collapse of the various eastern civilizations etc. During these times great stores of knowledge and technology were not only rejected but lost. Remember as well that it was most often during these periods that the greatest human suffering occurred. History leaves little doubt in my mind that embracing technology is of greater benefit to humanity than the negative impacts of rejecting it. Subject to those extremes is a spectrum to which we as individuals and as nations have to consider and respond. The nature of those responses chart the direction and speed at which we will advance.

My argument and proposed action is based on the belief that we are at the edge of one of those great periods of advancement, largely made possible by a cultural psyche that has focused and invested in pursuing and embracing new technologies. That the impact of this next evolutionary period will re-define the way we operate and re-establish the nature of the global social structure. Already technologies like the Internet 2 and virtual worlds with millions of residents are springing to life. The ripples of these changes will be felt across the surface of the globe by ALL living creatures. We must be cautious and studious as we move forward working to avoid doing harm, and always remember our humanity, but we must never the less move forward and embrace these technologies or fall back upon ourselves.

Once again, I’d like to thank and credit Jonathan for offering up a number of excellent links and varied view points. Phenomenal food for thought!

*Edit* I just came across this link today in a speech by Presidential hopeful Barack Obama on the subject of technology. It’s a must read.