AN EDGE QUESTION

WHAT NOW ?

A Continuation of AN EDGE QUESTION: "WHAT NOW?"

Most recent responses: Margaret Wertheim, Kevin Kelly, Paul W. Ewald, Roger Schank, Steven Strogatz, J. Doyne Farmer, Esther Dyson, David Berreby, Sylvia Paull, Julian Brown, Jordan Pollack, Cliff Barney, Jay Ogilvy, Timothy Taylor. (The entire project of 53 contributions to date - 43,000 words - is available at http://www.edge.org.)


From: Margaret Wertheim
Date: 10.08.01

There is no doubt that religion played a key role in the attacks of Nov 11, but in our response to this tragedy we must not make the mistake of demonizing religious belief or believers. The weekend after the attacks Muslim commentator Ziauddin Sardar (a philosopher of science now living in London) wrote a superb piece in the Independent in which he explained the real meaning of the Islamic term "Jihad." As he pointed out it has nothing to do with suicide bombers. "Jihad", he explained, is a term which implies the quest within each individual to live a just life. The men who flew the planes into the WTC and the Pentagon had a profoundly corrupted interpretation of this term, and Sardar, like so many other Muslims, is appalled at the twisting of this essentially personal and peaceful concept. Likewise, Sardar stressed that paradise for Muslims "is not a business transaction" nor "a brothel." The idea (much repeated in the press) that these men were buying their way into paradise — complete with 72 attendent virgins — is nowhere supported by the Koran, according to Sardar, who rightly condemns this debased spiritual accounting.

The men of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network do not represent, as some on the Edge list have suggested, the "inherent irrationality" of religion, but rather the face of religion at its most corrupted. Islam is not the only religion to have produced this face. Think of the Crusades — one of the bloodiest and most horrific episodes in world history, when tens of thousands of innocent Muslims were slaughtered in the name of the Christian God. Yes religion does at times efflouresce into terror — and even terrorism (think also of the religious fundamentalists in this country who are killing doctors who perform abortions) — but that is by no means the only face of religion. The notion that religious belief is inherently irrational and that religious believers are inherently prone to irrational acts is not only arrogant, but also dangerous, for it denies the immense amount of supremely rational thinking that has over many millenia been produced by religious thinkers the world over. To those who claim Osama bin Laden as the face of religion I would counter with the names Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Teresa, all people, driven by deep religious feeling, who have fought heroically for justice and equality.

When considering our response to the events of Sept 11 it seems to me that one thing we who love science must also address is not only to role of religion but that of science itself. Religious fanaticism (among other factors) may indeed propel Osama bin Laden but science has made possible the weapons that bought him to power. One of the questions we must now address is why there are so many forms of weaponry in the world and why those weapons are apparently so easily available. Why for example in a country like Afgahnistan, where millions of people are without adequate food supplies, is the country awash with arms? Why is it that in the world today, when 780 million people are living on the edge of starvation, that automatic guns, missiles and even fighter planes are available to every two-bit insurgent? Why, moreover, do we in the developed world continue to spend such vast amounts of our national budgets on the production of ever more weapons of ever more lethal effectiveness — weapons which, inevitably, trickle out of our control and into the hands of our "enemies"? The Taliban might be flying the MIG's but they certainly did not design them? The landmines that seed Afghanistan —and Cambodia and large parts of Africa — were not developed by these poor and poorly educated peoples, but by the well-educated nations of the north — including the USA. In short, we must deal with the issue of supply, where we are inherently implicated.

Physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, cryptographers, engineers, biotechnologists — large numbers of scientists from all these fields contribute directly or indirectly to the development of weapons. Scientists do not of course mass produce these weapons but without the basic R&D such weapons would not be producable at all. In the wake of September 11, the US administration has called for a huge increase in military spending. That will mean the production of more even weapons and more scientists will be implicated in the development of these. In response to the question What Now?, I suggest that one thing we need is a concerted response from the scientific community against any such move.

Science, like religion, is a double edged sword — neither inherently good nor inherently evil, but rather a tool in the hands of its users. If Osama bin Laden's fundamentalist brand of Islam is a perversion of that fairth, I would suggest that so too it is a perversion of the "faith" of science to lend that faith to the production of landmines, napalm, cluster bombs, biological weapons and other such attrocties of war. If we in the scientific community can send any message at this time of crisis I suggest it should be that our "faith" will not be co-opted to the service of mass destruction.


From: Kevin Kelly
Date: 10.4.01

The Taliban are kind of like Nazis to the Afghanis, but we should remember that while the Nazis had resistance and passive obedience among the Germans, they also had supporters. And so do the Taliban. But it's true most of the Afghanis, like the Germans, are just getting screwed.

The other important point is that the Taliban are not bin Laden, and bin Laden not the Taliban. Bin Laden is a foreigner who is barely tolerated by most rural Afghanis, since the Afghanis are very xenophobic. I think bin Laden is far more sophisticated, complex, and cosmopolitan than the Taliban. Few Taliban have ever left their home province. Bin Laden is a world savvy.

For another thing, he is brilliantly creative, and known among his supporters as 'imaginative." You can't say that about the Taliban. His idea of using American know-how to bomb itself, using no resources of his own, is sheer genius.

He is one of the few Islamics to bridge the great cultural gulf between and among the Arabs. Remember that the Afghanis are NOT Arabs. They are Caucasians, their language is "Indo-European" and they are culturally Persians. The Afghanis don't even like Arabs. Yet bin Laden is able to speak to and appeal to them as well as North Africans, Lebanese, Egyptians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Iranians, Pakistanis, Kashmiris — which is simply remarkable. More so, he has bridge the religious differences among the Muslims, although he still has a way to go. Just getting Shiite and Suni Muslims in the same room is itself a remarkable achievement.

That fact that bin Laden appeals to married, 43-year old residents of America with pilot licenses willing to give their lives, says to me there is something large and non-marginal about this. Bin Laden may be Hitler, but it does no good to think of Hitler, or bin Laden, as "fringe" or even as a terrorist. This is a main stream, middle of the road skirmish.

Radical Islam will become the new communism, if it isn't that already. It has a deep appeal, even to those subjugated to it. There are aspects about that, even supporters don't like and can't stand, but they will submit to it because they believe it is better overall than the alternative of "western capitalism."

And like communism it will be very hard to eradicate it, should we attempt to. The Arab countries we are now asking to take sides, will probably take sides with us, but this will kill and maim them because they are essentially taking sides against many of their own citizens, who may be better organized and committed than the government itself.

The key question for me is: will this revolutionary style — a sort of mafia, suicidal, networked, globally guerilla insurgency — be imported by other non Muslim radicals? Will bin Laden become the Che Guevera of this century? Will the resident antipathy towards America in other spheres be cast in the same style? Will all anti-global-capitalism become clones of bin Laden?

Like communism this can spread. And like communism I think it's a very bad idea in practice, though it sounds good in theory. So I am in favor of halting it, and I believe that it needs to be combated early and often.

But the danger of radical Islam becoming the new communism is that anyone who is not against them becomes branded a communist, or "terrorist," themselves. That worries me because I am not so eager to label bin Laden a "tinpot terrorist." He is not second rate, and he may not even be a terrorist. This is a new kind of war. There has been no demands made, like in most terrorism. There is nothing we have that they want. Their intent is not to terrorize. This is only a side product. Their intent is to destroy the prevailing mono-system. But they are not a state government, but a pan-national network that is growing. We've done little to eradicate them in 20 years. They are stronger now then ever before.

At first I thought that the World Trade airbombing would need to be followed through by another attack to have lasting meaning, but as the depth and sophistication of the network of the radicals is revealed I think we have already reached a critical moment. I think we need a new framework for understanding them. I would ban the use of the words "terrorists" and "terrorism." A better old word is "revolutionary."

Our chief concern should be that there is nothing we have they want. They don't want recognition. They don't want our trade. They don't want our culture. They don't want our aspirations — democracy, free choice, high technology. They don't want our values. They don't want our wealth.

Actually, they would like our literacy (for males) and health care, but that is not enough. I think we need to enlarge western civilization so that we have something to offer them that they want. For all their differences, the Chinese and other Asians share aspirations with us. They would like to have much that we have. This is true of Latin America and even Africa to some extent. They want it in their own way, and on their own terms, and with their own improvements, but there is a sense of a common goal.

The Radical Islamics don't share that goal. And for the first time since communism, there is a competing destiny in the world. It is not the end of history as far as they are concerned. We in the west look at radical Islam and blink in disbelief that anyone could possibly WANT this? Are you serious? Yes. They are as serious as the World Trade Towers. Does it work in practice? Well the few examples we have (Afghanistan, Iran, etc.) do not give us much hope. But it took many decades for the practicality of communism to sink in.

There were plenty of bombs dropped and people killed in western capitalism's battle against communism. But my own view of all that warring is that very little of it made as much difference in the end as the simple fact that the west, through its own improvement, came to offer many things that those in communist countries wanted. And when we had something they wanted, communism collapsed.

We don't have much radical Islam wants right now, but we should. Providing it will be the only way, and the only honest way, to triumph.

Needless to say, even if Bush was Churchill (ha!) this would not happen during his term. It's gonna take many many years.

In the meantime, hug an Arab.

Hug an Arab, please


From: Paul W. Ewald
Date: 10.2.01

What are they up to?

The puppet masters who orchestrated the September 11th attack might be as strategically suicidal as many people make them out to be. That assumption leads to an oft-mentioned scenario for this episode of our history. They destroy a symbol of free enterprise and thousands of civilians. We get mad and blow them away. End of story.

The future might unfolds in this way. But underestimation of the enemy has been a common cause of disaster throughout history, from the underestimation of Romans by the Teutones and the underestimation of the Parthians by Romans a half century later to underestimation of the Soviets by the Nazi's and the underestimation of the Afghans by the Soviets a half century later. Imperial Japan paid dearly for its underestimation of the destructive power of the United States a half century ago. We would be wise consider carefully the possibility that the attack at the World Trade Center is part of a clever strategy rather than simply an act of terrorism.

The horizons of analysts have generally been focused on relatively gradual escalations of destruction that can be grasped in the context of previous experiences with terrorism. We need to consider the entire spectrum of possible scenarios, particularly those on the most damaging end of the spectrum, all in the context of the possible goals of the perpetrators and the tradeoffs they would be willing to experience in order to achieve those goals. Many analysts have mentioned, for example, the danger of repeating the recent Soviet fiasco in Afghanistan, but that possibility is a relatively minor threat. The U.S. has demonstrated competence at learning from mistakes of previous engagements. The greater dangers lie in new opportunities for disaster that arise from the minds and actions of clever adversaries who do not share our values — in this case the values of technological advancement and freedoms of speech and expression.

Perhaps the most important starting point in assessing the spectrum of dangers is to recognize that our terminology may restrict our outlook. The term terrorist may not be appropriate in the current situation, because, by definition, terrorists are committing violent acts to instill terror in the target population. This term causes us to focus on our response rather than the goals of our adversaries. The perpetrators may be global nihilists and may thus be more dangerous than mere terrorists.

The first step in this line of thinking arises frequently in the discussions of the motivation of the perpetrators. It is suggests that the September 11th attack was carried out to provoke the United States and its allies to lash out against Islamic countries, thereby increasing support for the militant fringes of Islam. But the important questions is, "For what purpose?" If the finger pointing at Osama bin Laden is pointing in the right direction, we can look to his rhetoric for clues to the strategic motivations behind the attack. His rhetoric suggests that he is motivated by the American presence in Saudi Arabia because it is holy soil for Islam. He calls for American withdrawal from Saudi Arabia. But is that really his goal?

The actions of bin Laden and his associates use of economic resources to destroy the people and structures of modern society. More economic resources would allow him to create more destruction for whatever long-term goals he may have. The Saudi economic wealth seems the most attractive source of such resources. His fractious history with the Saudi government, his connections there, and his recent criticism of the Saudi government for allowing American presence in Saudi Arabia are all consistent with control of Saudi wealth as the intermediate goal of the current round of destruction. If so the emphasis on the US presence is a clever chess move. By casting the American military presence as an affront to the holiest sites of Islam, he generates animosity against the Saudi government and the US. If the US were to withdraw (for example, to reduce the animosity against the Saudi government) then bin Laden becomes more powerful because he is considered a hero and leader for many in the Islamic world; moreover, an important military barrier to the takeover of the Saudi resources is removed. If the US maintains its military presence in Saudi Arabia and especially if it uses these bases to harm civilians, then the animosity against the US and the Saudi government is heightened, again increasing support for bin Laden and his program for militant Islam.

One way to get control of Saudi wealth would be to push the situation in Saudi Arabia toward a revolution like the one that toppled the Shah of Iran. One way to so push this situation would be to make the United States so angry that it would lash out against predominantly Islamic countries, causing the death of innocent muslims. Or, if such violence could not be instigated, perhaps the rhetoric of the United States could be ratcheted up, creating the sense of a Crusade against Islam.

If Osama bin Laden understands the American mindset even moderately well, he would not expect the United States to pack up and withdraw from Saudi Arabia in response to the attack on the World Trade Center. If that were his preferred outcome the attack would have occurred against Americans or the American base in Saudi Arabia rather than on US soil, as in the Beirut model. Attacks on American soil will strengthen rather than weaken American resolve to maintain our presence in Saudi Arabia. Thus his rhetoric about the American bases in Saudi Arabia was probably crafted to get muslims inflamed against the Saudi government. His following in Saudi Arabia, his familiarity with Saudi society, and his contacts within that society may put him in a relatively good position to generate this response and to use it to topple the Saudi government.

But why control of the Saudi government? It could be just revenge, but his past actions indicate that his mode of operation involves control of the wealth and the things that wealth could by, things such as nuclear weapons. Attempts to gain large numbers of nuclear weapons by countries who would like to have them has not been particularly successful. But two points should be kept in mind. These countries did not have the economic assets of Saudi Arabia to allocate to this purpose, and the net value of nuclear weapons for most countries may be much less than for someone who wants to control a medieval world. Osama bin Laden has reportedly been attempting to acquire nuclear weapons, apparently without success. But his nest egg of a quarter billion dollars is pocket change in comparison with the wealth of Saudi Arabia. We should consider carefully, and imaginatively, what he might have planned for such weapons should he acquire them.

On the basis of statements and actions by bin Laden and his associates, the prospect of destroying modern civilization is not as unappealing for them as it would be for people who value modern civilization. It has become a cliche to talk about bombing an opponent back to the Stone Age. As Walter M. Miller has portrayed in his novel Canticle for Liebowitz, however, this cliche is probably incorrect. There would be enough steel tools, implements, and information to support a lifestyle no more primitive than that enjoyed in the Middle Ages. The life style advocated by the most severe of the militants bears a much greater similarity to medieval lifestyles than does the lifestyles of technologically advanced society. Which of the two sides would be more deterred by the prospect of being bombed back to the Middle Ages, and which side would be more likely to make such threats and carry them out if they had the weapons in hand? The jockeying between the US and USSR over nuclear weapons appears tame — even collegial — compared with the actions that could be envisioned when one side has little interest in the products of post-medieval technology, except as tools to destroy post-medieval technology.

If their intermediate goal is to replace the Saudi government through a revolution analogous to the Iranian revolution that toppled the Shah, will the US and other governments of the modern world be willing to do what is necessary to prevent it? If the Saudi government is toppled, what would these governments of the modern world be willing to do to avoid having the wealth of this region being transformed into weapons of mass destruction?

Could such mass destruction actually be accomplished by people who seem to interested in using modern technology primarily to destroy modern technology? The destructive power of modern technology is great — only a tiny fraction of it has ever been used. One wouldn't need thousands of nuclear bombs to bomb civilization back to the Middle Ages, perhaps only a few hundred, well placed in the centers of modern civilization, and enough planning to detonate them simultaneously.

It is not just enough for the modern governments to think like the enemy. For democratic societies the general public must also do so, because government action is dependent on public support. The emotional responses of the public and the action that they take and advocate can either ameliorate or exacerbate the threat. Usurpation of mid-east wealth by global nihilists could have catastrophic consequences that dwarf the effects of the World Trace Center attack. Recognizing this difference can be important in generating public support for activities the reduce the chances of revolutions in countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Lesser threats may also be altered by public awareness and action. One of the best example concerns biological weapons. As I argued in a recent book (Plague Time, Free Press:NY), biological weapons are not particularly effective weapons for terrorists. For the same reasons they would not be particularly good weapons for global nihilists. Rather than weakening resolve their use would tend to galvanize. The threat of biological weapons, however, generates concern because the damage they could cause is repulsive and potentially pervasive. If the public realizes this difference between their use as a threat and as a weapon, and are prepared to withstand the impact of their use, their effectiveness as a threat diminishes.

The relative ineffectiveness of pathogens as weapons does not mean that they will never be used, but it does mean that we might be able to reduce the possibility of their use by making their net effectiveness even less than it already is. One of the best ways to lower their effectiveness is vaccination. Those who are making decisions about public health have been slow to move in this direction, apparently because they are applying guidelines that are appropriate in the absence of terrorist threats to situations in which such threats are manifest. The tradeoffs in these two circumstances are different.

It would be ethically questionable to require that everyone use a vaccine such as the vaccine against smallpox, which, like most vaccines, imposes a small probably of serious adverse effects (one in ten-thousand to one in a million vaccines depending on the adverse effect and the care in assessing associated risks). However, choosing not to produce and make available a vaccine such as the smallpox vaccine is also ethically questionable for several reasons, the most obvious being that unvaccinated people may die or becomes seriously ill during an attack. In addition, the ability to administer vaccines safely may be diminished during a crisis situation and people who might have been at a low risk for severe side effects prior to the attack might have developed conditions that place them at high risk by the time of the attack (conditions such as immunosuppression or eczema, for example). Perhaps most importantly, the greater the proportion of the population that is vaccinated, the greater the probability of deterring such an attack. If a population is mostly immune through vaccination, terrorists would have little impetus to initiate an attack, which would tend to make them look impotent and incompetent. In a situation such as the current one, getting vaccinated against smallpox could therefore be considered an activity that contributes to the defense not just of the vaccinated individual but to the country as a whole. Making the relevant vaccines available along with the relevant information about benefits and risks is the ethically sound alternative.

Unfortunately, because those making the key decisions has been so slow to recognize these tradeoffs, there are now woefully insufficient numbers of the relevant vaccines. According to the current schedule, vaccines against smallpox, for example, will not be generally available in until 2004. It is incredible to hear experts argue, as they have for several years, that a suitable vaccine against smallpox cannot be made widely available, even though one had been generally available for most of the past two centuries.

When evaluating and preparing for possible scenarios we need to shift mentally from considering the problem from the perspective of the targets to the perspective of the perpetrators. When we do so the threat of biological weapons shifts from being a primary concern to a secondary concern. This threat could be shifted further to a tertiary concern for particular pathogens if an educated public takes action by encouraging development of and access to vaccines, and by becoming vaccinated.

If the instigators World Trade Center attack really are terrorists rather than global nihilists, then some of the preparations may be overreaction. But most of these preparations should still be useful for terrorists. Access to vaccination is useful in either category of attacker, as is the avoidance of harm to innocent civilians. Taking actions that precisely target those who have carried out and who are planning to carry out attacks should be beneficial in either case, but especially for global nihilists because it removes the immediate threat and the long-term threat associated with recruitment.

Some actions (such as support of Saudi government and provision of vaccines against the most dangerous pathogens) can reduce the attackers' estimates of success. If these estimates are reduced sufficiently, attempts may be postponed. Postponement buys time for countermeasures, and perpetual postponement is equivalent to a permanent protection.

With regard to military options, before we race in to attack we should assess whether the attack is part of the enemy's next move. Overenthusiasm for an attack together with underestimation of the enemy's strategy led the Romans to be slaughtered by the Parthians, and the Soviets to be slaughtered by the Afghans. The current situation offers few military targets and a great potential for collateral damage to civilians, while modern technology offers new and powerful strategies for attacks against us. As we plan our actions to neutralize the enemy in response to the World Trace Center attack, we need to assess and prepare for new ways in which overenthusiasm for a counter-attack could be part of the enemy's plan for a much greater slaughter. Because our long-term strategy depends on their long-term strategy, gaining intelligence information about their long-term goals may be as important as gaining information about their locations and plans for attacks.

 


From:Roger C. Schank
Date 10.1.01

America's Most Important Export: the case for education in a confused world

The U.S. in the most highly educated and highly entertained country on earth. We export entertainment. All around the world, people, watch American television and see the latest Hollywood movies. But, instead of exporting education we import the best and brightest of every country, educate them in the U.S, and keep them here. The time has come to seriously consider how we can create an education industry to rival the entertainment industry.

Many of our current problems stem from how badly educated the public is, both here and abroad. Education should be a real priority in this country. By this I do not mean silly attempts to raise meaningless test scores, but real attempts to get people to think long and hard about issues that affect their lives. If we as a nation take seriously the idea of building high quality on-line courses that can be delivered anytime anywhere to people who have never had access to such educational opportunity before, we can change the world. If the best and the brightest in this country took seriously their role as world educators, then what they built could be exported to the rest of the world. If it were not done on a for profit basis, but were offered for very little money, then people in poor countries might qualify for better jobs and might be able to reason more adroitly about the complex issues they face. While we, as a nation, export television, movies and blue jeans, we do not export quality education. Why not? Because for the most part we aren't even interested in that kind of education for our own citizens. No government agency is concerned with establishing reasonable curricula for students (instead we rely on one that was established in 1892!) or in assessing how well we are doing in creating a nation of employable graduates who can reason critically. Instead we focus on meaningless measures and allow schools to do whatever they like as long as they stay within those measures. The private universities are interested in the education of the elite and no one looks out for the average guy. But it is the average guy who votes, the average guy who fights wars, and the average guy who sometimes acts out bizarre notions of retribution.

To radically reform our education system we need to focus on three issues. what we teach, how we teach, and how we deliver teaching. Working backwards, delivery must be on line. The internet offers the possibility of educating everyone equally, with greater opportunities for the expression of individual differences. Students would be able to take whatever they like whenever they like. Certifying authorities could be located anywhere. Interactions would be of two types primarily: courses that are mentored on line by teachers who evaluate work products submitted by students, and courses where the computer itself provided the evaluation.

The method of instruction would have to be learning by doing. This method of education has long been understood at least as far as Aristotle and probably before that) as the best method of learning. It is has not been used in schools because it is difficult to implement in a classroom setting. It is not difficult to implement on a computer. In fact, the computer facilitates this type of learning through the creation of exciting simulations and the use of one on one instruction by the best and the brightest, captured beforehand, with mistakes in the simulations linked to instruction about those mistakes. In this way students receive the instruction that they need when they need it and can go at their own pace.

The big issue is what to teach. The curriculum of our high schools was established in 1892. Our university system is based on the original ideas in place at the elite universities hundreds of years ago which were focused on the education of the elite and not in the production of employable adults. Early childhood education is focused on preparation for high school. These curricula, in place for decades cannot be changed because there are so many vested interests that want to keep things as they have always been. The construction of fully on line, learning by doing courses not only allows for a different method of instruction but for the possibility of reconsidering the curricula that are the current basis of our school system.

Broadly speaking, school ought to cover issues of living in the real world (getting along with other, raising a family, basic finance), job preparation, mental acuity (reasoning, argumentation, real world problem solving, basic skills (writing, speaking, critical analysis, business, medicine) as well as more purely academic subjects (these might include history in the context of decision making, or mathematics in the context of engineering or some other useful application). Whatever subjects are chosen, the best people in the world can be put to the process of designing courses in their ares of expertise for the various age levels in a school population. An archive of expertise (in video) should be assembled and linked to courses so that the best and brightest will be available to all students for all time.

Courses of the type I am describing cost about $50,000 per instructional hour to build. Thus, a forty hour course might cost $2,000,000 to build. The reality is that courses themselves are an archaic idea and the idea that instruction takes 40 hours is ridiculous. But, we know the costs associated with that length of course and since the courses we have built typically are broken into the smaller bits that would form the basis of any new system, from a cost point of view it makes no difference.

Thus, the basic costs, assuming five 40 hour courses per semester, means that in any given grade, it would cost $10,000,000 per semester to build the on line curriculum. Thus, it costs $20,000,000 per grade and for K-college, the cost is $340,000,000. This would be fine if there were to be no alternatives and everyone took exactly the same curriculum. The whole idea of on-line courses is that everyone can study what they want. We assume therefore that K 6 might offer at least 6 different curricula that would keep maybe half of what is taught the same for everyone for a total of $280,000,000. Grades 7-12 would require at least 20 different curricula, for a total of $400,000,000 per grade or a total of 2.4 billion.

Thus, for a total of about 3 billion dollars we could reform our K-12 system for generations to come and help educate the world in the process. College is extra.


From: Steven Strogatz
Date: 10.1.01

Several newspapers have called me to ask how many handshakes separate us from someone who worked in the WTC. Using the sociologists' best estimate of about 300 acquaintances per person in the US, and assuming no overlap in anyone's friendship circles (very crude but no one knows how to do better), I estimate that about 1 in 20 of us knows someone who worked in WTC. If you go one more step, essentially everyone in the US is just two handshakes away. And two degrees of separation feels intimate — we know what friend of a friend means, intuitively — whereas three is much more nebulous. In other words, there's a psychological gulf, a transition, right between 2 and 3, and we are all on the intimate side of that gulf. I think that has something to do with why the horror feels so close.

From: J. Doyne Farmer
Date: 10.1.01

If we are to avert even worse disasters, we need to understand what caused the events of Sept. 11. It's clear that Osama bin Laden is a really bad guy, and these were really misguided people, and we need to do something about disabling them in the future. But if we are to ever return to a more lasting state of peace, we have to address the root causes of terrorism. The best method to control something is to understand how it works.

Randomness and determinism are the poles that define the extremes in any assignment of causality. Of course reality is usually somewhere in between. Following Poincare', we say that something is random if the cause seems to have little to do with the effect. Even though there is nothing more deterministic than celestial mechanics, if someone gets hit in the head by a meteor, we say this is bad luck, a random event, because their head and the meteor had little to do with each other. Nobody threw the meteor, and it could just as well have hit someone else. The corresponding point of view here is that bin Laden and his associates are an anomaly, and the fact that they are picking on us is just bad luck. We haven't done anything wrong and there is no reason to change our behavior; if we can just get rid of them, the problem will disappear. This is the view that we would all rather believe because the remedy is much easier.

The other pole is determinism: There were underlying causal factors that led up to these events, and something like this was bound to happen. This is a much harder view to swallow, because deterministic events are by their very nature predictable and controllable. It leads to the conclusion that we might have anticipated these events and done something about it.

With any chaotic system there are two fundamentally different approaches to prediction and control. One is to predict the detailed trajectory that the system will take. For simple systems like roulette wheels, turbulent fluids, and stock markets, I have a lot of experience with this. To predict the trajectory of something, you have to understand all the details and keep track of every little thing. This is like solving terrorism by surveillance and security. Put a system in place that will detect and track every terrorist and prevent them from acting. This is a tempting solution, because it is easy to build a political consensus for it, and it involves technology, which is something we are good at. But if there is one thing I have learned in my twenty five years of trying to predict chaotic systems, it is this: It is really hard, and it is fundamentally impossible to do it well. This is particularly so when it involves a large number of independent actors, each of which is difficult to predict. We should think carefully about similar situations, such as the drug war: As long as people are willing to pay a lot of money for drugs, no matter how hard we try to stop them, drugs will be produced, and smugglers and dealers will figure out how to avoid interception. We have been fighting the drug war for more than thirty years, and have made essentially no progress. If we take the same approach against terrorism we are sure to fail, for the same reasons.

The other road to prediction and control is to change the system in a more fundamental way. Change the parameters and get rid of the behavior you don't want. This is hard too, because it involves a deeper level of understanding and more fundamental change. But it has the advantage that, when you can do it, it is more stable, more reliable, and a much better solution. This corresponds to finding the root causes of terrorism and altering the political landscape so that it dies out. This will be very hard, but it has the enormous advantage that it might actually work.

When I was a high school student I lived in South America for a year. It came as a shock to me to discover how much people hated Americans. Living with a Peruvian family, and hanging out with Peruvian teenagers, I came to see things from their point of view, and to understand how arrogant and self aggrandizing Americans can be to people who live at a great distance, when the consequences are not visible, and few Americans at home know what is really happening.

This horrible disaster has made me reflect on another that killed a similar number of people. Imagine what it would have been like to see the American supported coup in Chile in 1972 if we had CNN giving us the blow-by-blow on video. Suppose we had all seen the people gunned down in the stadium, being tortured with cattle prods, getting punished for their crime of supporting their democratically elected government? I bring this up not to diminish the awfulness of what happened in New York, or to argue for moral relativism, but just to make it clear that there are some very real reasons why some foreigners don't like us very much. Most Americans are fundamentally good people, and if we were more aware of why people dislike us so much, our behavior would change. If we could only see it reflected back at us on CNN. In this case the reason for the hatred is not just our support of Israel, which I think is driven by some idealistic motives, but also the CIA-designed coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Iran, and the roughly half a million people who have died in Iraq of malnutrition, and many other similar events that we should reflect on.

Even if we were unmitigated good guys, as a superpower it's natural that we are targets. The breakdown of the cold war made this much worse, but it also provided an opportunity that we have unfortunately missed so far. The end of the cold war should have freed us to do the right thing, to act as real leaders, and take tangible steps to help the undeveloped world. We have so far squandered this opportunity in favor of policies of short-sighted self interest. But if we take a long range view, we will recognize the control that we have over the situation and alter it. We can get rid of the chaos by changing the parameters. I have been heartened to see that, through calls for actions like "bombing Afghanistan with butter, not explosives", some Americans seem to recognize this. This approach isn't just a matter of goody-goody liberal ideals; it's the only solution that has any hope of working in the long run. This isn't giving the terrorists what they want. Quite the opposite: It is defeating them by removing the basis of their movement, and being better than they thought we were.


From: Esther Dyson
Date: 9.29.01

Time And Timing

Where were you? In years to come, everyone will remember where they were on Sept. 11, 2001.

I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, with people who had every reason to be grateful to America and Americans: I was speaking at a conference of men and women engaged in bringing democracy and open markets to the post-Soviet world, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The idea was (properly) not to create a conference of U.S. experts preaching to the natives but to get the local freedom fighters to meet themselves — NGOs (non-government organizations) from Albania and Moldova, reform politicians and officials from Georgia and Romania, journalists from Poland and Serbia, and more. But USAID was the host and, in his opening remarks, Andrew Natsios, the head of that agency, told stories of America's route to democracy and its president John Adams. The United States was the model, but at the same time, it seemed far away, invulnerable, a place not just of free speech but of "freedom after speech."

The next afternoon (seven hours later than New York on European time), the tables had turned. Serbians familiar with bombings, reformers used to constant fear, businesspeople accustomed to taking risks with little guarantee of results, offered their sympathy and shared our horror.

Despite our loss of innocence, Americans should not lose our hope and the optimism that led to our success as a vibrant democracy. (In its worst form it was smugness and support of corrupt regimes; in its best, courage.) There is one victory at least that all of us — the free world — can deny the terrorists. We can refuse to remake our world in their image: a place of fear and mind control, where citizens are tracked and followed, where people are afraid to look or act different.

We can also refuse to lose our expansive attitude toward the future. For the terrorists, the modern world — and the change and openness it means — is scary. By contrast, Americans generally feel secure about the future, in terms of personal life and business. It is no coincidence that the two are bound together. Businesspeople expect investments to bring returns. The World Trade Center is a good example. It represented not just trade but investment. The towers themselves were built to last for years and to return their investment over decades. It's that faith in the future that led to the U.S. economic miracle, including the technology that enabled it. (Much of the world has access to the same technology but has not reaped the same rewards because they do not use it.)

Now, in the aftermath of the attacks last week, the danger is that we'll lose sight of the long term.

In the old Soviet Union, to use the example most familiar to me, people generally wouldn't make appointments more than a few days in advance (though this is changing in the new Russia). If you called someone to set up an appointment for the middle of the next week, he would say: "Why don't you just call me next Tuesday, and we'll see." Sometimes that made me wonder if he was hoping for a better offer in the meantime, but clearly there's some sense of uncertainty that still leaves many Russians loath to make commitments.

In the United States this month and in coming months, we'll likely see similar behavior: a retreat to the present (if not the past). This comes at an unfortunate time for the economy as a whole and for the high-tech industry in particular. Tech companies and software companies do much of their business in the last weeks of each quarter — and the last two weeks of this quarter have been lost.

Such a retreat would be costly, for investors and for society as a whole. Consider this: Time horizons for investors range from the very short one of day traders, to the longer one of equity investors who pick companies, to that of venture capitalists who take long-term stakes and get involved in the management of the companies. But it is the long-term investors, not the clever day-traders or resource allocators, who have really built our economy. A retreat to "safe" investments means a self-fulfilling prophecy of contraction.

You can see that same spectrum of attitudes in philanthropy, from the person who gives a coin or two to a beggar in the street, to people who give regularly to particular charities and read their literature, to people who give significant sums and join the boards of the charities they "invest" in.

In both spheres, the active participants hope for a return and work hard to get it. In one case, the visible return goes to the individual; in the other, except for the satisfactions — which may be great — the tangible returns go to the beneficiaries of the charity. But in both cases, society benefits - from happier people, fewer social problems, better schools, the presence of art, all the riches created by "civil society."

Moreover, for-profit ventures sometimes turn out to be "charities" too: They may lose money, but often they train people (sometimes in how not to run a company!) or design innovative products on which some later-arriving competitor may make money. In other words (as pointed out by Virginia Postrel in a recent economics column for The New York Times), society benefits from this long-term investment even when the individual investor does not. By contrast, much of the world is scared to count on the future. Moreover, it does not welcome change. The American dream is constant progress, whereas the terrorist dream is to bomb the world back into some supposed state of purity. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth.

The old Soviet world had yet a different view. They wanted to construct a new world, but somehow their vision was of a bigger present rather than a broader future. Their plans left no room for flexibility or innovation or experiment. Their future was defined from the top, rather than grown from the dispersed efforts and visions of individuals. The old Soviet five-year production plans, after the first few, fostered not hope but cynicism. The people had no expectation that they would produce real results or that they would change the world.

What can we learn from this, and from the people I met in Sofia? Even when the world changed for those in the old Soviet bloc, many of their compatriots, through years of habit, still did not trust in long-term returns. Many were afraid of the new climate, still scared to speak their minds because, after all, the world might change back. (I remember the university professor who kept a bust of Lenin in his cupboard "just in case.") In business, the post-Soviet world began as a world of trade rather than of investment. People wanted immediate returns because they did not trust in the long term.

Ironically, there has recently been the same flight to inaction in the venture community, built on last year's overoptimism and the ensuing reality — a disaster in the short term but just a blip in the long term. The danger now is that terrorism will aggravate that fear of uncertainty and spread it well beyond the high-tech community. I hope this doesn't happen. Now is the time not to fear the future, but to rebuild it and make it even better — not because we don't understand the risks but because we can face them. Americans may have been so optimistic because to some extent we were unaware of the risks, isolated in our happy country. Now we need to take heart from the example of the people I met in Bulgaria. Rather than risk reward calculations and unthinking optimism, what we need now is courage.


From: David Berreby
Date: 9.29.01

I take your "what now?" question literally — what should "we" do — the people reading and writing these? Not "we" the political entities of the West or "we" the heirs of civilization. It strikes me that in these times, the answer is actually quite clear, and it has to do with the great flexibility of that concept of "we."

As a number of people have observed over the years, human beings have a mighty capacity to line up with the rest of their team against some other team, but this mental structure is not committed to any particular content. You might think of it as a syntax without any semantics: We know how to do Us vs. Them, but I have yet to see a persuasive case that any particular form of Us (ethnic, nation, class, religion, even kin) is "built in." So when "we" are attacked we have a cognitive problem: Defining what "we" means. And the problem is of vital importance, because the answer we use doesn't just interpret the world for us, it guides future actions. The story of the attack shapes our response, therefore it matters a great deal what the story is.

And this struggle to define what "we" means is what I see occurring all around me, in New York City, in the United States, and in the world. It is, of course, taking place in billions of individual minds, so the answers vary, from President Bush announcing that our quarrel is not with Islam to the people down the street from me saying they should round up all Arabs in this country. (They are, by the way, neighbors to an Arab family, whose son is away — he's in the US Army). But it is not purely a matter of individual psychology. Some concept of "Us" will succeed, and become part of what Lyotard calls a master narrative of this conflict. It will be the widely shared representation of what our side is, as the story of the American Civil War (not settled until 1863) was "we are those who fight slavery" or the story of World War II (not settled until the 1940's) was "we are those who are destroying totalitarianism."

We are all in the early, unsettled stages of defining our side. Within Islam and within the United States, there are those who speak in terms of God and the sins of nonbelievers. In Europe, I see, at least one Premier has proclaimed the superiority of "Western civilization." Our own president here used the unfortunate word "crusade." It is not inconceivable that in this struggle the "we" definition that succeeds will be Islam vs. Non-Islam; or North vs. South; or the West vs. the Rest. Many of these potential definitions point to a world where "our" victory would be scarcely better than "our" defeat. (In a war of Christianity vs. Islam, where is an atheist materialist going to go?)

So, now what? People on the Edge list should now engage in this worldwide struggle over what it means to be on "our" side. We must fight the rhetoric of metaphysically pure communities, of clashing civilizations, of mystical cycles and divine interventions, and work to shape a definition of "our side" which will be worth fighting for.


From: Sylvia Paull
Date: 9.29.01

One must ask what role women have played since September 11, and it seems to me that our voice has been lost. We are not players in this war — all the fighters and outspoken politicians have been men. A few among our ranks have protested outcries of war, a few of us have even perished in this war (although the majority of victims, including all of the perpetrators, were men), but our voice has not been heard. Ironically, while Americans chastise the oppression of Afghani women by the Taliban, the continued economic, political, and cultural oppression, repression, and regression of women at home goes unremarked.


From: Julian Brown
Date: 9.29.01

I was very disappointed to see that Richard Dawkins had felt obliged to withdraw some of his comments about the role of religion in this issue. To me his original comments rang truer than many of the prosaic psychological insights offered elsewhere and have been chillingly confirmed by the recent revelations in the infamous letter written by one of the WTC hijackers to the rest of his demonic crew. "Keep a very open mind, keep a very open heart of what you are to face," the document says. "You will be entering paradise. You will be entering the happiest life, everlasting life."

No mention of 72 virgins, true, but a startling indication of just how powerful religion can be in its corrosive ability to distort and corrupt people's thinking. A perfect example too of why scientific thinking is utterly at odds with religious belief because anybody who thinks scientifically would automatically qu estion everything about the absurd notions harbored by these terrorists concerning God and the afterlife.

And although many religious people would denounce the terrorsists' ideas, Dawkins is surely right to point out that it's the whole mode of religious thought that creates these terrible dangers by brainwashing people with blind faith. As the guardians of reasoned thought, scientists have a special responsibility in impressing on the wider public the distinction between the rationality of science and the irrationality of religion. It would be good to see more scientists stand out decisively against religion instead of, as so many seem to do, pretending to see some middle way in which both can happily coexist.

[Ed. Note: In my first email to regular Edge contributors I mentioned that emails I had received from members of the Edge community (Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies, and Martin Rees, as well as a conversation with Kevion Kelly) helped me to decide to run this project. These messages, which were prior to the "WHAT NOW" Question Project were abbreviated in my Web introduction above. Richard Dawkins Guardian piece has been available all along at the link above, and, he has also provided a new comment as well — click here. He did not withdraw the comments you refer to.

Your point about the importance of scientists and religious thought is well taken. Nicholas Humphrey, Mike Csikszentmihalyi, Dave Myers, J.C. Herz, Stewart Brand, Tim Taylor, and Richard Dawkins, among others all have strong views on the subject. Plans are now underway for an new Edge question project to address this set of issues in the next couple of months. Best, JB]


Jordan Pollack
Date: 9.28.01

We know there will never have another hijacking. The heroes on flight 93 adapted and fought back when they learned (via cellphone) that other flights turned into missiles.

From now on, every person on an airplane will work to overwhelm any hijacker, even if equipped with Uzi's instead of plastic bagel knives. We don't need a federal air police. We can even take down the X-ray scanners.
The game has changed.

Consider this a phase transition in psychological evolution. I wonder whether another phase transition is possible.

Whoever directed the military attack last week was extremely sophisticated:

• to steal identities a decade ago,
• to know that Saudi pilots are allowed to immigrate,
• to learn to fly 747's,
• to expect docility from travellers based on the history of hijackings,
• to sell the airline stocks short, and
• to do structural simulations of the WTC to estimate strike speed and altitude.

So why would we assume such a sophisticated covert operation couldn't predict and exploit America's likely reaction?

In times like these, we revert from individuals to a bacteria colony. In times like these, Apple Computer could temporarily change its slogan to "Don't Think Different!" to stimulate sales.

Consider, with some pain: The JFK assassination, TWA flight 800, Pan Am 103, KAL flight 007, Iraqi incursion into Kuwait, the bombing of the Murrah building. Remember each aftermath. My recollection is that the American public has been ready to go to war each time. Therefore the attacker last week could anticipate the US reaction.

The behavior of masses, especially in response to strong stimuli, is quite predictable, and the science explaining it originated in the 1890's and was perfected by the 1950's and 60's. I'm not an expert, but I know coherent masses (Crowds) form especially in reaction to events, and all members of the crowd begin to express the same extreme opinion, and follow the leader. Imitation effects, authority effects, and fear of being different all drive the feedforward loop. We could simulate it on a computer, just like we simulate ant colonies or groups of robots.

The direction of the crowd can be modulated by information. if our leaders can convince us that it was a lone crazy, or an accident, or a renegade band of our own ex-special-forces, passions might subside. But name a foreigner and we must attack.

My "What now?" question is whether we can ever overcome our own mass psychology. Can humanity achieve group adaptation at the cognitive level?

If we were bacteria, we wouldn't avoid the fruiting body. If we were ants, we wouldn't abandon the pheremone trail, If we are lemmings, we wouldn't opt out of our mad dash.

But we are humans. I pray we can someday rise above our own mass psychological reactions to achieve a deeper strategy than those who pull the triggers or those who guide the crowd's reaction.

We need another psychological phase transition.

Otherwise, brains are going to lose the war to genes.


From: Cliff Barney
Date: 9.28.01

I do not think you can discuss the bombings and not talk about mideast policy and a lot of other social issues. Kevin Kelly is quite right, the bombings have nothing to do with technology; they are about social rage and pain. This is my hard-edged comment after many years of feeling some of that pain as I watched the brutal politics that produced it.

I agree that there is a lot of talent, expertise and intelligence in this group. I think the proper response to these attacks is an intense public focus on the reasons for them; teach-ins on the model of the Vietnam teach-ins of the sixties; work by artists and intellectuals to integrate the cultures of the two sides; strong political resistance to attempts to militarize and police America and the world in the name of security. That's for starters. There is going to be plenty to do.


From: James Ogilvy
Date: 9.28.01

"Act of War" or "Crime Against Humanity?"

How will we see September 11 in hindsight? Was it an "act of war?" Or was it "a crime against humanity?" Our actions in the coming weeks will depend on how we think and talk about what's happening. Alternative scenarios can help to frame these acts so we can make sense of what seems like senseless tragedy.

Scenarios can provide anticipatory disaster relief, a way of avoiding trouble by rehearsing futures in our minds so we don't have to live them as fact. Alternatively, scenarios can inspire us to raise our sights. By imagining positive outcomes, we can see more clearly the steps that will be necessary to get there.

The following scenarios offer such food for thought. The first, Jihad, is dark indeed. The second, One World, paints a future worth working for.

Jihad

Paris, July 12, 2003: Today's attack on the Eiffel Tower continues the string of international incidents. If only the Americans had listened when Chirac insisted that it wasn't a "war".

Like many a commander in chief who lost a conflict by confusing it with the last war, the Americans thought they could mobilize their military might to defeat the terrorists. They sent their ships and planes toward Afghanistan. They did their best to smoke out Osama bin Laden to catch him on the run. They tried desperately to find a battle they could win . . . but there was none. The enemy was elusive, invisible, dispersed.

America wanted action, retribution, and the punishment of the perpetrators. Surely the massed might of America would be sufficient to find and eliminate the enemy. So America went to war.

Trouble was, Chirac was right: It wasn't really a war. At first it looked like Bush "got it." There was talk of "a different kind of war." The first strikes were "surgical," very little "collateral damage." But just when the Americans were celebrating their "victory," the second one hit, the atrocity at the World Series. Enraged by that diabolical choice of targets, America lashed out with less discrimination. You want terror? We'll show you terror! And a terrible attack rained down from the heavens over Afghanistan.

And that was just what Osama bin Laden wanted-an escalation from crime to war. Pictures of maimed women and children helped to unite the Islamic world against America. What had begun as an exchange of carefully focused rapier thrusts now turned into a brawl between the military might of America and every Muslim, every anti-globalist, every disenfranchised child of poverty, both within and outside the borders of the U.S.

Throughout 2002, massive air strikes by the U.S. were followed by terrorist attacks in the least likely places — a shopping mall in Toledo, a high school graduation in Austin, a rock concert in London, the assassination of a governor, the kidnapping of a group of business executives.

By the end of 2002 the terror had created massive paranoia. People stayed home. Restaurants and theaters remained empty. Businesses shut down. The Dow dipped to triple digits.

Like the "war on poverty," like the "war on drugs," this "war on terrorism" looks like it will drag on and on. How can it end now that the war has escalated while one side remains invisible?

One World

New York, July 12, 2003 Today ground was broken for the new World Trade Center. It won't be as tall as the old one, but its reach will be even broader. In the weeks and months following the attack in 2001, the community of great nations got bigger. United by the common cause of uprooting terrorism all over the world, countries like Russia and China acquired an increased respect for the rule of law. Pakistan and Syria came in from the cold. The stick of American power loomed large, but the carrot of peace and prosperity loomed larger.

Focusing on global "crime," America refrained from indiscriminate attacks and relied instead on special forces, covert operations, and some very good investigative police work. As a result, America managed to walk the fine line between appeasement on the one hand, and on the other a show of force that would have united the Islamic world in a jihad against the U.S.

Walking that fine line wasn't easy. People were impatient. The pain was deep. But this crime against humanity led to humane responses: Not only heroic rescue efforts and an outpouring of generosity, but also a soul-searching quest for what is most important in life. No sympathy for the criminals. After seven long months of searching, they were found and punished. But the patient precision of their defeat saved the world from decades of descent into senseless bloodshed.

What is the moral of these two scenarios? It makes a big difference whether you talk about the tragedy of September 11 as an "act of war" or as "a crime against humanity."


From: Timothy Taylor
Date: 9.27.01

When Martin Heidegger famously observed that 'science does not think' he was referring (in part) to the fact that it does not, of itself, supply a system of values. Thus the perversion of science known as Lysenkoism occurred (also in part) because the USSR, in becoming as wholly atheistical as Richard Dawkins, lost the touchstones of ethics, truth, and humility. By willfully misconstruing the insights of Darwin, the 'agrobiological' experiments of T.D.Lysenko, director of the Soviet Academy's Institute of Genetics, directly led to the deaths of millions in famines. It is not just religious fanatics, however defined, that commit atrocity. It was bad science, of course, but even good science is no more than a powerful way of finding things out. In the words of Dr Johnson "Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful."

In appearing to blame the recent attacks in the USA on the existence of religion in general, Dawkins's scientism comes close to fundamentalism itself. His implication that all religion is concerned with ultimate ends is wrong, as is his assertion that nothing would be lost were Islam, Christianity and Judaism to be superseded by science as a form of life. At the same time as the founder of Sufism in Islam, Rabi'a al-Adawiyya (A.D. 717-801), was concluding that an authentic life was incompatible with either acting out of hope of reward or, equally, fear of punishment (she thought that to aim for Paradise would not only lack humility but would be an affirmation of something that was not God, and thus fundamentally false), other Arabic scholars were keeping the flame of Aristotle alive and creating the basis of modern university science. This is Dawkins's own scholarly and civilizational inheritance – one that, along with Bach's Passions and Kant's Critique of Judgment, is grounded in a profound religious sensibility.

Obviously, like all things human, religion can go as badly wrong as science. Bin Laden is religion's Lysenko. To extrapolate from his fanaticism that the complete demise of three world religions would be no loss, as Dawkins does, is curious. Perhaps it is his evangelical atheism that helps Richard Dawkins come to terms with the shock and disappointment all sane people feel at present. All I can say is that the religious enriches my life, so I for one would lose out in the brave new world he envisages, as would many who are at this moment finding that it is the church, mosque, synagogue or temple that provides solace and hope for continuing their lives beyond grief in the face of their particularly traumatic bereavements. From a prehistorian's perspective, it seems that our species has evolved aptitudes and sensitivities for both science and religion over many tens of thousands of years. Although they have often been antagonized in the history of civilizations, both play central, long-term roles in maintaining and developing our humanity. Ultimately, in my opinion, neither can be any good in the complete absence of the other.
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