Vulnerability of Headquarters
The time has come to realize this:
"We will soon be living in an era in which we cannot guarantee survivability
of any single point."
This statement was made in 1964 in the first of a series of reports
from RAND Corporation authored by Paul Baran, an electrical engineer,
striving to solve the problem of a nuclear war triggered by a mistake.
Baran's concern was that the communication systems of the nuclear powers
of the day were extremely vulnerable to attack. The systems were centralized,
like the telephone network, depending on a central node connecting everyone
else. If this node was wiped out with a bomb, no one could communicate.
Scenario studies showed that for a missile-controlling general in such
a situation, the urge would be to fire his missiles before they were
wiped out. The result would be a total exchange.
The existence of a less vulnerable communication network would therefore
be of great importance to the prevention of a nuclear war. It would
be beneficial to each superpower if the other power had such a network,
Paul Baran outlined the vision for a distributed, digital communication
network based on what is today called packet-switching. His inspiration
came from the central nervous systems of animals, surprisingly robust
to injuries. The vision has now become a reality called the Internet
(although many of the people who built the ARPAnet from 1969 and onwards
insists that the were not influenced by Baran's vision, but that's another
The important point is the insight that Baran brought us: Our world
is dramatically changed by the existence of intercontinental ballistic
missiles. One could say that it has changed from 2 to 3 dimensions.
All traditional military and organizational thinking has revolved around
the idea of a headquarters that could always be defended, or, at least
defended until the very end. Such headquarters exist in historical forms
as royal castles, white houses, and TV-stations. They have been defended
by moats, barbed wire and doormen. The idea basically being that we
live in a flat world in which enemies don't want to drown in the water
when the bridge has been drawn up.
However, with nuclear rockets offering ruin from the air, fences and
road blocks can no longer guarantee the safety of headquarters. Therefore,
one has to build a communication system without headquarters.
Baran's original diagram showing of the difference between a centralized
and a distributed network (available at http://www.rand.org/publications/RM/RM3420/RM3420.chapter1.html)
displays in my view the essence of our age.
The trend is now to move away from dependence on headquarters and into
distributed networks of information flow.
Headquarters are a problem in many organizations and systems, where
they represent an irrational bottleneck in the free flow of information.
Be it the CEO of organizations, the CPU of computers or the conscious
self control of human beings, the idea of every bit going through the
center, is not functional. Building computers, robots and networks has
taught us the need for parallel processing.
There is a historical irony in the fact that it was the atomic bomb
that led to the end of the age of the headquarters.
Now, after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, we know that it is not
only nuclear missiles that makes Baran's observation of the vulnerability
of headquarters true. Even a bunch of suicidal madmen armed with small
knives can wipe out commercial or military headquarters at their liking.
We can no longer guarantee the survivability of any point.
What now? We have to think along two different lines:
1. How to limit the consequences of attacks;
2. How to limit the probability of attacks.
age when we believed we could always defend a given point, it was wise,
cheap and sometimes efficient to concentrate everything in headquarters.
Now, the King's Castle and Manhattan offer pretty interesting targets
for destructive minds.
But is it so obvious that we need to concentrate so many people and
so much power in such a small place, creating vulnerable targets?
In the old days, there was no alternative. Communication was not possible
without bellboys going up an down elevators in tall buildings gathered
on a small island.
But do we need to concentrate things and people in the age of networks?
The realization of Paul Baran's vision in the form of the Internet makes
it possible to avoid headquarters.
So what am I saying? That we should give in to maniacs living in caves
of mountainous deserts and dismantle Manhattan? No. But I am saying
that perhaps we need not proceed further along the road of vulnerable
Rather than building skyscrapers with 100,000 inhabitants, as now planned
in South-East Asia, we should listen to the physicist Freeman Dyson
who in his recent essay on "The Sun, The Genome, and the Internet" (1999)
argues that we should "reverse the flow of people from villages to megacities
all over the world". Dyson argues that dependence on solar energy, which
is spread all over the globe, and communication networks, makes village
life once again attractive.
This is not to say that metropoles are not important. But only to argue
that in the long term we can and should reduce the consequences of attacks
by organizing our lives closer to equilibrium.
To do so would be wise and enhance the quality of life for many people.
The probability of attacks is another matter.
It is obvious that we are now at a global level confronted with the
same challenge that we faced a century ago at the national level: It
is not in the interest of the rich people to leave the poor people in
Welfare and social security is in the egoistic interest of the people
who are well off. It means less crime and more harmonic societies. Poverty
increases the likelihood of disease and leads to the spread of infections.
Once the air plane has been invented, the quality of life all over the
world has become the immediate concern of even the richest guy in the
richest country. Reservoirs of infection and migration are two reasons.
Terrorism a third.
Of the six billion humans alive on this planet, one billion have hunger
and malnutrition on their daily agenda, while another billion has overweight
on theirs. The amount of money one has to move from each rich guy to
each starving guy to end starvation is ridiculous: One dollar a week
(see Edge 62).
Making sure that everyone has their basic needs fulfilled is not an
unachievable task. To get there will not end terrorism but it will reduce
its probability. And make everybody feel better.
Religions are a driving force in modern terrorism. But rather than ridiculing
them, as Richard Dawkins likes to do, we should confront ourselves with
an enormous cultural task: To see the different world religions as reservoirs
of human knowledge of how to manage life. Cognitive science have come
to recognize of the essential role of non-conscious information processing
in the human central nervous system. Most of what we do, we do without
conscious awareness, even though we tend to see ourselves as fully conscious
and rational agents.
This theme has been dealt with for millennia in religious circles. Is
there a chance that we could express the wisdom of the religious traditions
in terms of everyday language, transparent and obvious to everybody?
Could we take up the project of Aldous Huxley, formulating a perennial
In that case we could show that there is an enormous shared wisdom in
the religions that can be expressed in everyday words. This common wisdom
of humanity could then make the particular traditions and historical
dogma of the individual religions less important. They would still be
there, but less fundamental.
Everyone needs a religion (atheism being one), like everybody needs
a language. It doesn't have to be the same one, yet there is a 'universal
The probability of attacks will be lowered if all cultures could see
each other as visions of the same reality, expressed in different ways.
of course, is very naive and does not confront the legitimate need for
But in the long term, we have to accept what the Danish poet Piet Hein
saw as the condition of the nuclear age: