September 16, 2003

Red Pill or Blue?

FuturePundit Randall Parker, picking up on an idea from Corante blogger Arnold Kling, provides some sobering thoughts on the future of terrorism:

A lot of civil libertarians see an increasing danger from technological advances that enable greater surveillance of people by their governments. What they fail to address is the problem that Arnold Kling alludes to: the danger from the lone individual who will be able to use advances in technology to kill increasingly larger numbers of people in a single act.

If we are going to be faced with growing threats from terrorism due to technological advances that make it easier to launch terrorist attacks of enormous lethality is there anything we can do about it? As I see it there are only about two major counters that can be used to sustain a defense in the long run:

  • A massive worldwide surveillance society. Sensors would be deployed throughout the world to watch for dangerous actions by individuals.
  • Reengineer human minds to make humans less dangerous.

I don't much care for either of those two options. In a science fiction story, either (or both) would be imposed by the totalitarian bad guys. Our hero would be a rugged individualist on whom the brain re-engineering didn't take. He and his band of outcasts would be working to take down the surveillance network. They would be allied with a scientist working in a secret lab on a highly infectious virus that will counteract the effects of the brain engineering.

[Wouldn't that have made a peachy dystopic potboiler back in the 1950's? If I had a time machine, I'd go back there and write it myself. Later, we would get Charlton Heston to star in the movie version.]

Part of me insists that there must be a way to protect ourselves from individual terrorism without resorting to such extreme precautions, and another part wonders what the world will be like if bitter overgrown geeks living in their parents' basement are ever able to unleash viruses more lethal than the computer variety. What atrocities would those Columbine monsters have been capable of given the right tools? Dave Cullen reminds us that the Columbine body count would have been in the hundreds had Harris and Kleybold not been such inept bomb-builders. One of the downsides to accelerating change is the rapidity with which increasingly destructive force can be placed at the fingertips of the unstable. Or of anyone, for that matter.

Maybe total surveillance and/or the forced domestication of the human species really do represent our last, best hope of survival. God help us.

The notion of re-engineering the brain puts me in mind of the fundamental choice that the characters in The Matrix (the first one) were forced to make. Red pill or blue? Continue in a fairly safe and comfortable illusion, or embrace a hard and terrifying reality? I always thought that Neo was an idiot. Joey Pants had the right idea: choose the world where everything is in soft focus and the steaks taste good. Who cares if it's "real?"

It's all very well to take that position when chatting with our friends about a movie. But Randall isn't outlining a movie plot. And the change proposed here is not one in perception of the external world. The change would actually take place inside each one of us. If I were to be re-engineered to be less dangerous, would the result still be me? How much of who I am rests in my potential for doing harm? Maybe they could wipe it out and I would still be myself, only to a lesser extent. Or maybe the procedure would be more invasive.

Who knows? The brain is still a mystery.

Maybe the result would be a person that I would not recognize as being me. He might be a good person, and would have a lot to contribute, but I would be gone. That doesn't leave much of a choice: risk being wiped out by terrorists or allow ourselves to be (effectively) wiped out for the greater good. Choose the former, and we each still have some chance of surviving. Choose the latter, and at least we can be comforted by the knowledge of how nice our replacements will be.

That surveillance network is sounding better and better.

UPDATE: We're getting closer all the time.

Posted by Phil at September 16, 2003 10:02 AM | TrackBack

Hey, Congratulations on the Rocky Mountain News thing!

Posted by: Bob at September 16, 2003 10:50 AM

Phil, You say "Part of me insists that there must be a way to protect ourselves from individual terrorism without resorting to such extreme precautions".

I'm all for hearing ideas on what would be that way. I don't see a less extreme solution myself.

Posted by: Randall Parker at September 16, 2003 11:23 AM

Randall, I've got nothing to offer. I guess the other part of me wins the argument in the end. However, I do (grudgingly) prefer the surveillance network to re-engineering humanity.

On the other hand, if they decide to re-engineer everyone else and leave me and my friends alone, I guess that won't be so bad. What are the chances?

Bob, thanks for the OT congrats.

Posted by: Phil at September 16, 2003 11:50 AM

I read David Brin's 'Transparent Society' a few years ago, and although I still don't like the idea of a complete surveilance society. I do agree that if we must have such a thing I would like to make sure it matches his idea of a 'transparent' society, which basically means that everyone can at least find out who is watching whom so that many abuses can be caught.
Even though I prefer his idea, I honestly don't see how it could be enforced or implemented. His argument, by the way, is that regardless of wether we want it or not, it will happen as cameras and sensors become smaller and cheaper.

Posted by: Andrew Salamon at September 16, 2003 11:53 AM

"Surveilance" is such a boogie-man.

The problem we have with surveilance is that it gets abused by the people who do it.


Surveilance can be a wonderful thing - IF it's public record (and can't be faked - there's the kicker).

I mean, there is truth to the old saying that only those who are guilty have anything to hide.

For example - universal surveilance at all times of all people. Your location is known at all times. That information is in a public database, accessable by all at all times.

How is that bad? Other than "privacy" concerns (which were "interpreted into" the Constitution, I might add, at a MUCH later date), of course.

Posted by: Deoxy at September 16, 2003 12:45 PM

The Constitution does not grant rights to citizens; it grants powers to government. If the power of universal surveillance is not in the Constitution, then the government can't do that.

I've had about enough of this "we invented the right to privacy" stuff from Constitutional know-nothings.

And if you think that the information gathered won't be manipulated, faked, and/or hidden by those in power, then you have no understanding of human nature.


P.S. Yes, I'm part of the Instalanche. How'd you guess?

Posted by: Uncle_Squid at September 16, 2003 01:17 PM

So, Uncle Squid, do you have any suggestions for ways we might protect ourselves from future individual acts of terrorism that fall within the powers granted to the government via the constitution?

Posted by: Phil at September 16, 2003 01:29 PM

Phil (and Uncle Squid),

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the constitution (particularly the Bill of Rights, which is the crux of what we are dealing with here) does not GRANT powers to the govt, it RESTRICTS those powers that the govt might have. This is as in 'Congress shall make no law...'

As for the two (rather grim) suggestions (a surveillence state vs. reengineering man) which have been presented, might I ask a simple question. Who gets to run this show? Do you want the Clintons (or for those of you on the left, Bush) running the surveillence state? And precisely who gets to choose which traits are most desirable to keep and which traits must be 'edited' out if we decide to come up with a human soul v2.0? I suspect that the politically correct and the libertarians might have a few differences of opinion that wouldn't be too easy to resolve...

I would rather live in a world where some whacko might decide to end it all for all of us, than the sort of totalitarian (literally) dystopia that would result from either of the two alternatives that I have seen here. The whacko is simply an extension of the groups that want to 'save' us by controlling us...

Of course, that is just my opinion, I could be wrong...

Posted by: Scott at September 16, 2003 02:04 PM

I ain't uncle Squid but I'd like to offer an opinion on some things we could do within the constitution.

1) Require that most members of the militia (i.e. able bodies men between 18 & 45) at a minimum be trained and routinely go armed at all times. Sorry but non-comforming local laws would be nullified.
Terrorists don't generally like return fire...

2) In cases of state-sponsored terrorism, slag the sponsoring nation right down to bedrock and I don't mean that metaphoricly. No second warnings either.
Does the phrase "Lakes Riyadh and Tehran" mean anything to you?

Perhaps it is time to follow the Roman model to "make a graveyard & call it peace".

3) Sooner or later, even with the mega survielance state and brain modification, a planetary terrorism event ~will~ occur. This is not within the relm of rational debate. Answer, colonies off of Earth. We need lifeboats real bad and right now.

Posted by: Jim Gwyn at September 16, 2003 02:09 PM

L.E. Modesitt dealt with this situation in 'Gravity Dreams'. All the surveillance data is out there - and part of the record is who is viewing the data. Use it too much, and you get the mindcontrol treatment.

Of course, he didn't deal with the sticky issues of how much is "too much" and who gets to check up on Joe Citizen - but it's a start. He also looked at the trust inherent in social compacts in 'Adamantium Dreams'. Good questions, not many answers.

Posted by: Michael Burris at September 16, 2003 02:13 PM

Deoxy - the harm (other than privacy concerns) in a publicly-accessible database of everyone's whereabouts?

Hmm.. Anyone can see when you and your family are away from your home. Surely someone will decide to help himself to your belongings while you're away.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward at September 16, 2003 02:34 PM

All this business about arming citizens, etc, misses the point. The issue is not about terrorists with small arms, it is about terrorists releasing biological weapons or powerful chemical weapons - where a single terrorist can kill anywhere from thousands to (in the worst case) billions of people.

Furthermore, good citizenship and raising good kids doesn't work either, for two reasons:

(1) Even the best parents can produce monsters. Colombine shows this. Not every psychopath is a result of bad upbringing.

(2) We live in a world full of real people. It also has a range of cultures, including some that are rapidly decaying or are defective in any reasonable sense of the word. There is simply no way beyond changing the nature of man (i.e. biological engineering) to prevent the creation of a large number of psychopaths or people of weak character who can be indoctrinated by psychopaths.

The surveillance state offers, IMHO, one of the lowest negative impact measures to combat mega-terrorists, especially if much of the surveillance is public and accessible to the public (like our Arizona traffic cameras.

That surveillance can and will be abused is without question. The issue, in the face of modern terrorist technology, is what is the cost tradeoff and what are the alternatives. I see NONE.

Furthermore, unlike many, I do not consider privacy (with some exceptions) to be nearly as sacred as many other rights. In fact, disagreeing with another poster, I think the natural right of privacy as been outrageously distorted by recent court decisions.

I am glad to see this issue finally getting some instalanche attention. I blogged on this way back in March.

Posted by: John Moore (Useful Fools) at September 16, 2003 02:35 PM

What of a surveillence populus? Certainly the video tape of Rodney King's arrest had a great impact. What if everyone wore a streaming web cam? Couple that with a well-armed populus, and the terrorists will be extremely picky about where they will strike.

Consider the consequences in Israel after parents and grandparents started patroling the schools armed. Soon the terrorists learned that schools were no longer a soft target. Why does Hamas use concealed bombs? Because drawn weapons tend to get them shot before they cause much damage. That is the kind of terrorist act we will face with a beefed up population.

As for bio and chemical weapons, all the more reason to push for nano-defenses and antidotes. Use our technological edge to make it much harder to hurt us.

Posted by: John at September 16, 2003 03:48 PM

The Bill of Rights says that we have the right to be free from "unreasonable" searches and seizures. That word unreasonable has accounted for reams of analysis, but it generally means when there is not a good reason to conduct a search. After 9/11 and the shoe bomber reasonableness has changed.

Within days, the terrorists who destroyed the WTC were able to be tracked and photos from ATMs published. It turns out that we are already under surveillance, but we don't allow the police access to those tapes until there's been a crime, and as often as not, the pictures are pretty lousy.

All that other surveillance is never inspected. It's just there in case they need it. So we come to the Zen question of whether our rights of privacy are violated by a video that no human being has ever viewed, or a computer program that scanned us and doesn't detect anything to alert any real person about.

You'll notice that in Orwell's 1984 the telescreens weren't manned by computers. Orwell hadn't imagined them. So you had a large part of the population (I'd say larger than our federal and state bureaucracies and military combined, watching other peoples'apartments for signs of thoughtcrime. Obviously that kind of technology is only feasible if we've already had a coup d'etat and a dictatorship established. Until then, don't give me any Orwell analogies.

If someone went into my home and rummaged through my books and drawers and didn't make too much of a mess, I'd never know it and they wouldn't find anything incriminating.

We had a burglary once where a local kid came in a took some prescription drugs out of a cabinet while we were sleeping. We wouldn't have known about it if he hadn't cofessed and turned them over to the cops. Didn't I feel VIOLATED? Not really. I would have if I had woken up and he'd seen me standing there in my underwear with a shotgun.

The point is, what I want from government is, first of all, keep the peace and protect my life and the lives of the rest of us. If there are killers at large, I don't get upset that I'm told to stay off the streets for a while. When everything gets back to normal, I might get peeved if the cops told me that.

What I don't want is for killers to be at large and the cops are wasting time frisking grandmas and nuns and not using every available tool in an intelligent manner to CATCH THE BAD GUYS.

The reason all this surveillance stuff doesn't worry me is that I know that I'm just not that interesting. Only a few lucky souls are. So relax.

Posted by: AST at September 16, 2003 03:50 PM

I'll put my faith in the free market system.

I'm guessing that there is a bigger market for terrorism defense articles than there is for offensive terror articles. On the personal level that is.

I don't expect to see the Ronco Anthrax Maker and Juicer.

Posted by: John Davies at September 16, 2003 04:16 PM


You should check out the comment I made about this over at Randall's Futurepundit blog.

The future is not what either you or Randall think.

Posted by: Trent Telenko at September 16, 2003 05:16 PM

L.E. Modessitt approached the issue of re-engineering humanity in _Adiamante_. Joe Haldeman dealt with the same issue in _Forever Peace_.

Brin's novel _Earth_ is set in a world in which privacy is a crime.

Posted by: Julesk at September 16, 2003 07:54 PM

I would guess that the nuclear and bio/chem aspect of WMD have to be thought of separately.
By a point at which effective bio/chem weapons can be readily fabricated in the backyard shed, I would expect that technical countermeasures will have advanced at least as much. i.e. superfast viral analysis and vaccine and/or inhibitor production; "smart" chemical countermeasures etc.

Such technical countermeasures would not be effective against nuclear weapons. But look at what "be the first geek on your block to build the Bomb" requires. Setting aside weapon design and fabrication, the fissionable materials are the basic problem, even granting advanced nanotech.
Sure you might be able to recover uranium from the bedrock atom by atom, but would nanotech be capable of isotopic separation? Absent that, you're left with a pile of uranium that requires either a plutonium production reactor or a U-235 enrichment process, both big conspicuous operations that look inherently resistant to "hobby shop" scaling down. I would suggest that even with nanotech, non-state fissionables are not going to be a problem for a long time.
Having said all this, it remains to be seen if a breakthrough in nanotech might make novel forms of WMD possible

Posted by: John Farren at September 17, 2003 09:51 AM

I think we're playing games with Pascal's wager. Ie, we subject ourselves to significant ongoing costs and losses of freedom because someone might someday kill off billions of people with a virus or a misbehaving robot. In particular, we are proposing one way or another to impose serious controls on human society in the name of security.

Looking at the 20th century, I see that these concerns are vastly misplaced. State-sanctioned murder was far more common than the criminal act. No one has determined who should manage global surveillance, but it's clear from the historical record that the power will be abused. The same with behavioir modification. Why are we ignoring this?

I see instead that the problem lies in poor law enforcement, in our infrastructure design, and in dismissing real risks over hypothetical ones.

For example, there's a lot of cases of state-sanctioned terrorism (eg, Al Queda's September 11 attack). Until recently, these usually haven't been punished. On the other hand, there's a routine legal process for catching and dealing with individuals who commit murder and other acts that cause harm to people.

Infrastructure often is conducive to terrorist attacks. The most blatant example of this is the propagation of the Microsoft Windows OS. It's poorly designed (eg, the system registry, programs routinely have complete access to system, poor handling of program errors). The incredible access that Microsoft gives to programs means that MS products lower the bar considerably for making viruses and worms. If some other OS were the dominant one, then it too would have it's share of viruses and worms. The original Internet worm propagated through Unix systems after all. But I find it hard to believe that the market leader will naturally create a system as promiscuous as Windows.

In a similar fashion, we have large amounts of centralized infrastructure in society. Government, schools, businesses, airports, energy, water, data, etc. To be blunt, the more centralized something is, the bigger a terrorist target it is. More gain for the same effort. Ie, why bomb a home or small business when you can bomb a skyscraper with thousands of people? A huge propane farm on the edge of a city (eg, as in the case of Sacramento a few years back) is a more tempting target than the neighbor's tank. Are the owners of these centralized resources paying for the risk of increased terrorist attacks or is that being passed on to the taxpayer and the people who depend on that infrastructure? In Israel, I hear that businesses where large numbers of people congregate are required to have security guards. Ie, the business must cover some of the costs of being a terrorist target.

Finally, we need to be more rational about our risks. The last large terrorist attack that could be considered "individual" on US soil was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Since then the US has lost around 25,000-30,000 people a year on the highways. Certainly, the extent of damage hasn't warranted the changes forced on society. Also, I imagine if one looks at the increased risk of HIV infection in US prisons (lower now than in the past), and the increase in prison populations due to new laws passed in a post-terrorist environment, I can see a valid argument for saying that the official reaction to a terrorist attack may kill more people from AIDS than died in the original attacks.

The natural plagues are a far greater danger these days than man-made ones. We have for example HIV and Hepatitus C, both incurable and eventually lethal (unless, of course, you die of something else first which is fairly likely with Hepatitus C which often has a span between infection and liver failure of many decades). The developing world is dealing with huge disease problems (malaria, multicellular parasites, AIDS, etc) that dwarf the terrorism concerns.

Posted by: Karl Hallowell at September 17, 2003 08:52 PM

Thanks for the link. I'm on the run and will try to post more later, but one quick point on psychopaths, mentioned earlier:

Parents have almost nothing to do with whether a person grows up to be a pyschopath. If you're interested, the seminal book on psychopaths is "Without Conscience," by Robert Hare:

Posted by: Dave Cullen at September 18, 2003 11:52 AM

Very interesting piece. You're also only the second other person I've seen (outside law enforcement people working the case) to see Columbine for what it was, an attempted terrorist act.

How did you grasp that?

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