2001 : WHAT NOW?

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Science Writer; Consultant; Lecturer, Copenhagen; Author, The Generous Man
The 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, Baran argued.

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 matter).

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 athttp://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.

In an 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 centers.

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 poverty. 

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 philosophy?

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 grammar'.

The probability of attacks will be lowered if all cultures could see each other as visions of the same reality, expressed in different ways.

All this, of course, is very naive and does not confront the legitimate need for immediate revenge. 

But in the long term, we have to accept what the Danish poet Piet Hein saw as the condition of the nuclear age: