Annihilation from Within is Fred Charles Iklé’s attempt to draw attention toward, and thereby inspire management of, the true geopolitical risks of the 21st century – risks ultimately deriving from a great decoupling of science from the cultural constraints of politics and religion, a quarter of a millennium ago – risks portended by, but utterly eclipsing, the events of 9/11/2001 – risks almost entirely unrecognized by our current risk-management institutions, foremost among them the nation-state.
AfW is eminently worth reading and relatively likely to do some actual good in the world. But you haven’t grazed in here to read a blanket endorsement, and I’d be no blogger if I didn’t contend (with all-but-nonexistent credibility) with some portion of Iklé’s thesis; so for a thoroughgoingly unqualified critique, complete with annoyingly personal speculation and fuzzy intuition-laden commentary, read on!
(~2,700 words; approximate reading time 7-14 minutes, not counting lots of links.)
I summarize AfW’s main points as follows:
- Science, having become unmoored from political and religious constraints in the 18th century, is the dominant risk-enhancing (if not risk-creating) force in the world today
- Science is a self-sustaining enterprise characterized by effectively unidirectional progress and the development of an immense array of dual-use technologies, making ever-more-dangerous weapons accessible to ever-smaller organizations
- Culture, by contrast, is in a random walk; there is no such thing as “progress,” in the sense occurring in science, taking place in art, politics, or religion
- Science also poses a growing and critical challenge to religion, in the form of imminent and substantial (if not indefinite) life extension, as well as the possibility of a combination of artificial-intelligence technologies with human brains
- The only institution capable of managing large-scale risks, such as those posed by ubiquitous dual-use technologies, is the nation-state
- What matters more than the terroristic use of WMD, however calamitous, is the aftermath of any such incident
- In particular, a charismatic and unscrupulous political leader could use a small number of WMDs to decapitate the leadership of a nation, even a large democratic nation, and seize power
- In general, the likely mass-psychological effects of terroristic use of WMD and subsequent implosion of a major nation-state are far more frightening than the likely scale of immediate casualties in such an event, immense as it may be
- Fortunately, specific historical lessons, especially from World War II and the Cold War, may be constructively applied to this situation
- Prompt measures should be taken to: detect nuclear bombs; assure the continuity of the US government; enact mobilization laws; guard our territorial sovereignty; and enhance national unity
There is a great deal to be said in favor of these points, and even more to be said in favor of someone with Iklé’s considerable credentials going to the effort to raise them. As noted in my second introductory paragraph above, however, the value of a review, even if it’s only entertainment value – particularly in the blogosphere – lies in the reviewer’s points of disagreement with the work being reviewed. So what’s the Iklé-Manifold delta?
But first, a sidebar, which while unlikely to prove original, might at least be useful. Call it the meta-Malthusian hypothesis (some terminology drawn from the PMBOK):
- Rr ~ ta
Some natural human activity causes the rating (itself the product of probability and impact) of a negative risk event, Rr, to grow as a function of time t, with an exponent a > 1.
- Rm ~ tb
But the human ability to manage that risk, Rm, grows as a function of time t, with an exponent b < a.
- Rr » Rm
Therefore, the situation with respect to the activity varies with time in such a way as to accelerate toward catastrophe.
- In the original Malthusian hypothesis, the human activity was reproduction, which Malthus deemed to be ineluctably geometric (with t in years, typical a ≈ 1.02); and the risk-management ability was agriculture, which he deemed to be ineluctably arithmetic (b = 1).
- In AfW, scientific advance and dual-use technologies multiply while national and international institutions (cultural norms, laws, religious influences) are, at best, additive in their abilities; or to quote David Brin, there is “the possibility that most worries even optimists within the nanotechnology community — that the pace of innovation may outstrip our ability to cope.”
- Not to overlook the obvious, Malthus was exactly wrong – the real-world situation is the opposite, with food consumption increasing linearly and human agricultural ability exponentiating (one might even say accelerating toward a eucatastrophe of permanent elimination of famine and malnutrition).
- Will meta-Malthus, and Iklé with it, be wrong? I don’t know; I hope so; and there are, at least, indications that a one-dimensional model like the one above is unlikely to be adequate. See, for example, A Simple Model of Fads and Cascading Failures (124kB PDF). Humanity is an intensely networked entity. As I have noted elsewhere, the great lesson of Figure 2b at the end of Watts’ insightful paper is that every maturing system passes through a period in which cascading failures are both large and frequent. The failures never decrease in size (negative risk event impact), but their frequency (negative risk event probability) eventually drops to (very) near zero.
End of sidebar. Now for my less mathematical objections, which I will try to map to my list of AfW’s main points above.
Science should be distinguished from technology, for at least two reasons. First, technological advance was not closely tied to science until at least the late 19th century, so while there is a substantial history of truly scientific technological advance, it did not begin with the Enlightenment, as implied in AfW. And of course the original development that enabled the Protestant Reformation, precursor of the cultural split of science from other human endeavors and interests, was the printing press, occurring centuries before anything like modern science was a driving force.
Second, I note that many technological advances exist in the broader sense of tecne – how to characterize, for example, the Deming Process Workbench, or present-day best practices in project management, or any purely organizational technique? And yet advances in logistics are largely responsible for recent productivity gains, at least in the American economy. If much of our material prosperity is based on activity no more scientific than a Gantt chart or a process-flow diagram, how much of the cultural split is truly attributable to science as such? And how significant, then, is the divergence of the “two souls” of mankind itself?
If anything, AfW understates the likely pace of future technological advance. My impression is that most educated Americans, Iklé included, have a mental picture of the technology of 2100 which is, in fact, about where we’ll be by 2030 at the latest. Of course, this implies that some of his concerns may therefore be even more urgent than he argues.
The idea of culture as a random walk didn’t bother me too much, but it’s going to profoundly irritate many of AfW’s readers. Anyone who affiliates with any one nation, culture, or set of political or religious beliefs – which is to say nearly everyone, even transnational progressives – will naturally resist the idea that their country, or beliefs, or their interests in general, do not represent an improvement over the past. Indeed, “progressives” claiming to eschew conventional national identification or religious beliefs may be among those most offended by Iklé (whose career, I should note, has included stints with the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush  Administrations).
Nor do I regard 21st century technology as a threat to religion. The Copernican/Galilean revolution, which compelled a realization that the supposed dichotomy between the celestial and the terrestrial did not exist, was far more psychologically wrenching than any present controversy and, in all likelihood, a greater challenge to the (then-) predominate worldview than any removal of human infirmity or enhancement of human ability will be. I have been aware of many of the most astonishing possibilities in this area ever since first reading Engines of Creation, twenty years ago. Speaking carefully, it remains nonobvious to me that the implications, even of fully-developed, strong, Drexlerian nanotechnology, fundamentally alter my spiritual status or obligations as a Christian, much less that those implications will, or can, fundamentally alter human nature. Here again, however, I think we should assume that many people will feel threatened, and not necessarily the ones we might put at the top of the list. I will have more to say about this in the “Optional Reading” section below.
As a means of managing certain types of large-scale risks to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, nation-states are – in the current historical era – a regrettable necessity, if only for psychological reasons. Occasionally they are even effective. But the empowerment by technological advance of individuals to do good as well as evil, and to accomplish alone or in small groups what could only be done by large organizations or entire institutions in the recent past, is an increasingly notorious phenomenon. Iklé, however well-intentioned, is after all a longtime member of the American nomenklatura and therefore likely to regard governmental mechanisms as more crucial to the survival and proper functioning of American society than are most of that society’s members.
Would the aftermath of a super-9/11 be as bad as we might fear? Here we should closely examine the lessons of 9/11 itself. The response of New Yorkers was, as I have commented elsewhere, stunningly exemplary. And surely NYC was the most psychologically vulnerable target; we may confidently expect the residents of any other major American city to behave with commensurate courage and compassion. The specific risk of coup d’etat after a 21st-century version of the Reichstag fire seems to me to be, for the United States, quite remote. The more general risk of widespread derangement in the form of doomsday cultism cannot be ignored, and the atmosphere after the violent ending of what AfW calls the “universal dispensation” of nuclear nonuse (now in its seventh decade) is not easy to anticipate, but I suspect that official overreaction, as by permanently evacuating a far larger area than necessary after a nuclear explosion, is the most direct threat to the largest number of people in the aftermath.
Passive detection of highly-enriched uranium, or of plutonium, is not feasible at distances much greater than 1 meter or on timescales shorter than minutes to hours. It does not follow that finding smuggled fissionable materials is hopeless, but extraordinary prioritization of such efforts may be needed for success, as for example requiring all cars and trucks to have in-vehicle detectors. The associated technological and fiscal challenges are one thing, but the political challenges are quite another.
Government-continuity planning should, I believe, identify the immediate real-world concerns of clients (where’s my Social Security check?) and address those before turning to Constitutional questions of how to reconstitute Congress, the Cabinet, etc. The simple fact is that in the 21st century there is little reason to concentrate most Federal functions in massive, physical office complexes in DC. Shift the back-office work to someplace cheaper, which is to say almost anywhere between the Alleghenies and the Sierras, and continuity in the event of a WMD attack on the capital becomes much easier to manage.
Similarly, “mobilization” in the 21st century should not be confused with that of the early- and mid-20th; we now have An Army of Davids and ought to think creatively when calling upon the resources and expertise of 300 million Americans. See Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter: From Doobie Brother To Top Missile Defense Adviser for an apparently unusual example that could undoubtedly be multiplied with a bit of foresight and the employment of suitable means of communication, which are already available.
Sovereignty and immigration issues – which AfW conflates, perhaps appropriately – would analogously be greatly mitigated by forward-looking legislation designed to gain the participation of immigrants, rather than (as at present) criminalize victimless behavior and create a large class of fugitives, amongst whom the tiny fraction of truly dangerous individuals must somehow be found and stopped.
If Strauss and Howe are right, the next major epoch on the American political scene will be ushered in by the development of a broad consensus by the Boomer generation and a narrowing of the red/blue state divide, in which case national unity will not be nearly the problem it has seemed to be since about 1990. In any case, considerable unity was on display after 9/11, thanks in part to the terrorists’ naïve targeting; imagine the aftereffects of four jetliners crashed into the tallest buildings in Dallas and Houston, CIA headquarters, and the Pentagon. Their knowledge of American political fissures was inadequate, for which we may all be grateful.
If the above seemed lacking in legitimacy, what I write here is going to be a whole lot worse, because I will be extrapolating from purely personal, subjective experience to predict a positive outcome for American (and Anglospheric) society in the 21st century. This section will also be even less relevant to AfW than the often-tangential remarks above. You have been warned.
ChicagoBoyz readers will have taken their share of personality tests. I recommend such testing not for the supposed validity of any particular test, but for the gradual buildup of self-understanding that enough measurement can eventually bring about; some of the most famous tests barely rise above the level of a parlor game, but still yield surprising and useful insights. As in other areas of life, an ideology (or methodology) may be glaringly imperfect and yet be a road to reality.
A stretch of my road to reality, the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator, consistently pegs me as an INFJ/INTJ, or in more compact and slightly mysterious form, INxJ. (I am indebted to fellow UofC’er Jon Osborne for first administering the test to me about 25 years ago.)
The significance of this result is that I flip back and forth between NF and NT; between the sort of person who wants to have an inspiring day and one who wants to have an interesting day; between a would-be clergyman (of God knows what variety, given my blandly evangelical American baby-boomer origins) and a would-be scientist (also of God knows what variety, given the very mildly technical nature of my career). This religious order being regrettably unavailable, my ideal job remains shrouded in obscurity.
There is an almost palpable sense of mental gear-shifting between the two states, and the shift is most likely at the peaks of their intensities rather than the troughs. I never feel more logical and precise than during intensely emotional worship.
Now the INFJs and INTJs are supposed to be only 1/64 of the population apiece, which would suggest that INxJs are rare indeed; but my perception of the society around me is that it is alive with the NF/NT flip-flop. Iklé quotes Goethe: Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! In meiner Brust, die eine will sich von der andern trennen …
And two souls do dwell in the average American’s breast. But the one is not trying to forsake the other. Rather, it is that most common marriage in the American psyche: deep religiosity side by side with rapt technophilia.
I have commented elsewhere on the huge overlap between the evangelical and technologist subcultures in the US. This is the positive side of the two cultures; where, unlike in academia, enmity does not fester between “Type M” and “Type N,” because the two types exist side by side in the same households – and often enough, in some sense, within the same person. Simultaneous giftings of technical prowess and challenges of moral responsibility have been part of the human condition for as long as there have been behaviorally modern human beings.
We will not be a house divided. Our two-souled nature will not doom our civilization; it is why we will win.