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October 16, 2001—Taming Terror:  We Are Very Micro-Soft

The Onion Makes Us Cry. The Onion (www.onion.com), the funnybone of the Internet, hit the mark in its 26 September 2001 report on the war on terrorism, "U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We're at War With." The "where" is frankly much more puzzling than the "who," as evidenced by a map called "Finding the Enemy." It is all too clear that terrorists are located anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere all about the globe. The search alone is enough to bring tears to the eyes.

It Ain't A War. We will be much better off if we stop thinking of this thing as a war. It's like AIDS or computer bugs. We are slowly awakening to the fact that we are dealing with a plague or virus that can't be blown up. Instead, dealing with it will be more like a preventive health campaign -- full of vaccinations, behavior modifications, cross-border police efforts, statistical management analysis, etc. We're wrestling with cancer, not a war.

Unstable Systems. To duel with a virus, we can use filters, patches, and band-aids for the short term. But over the long haul, massive collaboration between independent systems or entities is needed to bring the pathogens to heel. A single monolithic system, be it the U.S. government or the F.A.A., is inherently flawed and vulnerable to virus attacks. In fact, this is probably the moment for which the U.N. was created. The association of responsible but independent governments, if collaborating, can identify and create antibodies to thwart the thousands of deathly organisms that comprise the series of diseases we choose to call terrorism.

This is, incidentally, the gravest argument against the organization called Microsoft. As we have said before, Microsoft Works is the funniest oxymoron around. Much like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it is an outdated, unstable structure easily attacked by viruses, which comprises a security risk to the developed world. Four or five competing systems would better confound hackers and others of bad will. A monolithic system of almost any sort now creates huge risks for civilized society. Because we are micro-soft, we are macro-soft.

Unsupportable Complexity. At every turn we read that systems thinkers are adapting badly to complexity, instead of adopting rugged simplicity. They are engineering systems that try to do too much, at too high a cost, with built in high failure rates. IBM's Paul Horn has announced a move to grapple with the crisis of complexity -- with more complexity -- through "a higher level of automation in computing," "hoping to replicate the human automatic nervous system" (New York Times, October 15, 2001, p. C4.). We don't even need the threat of plagues or terrorism to understand that current and contemplated systems are compounding the risk of break-down. Pure chance alone (forget about terrorism) will deal us several nervous breakdowns (meltdowns) in this kind of technosphere.

Medieval Lessons. When the plague was afoot in Italy, the people of Boccacio's Decameron went out into the hills, away from menace, and regaled each other with tales, ensuring that human discourse did not collapse in the face of tragedy, war, death, and chaos. Now, too, we must not be brought low by the maniacal urges of unholy men, but must instead use the powers of the imagination to blot out pestilence.

To fight viruses, also, we may be going beyond current technologies, harnessing nature itself to our task as did the medieval alchemists. In coming weeks, we will post a note on "Stitch in Time" about the possible efficacy of oregano oil against bacteria, fungi, and even anthrax. Some of the simple, elegant structures of nature may prove much more resilient against virus threats than the complex, unstable structures patched together in our labs. By the way, bio-computers, comprised of living cells, may be arriving just in time to deal with a multi-viral world. At any rate, the Middle Ages teaches us to look for salvation away in the country, far from urban artifice.

Cat Stevens. Years ago Cat Stevens put aside his musical career to more fully embrace his Muslim faith. Strangely, he gives us a hint of our best weapon in the spiritual struggle with terrorism. In virtually all cases, the cults of terrorism oppose themselves to all the outpourings of Western culture. The cults are locked in a death minuet with all the manifestations of that culture.

It is culture, much beyond pop and blue jeans, that we need to array against terrorists. To that end, we must have a culture strong enough to prevail and to infect the insulated mind of the fanatic, wherever she or he is hiding. Since it is not only our infrastructure but our culture that suffered decay over the last decade, we must revive our philosophers and poets. A culture that wins must be a winning culture.

Late in life, John Adams exclaimed, "I would to God there was more ambition in the country ... ambition of that laudable kind, to excel." (See David McCulloch, John Adams, p. 640.) If we can summon the will to excel and send our example into the world, we have a hope of besting jealous minds of narrow purpose. It's the cultural battle we must win. That's how different it is to deal with terrorism.

P.S. We will have new entries, once again, for the Global Province next week. We have been much to busy looking for new species of elm and other things that soar.

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