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 Much like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it is an outdated, unstable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
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
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.
Back to Top of
Return to the Index of
Letters from the Global Province