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Complexity, Trust, And Terror

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The beguiling but ultimately mistaken notion that technologies are merely tools poses a major barrier for understanding how we live today. Missing from this notion is an acknowledgment of our utter dependence upon the large, complex, artificial systems that surround us, giving structure to everything we do.

This dependence looms as a source of vulnerability. If any major component in the systems that support modern life ceases to function for a significant time, our prosperity, freedom, and comfortable lives are threatened.

In free, democratic societies, ordinary people have dealt with this vulnerability by embracing an attitude of trust, holding on to the reasonable expectation that key technologies will continue to work reliably. For the most part, this assumption has proven fairly resilient. But what happens when our long-standing trust gives way to a pervasive sense of vulnerability and dread? Can our rights, liberties, and democratic institutions survive?

In the aftermath of 9/11 such questions have renewed urgency. Americans view terrorism as something that has suddenly arrived from outside, inflicted upon an otherwise contented, harmonious society, by “evil doers” from distant parts of the world. But the terror we experience—the dread that now afflicts everyday life—resides at least in part in the very complex technological systems we have so ingeniously built.

One of the horrors of the 9/11 attacks was that the power of two wonders of modern technology—the skyscraper and the jet airliner—came crashing together, causing the carefully contained power of both systems to be released in catastrophic explosion, inferno, and collapse, triggering a deeply buried terror that the technological powers we sought to control would escape and come back to injure or destroy us.

The country's response to this terror is the familiar strategy of hardening systems to prevent disruption and placing virtually the entire population under suspicion.

Unfortunately, it is far from clear that these measures will succeed. Weapons are frequently smuggled through newly bolstered airport security gates, and increased security at nuclear power plants has also produced disappointing results.

The human and financial demands of prolonged policing of complex systems are probably unsupportable. Faced with such shortcomings we are asked to redouble our efforts by spending even more money, installing more sophisticated equipment, hiring more security personnel, and subjecting the public to spiraling levels of search, surveillance, and mistrust.

There are far better ways of responding to our fears of terrorism. Urgently needed are measures that address sources of insecurity and terror found at the very roots of modern civilization. Hence, it seems wise to design technical systems that are loosely coupled and forgiving, structured in ways that make disruptions easily borne, quickly repaired. Certainly it makes sense to rely upon locally available, renewable energy and material resources, rather than foster dependency on global supplies always at risk. It also seems high time to begin reducing our dependence upon over-whelming, risk-laden powers wrested from nature. Now we know: these powers may destroy not only fragile ecosystems, but the habitats of freedom as well.

The construction of more peaceful, resilient systems can be accomplished through imaginative efforts (many of them well underway) aimed at living lightly on the Earth, with justice and compassion. This means, for example, choosing wind power over nuclear power; foot, bicycle, and train transportation over car and airplane; and food grown and processed locally, not grown and processed in big factories or trucked vast distances. Moving steadily along this path could also help eliminate grievances in places that now serve as spawning grounds for terrorist attacks, and preserve the planet's environmental integrity.
As the present atmosphere of hysteria, acquiescence, and political opportunism subsides—and I believe it will—we must renew efforts to build institutions that merit our trust rather than fuel our fears.


Langdon Winner is a professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. For more information, see his website, www.rpi.edu/~winner/.

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