“From American Flight 77, en route to death and the Pentagon, lawyer Barbara Olson cell-phoned her husband, the U.S. solicitor general, and told him of the hijacking.
On United Flight 93, both Jeremy Glick and Thomas Burnett Jr. called their wives and confided their (apparently successful) intentions to counterattack the hijackers.
Others on the stolen planes, as well as dozens trapped in the World Trade Center towers, pulled out their cells to speak one more time to a wife or parent and say “I love you.” The recipients of those calls, while justifiably inconsolable, are undoubtedly grateful for the final opportunity to hear those voices. But before we celebrate another irreplaceable use of wireless communications, consider this: according to government officials, within hours of the explosions, mobile phones of suspected terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden were buzzing with congratulations for the murderous acts. They use them, too.
The contrast dramatizes a long-recognized truism: modern technologies that add efficiency, power and wonder to our lives inevitably deliver the same benefits to evildoers. The Internet is no exception. On Sept. 11 the Net seemed like a godsend. E-mail worked when phones didn’t, allowing countless New Yorkers to assure worried friends and families around the world that they were still alive. Web sites were quickly home-brewed to carry lists of companies affected and family members missing. But there is also every likelihood that the terrorists had exploited the Internet as well, using easily available and virtually untraceable accounts on Yahoo or Hotmail, and meeting in ad hoc chat rooms.
Perhaps the terrorists cloaked their planning with cryptography, once an exotic technology, now a commonplace computer utility. Communications could also be shrouded with steganography (hiding messages between pixels of a graphic–a reputed bin Laden technique) or anonymizers (which make e-mail untraceable). Such tools are lionized by freedom-loving “cypherpunks,” who have shrugged off potential dark-side usage as a reasonable trade-off for the protection that crypto can provide just plain citizens; as with cars and telephones, the benefits way overwhelm the abuses.
So goes the attitude that has taken us to where we are today, in the best sense and now the worst sense. Technology drives civilization; it augments and amplifies human effort. Our own age is marked by computers and software, which have democratized formerly specialized pursuits. With the right software and the Web, anyone can be a publisher, a music distributor, a photo refinisher… the list is endless.
But the sophistication of our technology also leverages the efforts of those who would destroy. And the very structure of our society–a dense thicket of connections, where skyscrapers hold thousands of workers, “just in time” factories rely on next-day deliveries and air-traffic controllers manage hundreds of planes at once–allows a single act of terror to generate torrents of disruption and pain.
Thus a barely armed band of 19 can slam our nation with the force of many armies. The implements they used were strictly off the shelf. We don’t know if they practiced their aeronautical skills by flying into virtual Twin Towers on Microsoft Flight Simulator (which was quickly taken off the shelves). But they did apparently train by renting time on computer-powered flight simulators that democratize the experience of flying a 767. Then, by way of the dime-store technology of small sharpened blades, they were able to take charge of sophisticated commercial airlines. Suddenly those benign carriers were powerful, targetable bombs.
It was a nightmarish fulfillment of science-fiction writer William Gibson’s proclamation that the street finds its own uses for technology. The more powerful our tools are, the more dangerous they are when turned against us. For centuries we’ve accepted that. It’s simply the downside of tech.
Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy has been pondering this downside while writing a book tentatively called “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Coincidentally, Joy was in lower Manhattan in the early part of last week. As bad as it was, Joy believes, the tragedy was nothing like what might be possible with biological weaponry. The coming age of biotech will undoubtedly make programmable bacteria and viruses more accessible–to doctors, business and bio-terrorists. “The things I’m worried about haven’t happened yet,” says Joy.
Virtually no one dares ask whether the balance of technology might tilt too far toward empowering the evil.
Who would have a clue of how to address that situation? Human beings have a track record of pursuing what they see as progress and asking questions later. While refusing to think the Unthinkable, we create the circumstances that allow it to occur.
Should we be giving the Unthinkable more consideration as we drive technology ever further? The answer seems obvious. Yet it almost goes without saying that any safeguards we institute won’t be perfect. What assurance do we have that future terrorists will not feast on the contents of Pandora’s box? “Knowledge itself is dangerous,” says Joy. “Scientific information we pursue in an unfettered way is a weapon. And we’re not ready to deal with that.” Maybe after last week, we are closer.”