That does not mean that I necessarily agree with him.
History is accelerating; and so the future becomes more and more unknowable. Among our foremost thinkers, we find only one presentiment that is universally shared. This turns out to be a sinister variation on the idea of "convergence." Not the convergence of nations and polities, whereby the world's autocratic regimes would gradually align themselves with the democratic and contentedly globalized mainstream. This particular expectation, even neoconservatives now concede, was a triumphalist fantasy of the 1990s -- that curious holiday from what Philip Roth has called "the remorseless unforeseen."
The convergence we have now come to anticipate is the convergence of international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction -- of IT and WMD. ... Their convergence is guaranteed by the simplest of market forces. Marginal costs will fall; and demand will climb.
Now I confess that on first reading, I missed IT as “international terrorism” and automatically substituted the more everyday meaning. Even then, the link between IT and WMD and international terrorism is even more substantive than Amis portrays it.
Amis gives as his example of the first WMD attack on the US as Ivins’ small anthrax “bomb” and follows with the potential of 1000 kg of anthrax spores distributed from an aircraft (better ban the importation of NZ FU-24s and derivatives – perfect for the job!!).
The idea ranks with that of the container-load of polonium with a small bomb inside. Not as a fission weapon but as a means of rendering a comparatively small but highly populated area (such as Manhatten or San Francisco or San Diego) totally lifeless.
Now follow the Amis argument through – I am not going to repeat it here. That is not because I think his logic is wrong. Far from it. The only dispute that I have is the nature of the “convergence” to which he applies the logic.
Al Qaedaism, for them [John Gray and Philip Bobbitt], is an epiphenomenon -- a secondary effect. It is the dark child of globalization. It is the mimic of modernity: devolved, decentralized, privatized, outsourced and networked. According to Mr. Bobbitt, rather more doubtfully, Al Qaeda not only reflects the market state: it is a market state ("a virtual market state"). Globalization created great wealth and also great vulnerability; it created a space, or a dimension. Thus the epiphenomenon is not about religion; it is about human opportunism and the will to power.
At this point, ask the question –
“What is the greatest vulnerability of the US and the western world in general?”
This is where Amis missed – IT. No, not international terrorism; Intelligent Technology.
If you wish to get truly paranoid about terrorism and its potential impact on the western world, just think for a few moments on the increasing dependence on IT as part of our daily activities. What impact would a DDOS (and if you do not know what DDOS is then you should find out) attack have on Wall St? What impact would the failure of American banking IT systems have on the nation and the wider world? Sorry, can’t use your credit card because...
Not that that idea is new...
Dan Ronco was a long-term IT executive as a General Manager with Microsoft, Senior Principal with Laventhol & Horwath and President, Software Quality Management. With degrees in Chemical Engineering, Nuclear Engineering and Computer Science, his understanding of technology and its implications is exceptional. Dan is the author of two thought-provoking science fiction thrillers, PeaceMaker and the newly released Unholy Domain.
PEACEMAKER, a start-at-a-dead-run SciFi thriller, is set in the near future, where software revolutionaries are pushing artificial intelligence to the brink of terrorism. The prologue plunges software architect Ray Brown into a life-or-death contest with PeaceMaker, a deadly artificial intelligence that has infected most of the world's computing devices. Ray's determination to eliminate PeaceMaker leads him into a dangerous conflict with the Domain - a clandestine organization dedicated to a new world order.
Let’s roam a bit further.
Recent IT (not international terrorism) articles have warned of the dangers inherent with the most recent telephone systems, especially those built around WAN/WAP principles – like the iPhone. It has been found possible to “infect” these with the equivalent of your everyday “computer virus”. The warnings thus far have centred on privacy, banking and credit card fraud. But if a cellphone can be infected in this manner, what is the potential for a bug capable of performing widespread disruption of communication systems?
The crux of Amis’ logic is the meeting of “marginal cost” with fanatical desire for power. I have no argument with that. He is right.
By far cheaper than enriched uranium, by far more widespread and hence effective in disrupting western society than fission weapon or anthrax, is the IT bomb. Yes, the former might kill far more people but in the overall scheme of things the damage would be “limited” in both extent and cost. But imagine what 20 million infected telephones might do to New York if they all decided to “call in” or TXT at the same time. Continuously. For three days. Easy to fix, I know – turn the cellphones off. All of them.
Putting Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme out of commission is difficult? How do you prevent the same level of research and effort into the development of IT weapons? Bomb Iran?
Banking systems would not fail at the mainframe level. They don’t need to. They rely entirely upon the transmission of data - communication – of everything from the multi-billion dollar international corporate deal and settlement, to the petrol purchase at the local gas station. Not being able to get that data assembled and processed would in very short order create chaos in technicolour.
Having to re-equip anything from banking to telephone or traffic control systems because of the “damage” caused by invasive and destructive programmes would have far greater impact on the foundations of our societies. That kind of disruption need not be continuous. It need only be there for an afternoon or even an hour; not one afternoon or hour but once a week or at random. It is the disruption that creates the mayhem not the duration.
So, all in all, quite a disappointing article from Amis. He has gotten so close to the mark yet (if I may be permitted the metaphor mixture) missed by a mile.