Friday, December 5, 2008

Society's Future Immune System: Technology

Armed with nothing but standard black-market weapons and consumer electronics, a small group of dedicated attackers was recently able to shut down Mumbai, India, for several days. And, disturbingly, there's little reason to think the same thing couldn't happen in an American city.

Civilian police forces aren't trained or equipped to deal with such brazen commando-style raids, and trying to change that would be pointless. There simply aren't enough resources available to militarize our cities to that extent. Not to mention that doing so could have dire long-term consequences for civil liberties and democracy.

So what should we do instead? The best place to start is to look at what happened in Mumbai.

Long before the Indian authorities had any idea what was happening, average citizens stepped up and worked to save hundreds of lives. One man, working in a train station that was attacked, saw a way for many of the people there to escape through an exit at the opposite end of the station from where the gunmen had entered. Rather than fleeing immediately, this man risked his own life to get on the station's loudspeakers and tell the frightened crowd where to go. Also, in one of the hotels that came under siege, the staff shepherded numerous guests to safety through a series of service corridors and rooms only they knew about.

The Mumbai attack also decisively proved the usefulness of social media in disbursing vital information efficiently. Just as modest service employees were able to act more quickly and possibly save more lives than trained security forces, citizen journalists were able to get the word out much faster than the mainstream media. As the assault on the city was unfolding, people there and around the world could follow the latest developments in real time on Twitter, a micro-blogging service that allows people to send and receive short messages on their cell phones or computers. The wire services that used to break news were left in the dust.

Importantly, all of these amazing organic responses to the horror in Mumbai happened without any planning whatsoever. This is key, because being able to respond dynamically to unexpected threats is the only effective way to minimize the harm potentially unpredictable attacks can cause.

As technology continues to become simultaneously more powerful, cheaper, and easier to use, radical groups are going to be able to pull off increasingly destructive strikes. Electronics such as satellite phones and GPS units allowed the 10 or so men who brought Mumbai to its knees to coordinate with each other more effectively than even elite militaries could until quite recently. And given the rapid advances in desktop manufacturing, within the next decade or two, malevolent individuals will likely be able to produce deadly weapons such as automatic firearms and explosives for themselves using abundantly available materials.

Rather than faithfully entrusting our collective security to increasingly outdated bureaucracies that process information and act too slowly to respond effectively to rapidly emerging new threats, our society must focus on becoming more connected, flexible, and resilient.

Thankfully, technology's relentless advance provides us with just as many tools for good as for ill. For example, cell phones and other mobile devices provide the perfect infrastructure to build on. Soon, it will be technically and economically feasible to integrate sensors into such devices that could detect radiation, dangerous chemicals, and other hazards. Combined with a system that would allow people to share information such as the locations and activities of armed attackers with law enforcement as well as each other, such a network of smart devices could act like a city's immune system. As soon as harmful intruders are detected, information about what they are doing and where they are going could quickly be disseminated throughout the entire population. This would allow people to be sufficiently informed to get out of harm's way even in the heat of a chaotic and unexpected crisis.

No matter what, extremists who desire to sow widespread panic and destruction will keep using cutting-edge technology to achieve their goals. Governments around the world need to embrace that same technology in order to facilitate more dynamic responses to such aggressive actions. And if they fail to do so, private citizens will need to come together and do it for ourselves.

(Cross-posted at the DI's main site.)

Those who find these ideas interesting would probably also want to check out these sites, from which I obtained much of the background information for this column:
- Global Guerrillas
- Wired: Danger Room
- Wired: Threat Level
- Responsible Nanotechnology
- Kurzweil AI
- The FASTforward Blog

1 comment:

taco said...

"Electronics such as satellite phones and GPS units allowed the 10 or so men who brought Mumbai to its knees to coordinate with each other more effectively than even elite militaries could until quite recently."

Because that's how an elite military unit operates? The technology is just so cheap and prevalent now that you don't have to work for the CIA to get it.

Twenty years ago society was obsessed with the idea that government was watching. As audio, visual, communications and GPS tech have advanced since the Cold War (we call it the camera phone) the real truth has come to light: We're all watching eachother.