My uncharacteristic silence is a result of a lot of travel and having so many things going right with my projects that I hardly know where to start. I’ve also had a writer’s block on a rant regarding the nature of organizations in an open source economy. More on all that later.
The Futures of Terrorism
DARPA‘s on-again, off-again market for information on terrorism inspired an interesting blogalogue. Doc pushed back against it, attracting claims he was trashing something Clueful. From an intelligence standpoint, PAM, the Terror Market Bimbo, immediately howled out of existence, would have been a good idea if you believe in efficient markets having perfect knowledge. (Of course there is no such thing as perfect market knowledge, despite the brilliant people who have made a career selling the theory to amateurs hoping to beat experts at their own game.)
ENRON and WorldComm and their ilk suggest that terrorism would find better funding and planning if it had its own futures market. It would increase our predictive skills, and it would increase terrorist activity.
But that wasn’t the real reason PAM died at the box office. Every society has limits on what it conceives and the ideas it pursues. So we do not support public hangings or cane-lashings or stoning adulterers. Those things and millions of others are, literally, unthinkable to us, and it’s right for a society to not use tools and weapons it finds inconceivable.
Toward an Aesthetic Culture
Steve Jobs famously told Bill Gates that the problem with Microsoft is that they have no taste. Software is routinely released by MS that would be inconceivable at Apple, based on its appearance, its function and its bugginess. The two companies simply have different tastes in what’s acceptable. So it is with cultures.
Any student of cultural aesthetics would observe that ours has grown a lot uglier in the last two years. Winston Churchill or even Tony Blair would have forged a stronger society upon the anvil of our post-9/11 rage, grief, and world sympathy. Our illiterate leader and his opportunistic handlers have contrarily cheapened our demeanor and savaged our international reputation. Compared to the rest of the civilized world, this administration, literally, has no taste.
It’s absurd to wonder if we could somehow develop better cultural taste, and agree to look beyond our petty concerns and agree on a society more pleasing to the spirit. But a guy can dream…
It’s the Opportunism, Stupid
Politicians are naturally opportunistic, but at each point in the trajectory of a nation’s evolution, there are levels of opportunism that even they won’t sink to. For two centuries it was inconceivable that states would operate a numbers game because property owners prefer not to pay for proper schooling. Lottery income isn’t a fiscal necessity, it’s the product of a lack of the political leadership to lead people to pay for what’s important in an informed and civil society.
Since the phone tap was invented, it was literally inconceivable that the government would eavesdrop on your line without a warrant. That’s a nicety that evaporated when our TV culture got its high-profile WTC face slap.
Just as opportunists in state government couldn’t resist the siren call of lottery profits, so too was the big-gummint temptation too great for the opportunistic Ashcroft, Bush and Cheney. Like any government, they want to control our lives, ensure their power and shrink the opposition into oblivion. The odd thing is that they claim to be conservatives while violating the conservative aesthetic of small government, fiscal responsibility and avoiding foreign entanglements.
About that Face Slap
What if our 9/11 tragedy wasn’t? I hate to sound harsh about our losses, but has it occurred to anyone else that running airplanes into buildings might not have been the logistical masterstroke of the century?
I’m suggesting that there was an operational hole in our hijacking prevention system and that some passionate Arabs got lucky and managed to kill some of us. I’ve got about 2500 hours in a Boeing 707, and I’m sure that a couple hundred hours in Microsoft Simulator would be enough for the average person to switch off a 767 autopilot, turn left and crash into the Twin Towers. The fact that they did some actual flight training in a Cessna seems irrelevant.
There’s almost 300 million of us. On 9/11/01, those Arabs killed a little over .001% of us, fewer than die from smoking every week. Instead of panicking, we could have started locking cockpit doors, continued to keep guns off airplanes, and we’d have plugged that loophole.
Perhaps 9/11 was more spectacle than significant. Of course, there’s a war on terror, but we’re the foot soldiers in that war, and we should acknowledge that some of us are going to get hurt. It’s a war, fer chrissake! I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and as most of us know, the airport precautions are more charade than anything else. We all understand that we’re not significantly safer than we were before. Feeling safer is not the same as being safer.
What we might have done in the middle of September 2001, if tough-mindedness were part of our national makeup, would be to say,
That kind of thinking arises from my sense that we spend most of our lives flying into large mountains avoiding small bullets. I learned that lesson when I saw a guy do that very thing in Viet Nam, so clanked was he about the idea of someone shooting at him that he ignored the reality that airplanes and mountains are a bad combo.
Yeah, yeah, I know, we can’t dictate market forces. But if OPEC can, we can. Of course we’d only do that if we had confidence in the resilience of the American people and if national security were more important to us than oil company profits. Our homeland security problem is that the American Oil Industry benefits from artificially low prices as much as the Sheiks of Araby, as ex-CIA Mideast specialist Bob Baer points out in Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, cited today by Salon,“the real war we should be fighting is not in Baghdad.”
Small Minds, not Small Government
Maybe we got it wrong. We thought the Bushies were about small government, but perhaps it was only about their small mandate. Maybe they were fixated on what everyone seems to ignore: without extraordinary measures, they’re unlikely to get more votes than last time. The opportunity the Bin Laden family handed the Bush family was to paralyze our culture so ordinary electoral logic would not apply.
These cynical points have been made by smarter people than I. I’m just riffing on the role of our cultural aesthetic and high tolerance of cynicism. The political cynicism we’re seeing is related to the cynicism of public companies and TV evangelists and the media. Our cultural taste no longer reflects the high personal values most of us hold, regardless of our politics. Instead, we’re gripped by the opportunistic economic aesthetics of large groups, where anything goes as long as it increases stock values or electoral votes or collection plate revenues.