Saturday, February 22, 2003

With all the wonderful talk I've heard about emergent democracy around the blogosphere, something I read in Howard Bloom's Global Brain has been haunting me. Intergroup tournaments as one of the conditions for the constant improvement of emergent intelligence.

This brings us to emergent totalitarianism, or emergent terrorism. At first they may not seem susceptible to analysis as emergent phenomena, since by definition totalitarianism is a command system, and the greatest terrorist threat today demands obedience (at least nominally) to a strict and inflexible code of behavior. Yet many have noted how the decentralized network of Al Qaeda makes it difficult to cripple or destroy. This is not the first time they have been discussed as an emergent system, yet I think it's important to study their dynamics as deeply as possible if civilization is in a war to the death with them - we must know their strengths and weaknesses better than they know ours. And if we are truly to pit emergent system vs emergent system (rather than command vs emergent as the communists did economically) it must be at least in part us rather than our government who think about it.

Much of the leading edge thought on copyright and intellectual property has invoked the idea of a prestige economy as more appropriate then an exchance economy where there is no true scarcity. There are many advantages to a prestige economy, such as not having to worry as much about the free rider problem - if you lose nothing by giving prestige to the creator of a public good, then why not? This already plays a small part in our economy. People and corporations sometimes do things just for prestige without any attempt to collect payment, and sometimes the publicity is cost effective. Open source software is one example.

The most ominous and important example of a prestige economy I know is the reward for suicide terrorists. In Isreal the families of suicide bombers can reap financial rewards, but it is really more of a prestige phenomenon, since there is no chance of enforcing a contract. They merely count on the fact that rich hypocrites will pay these rewards in order to win acceptance of the community, and that acceptance is the coin of prestige. I don't believe any of the families of the Saudi terrorists involved in 9/11 even needed money. In some sense it was the prestige alone the suicide bombers wanted. Even if they had some warped belief they would go to paradise for mass murder, it was still the belief of the community that made that belief possible for them.

As an engine for finding weak points in our defenses, Al Qaeda seems formidable, although there is good hope that it will turn out to be less formidable than it seems at first. The only thing it has shown no potential for is to bring prosperity to those who believe in it. Imagine they nuked a few dozen major US cities and we were too busy internally to worry about anything outside our borders. Imagine there was a horrific ethnic cleansing of Isreal, and no Jews were left. Al Qaeda can't help anyone build a decent civilization. Telling people they will go to paradise for building a better factory that will help feed starving children even if they help their own children in the process doesn't have the right ring to it. Osama may have started the machinery, but he couldn't stop it even if he wanted to - the sort of people who listen to his type would just adopt a new figurehead. Meanwhile, they've done enerything they could to prevent people from learning the skills to participate in material prosperity. More thoughts about the emergent structure of Al Qaeda here.

It seems like we've developed the cutting edge emergent system for the creation of wealth, and they've developed one for death and destruction. It's not that simple, we're far from perfect. I've always been one of those who believes we should go the extra mile to figure out what we should have done better even if the other people don't, just because we're a democracy with free speech and we can. Maybe this is a time for being proud of what we've done - and thinking hard in case we need a new way to fight.

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