The coming urban terror

John Robb on how small terrorist attacks can disrupt an entire system.

The networks of our global superinfrastructure are tightly “coupled”—so tightly interconnected, that is, that any change in one has a nearly instantaneous effect on the others. Attacking one network is like knocking over the first domino in a series: it leads to cascades of failure through a variety of connected networks, faster than human managers can respond.

(Sounds like the current credit crisis, doesn’t it? An seemingly minor number of subprime mortgages defaulted and that triggered the cascades of failure.)

But it’s not just terroist attacks like 9/11 that concern Robb, it’s the power of street gangs in cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where they are powerful enough to challenge the authorities for dominance. He doesn’t see nukes being used as weapons because they are too difficult to build and conceal.

The result of a nuclear explosion in Moscow or New York would very probably be the annihilation of the country that manufactured the bomb, once its identity was determined—as it surely would be, since no plot of that size can remain secret for long.

We live in an increasingly dangerous world, Robb says, and the best way to defend ourselves is to decentralize all our systems. This builds in redundancy, makes cascading failures less likely to happen, and has the happy consequence of increasing participation by everyone as well as building genuine democracy and freedom.

One comment

  1. We live in a time with two opposing trends: first, as you note here, our systems are very tightly coupled, and second, the state is, from its own actions, becoming both less effective and less relavent. It is entirely possible that a systems meltdown could occur as a result of a simple glitch in one system, without any effort from a terrorist. (Al-Queda had nothing to do with the sub-prime debacle.) In the absence of competent leadership, an absence that appears will be with us for some time to come barring a miracle in the next election, society is likely to become increasingly vulnerable to this dependence/unreliability paradox.

    As to decentralizing our systems, the state will oppose it because it makes the state even more irrelavent than it already is. But we can strengthn our communities to make them more resilient, and prepare our families to ensure confortable survival. This is an effort that must be done at the household and small group level, because our leaders will be of little help if any.

    I wonder, as we quote John Robb on this subject, what anyone is actually doing toward preparedness? Our household is working toward food and energy self-reliance while storing several months of necessities– including food for ourselves and our animals and, yes, ammo. It’s the sort of preparation you hope you’ll never need, yet, like life insurance, can we afford to be without it?

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