~e; Wired Magazine : Divided We Stand

From bc <human@electronetwork.org>
Date Wed, 21 Nov 2001 10:26:22 -0600
Cc oliver@dial.pipex.com

  [about the positives of a decentralized infrastructure, including 
energy, health,
  and transport. odd thing is, studies have shown the US highway system would be
  clogged with cars in traffic jams during an emergency evacuation, 
and thus this
  one civil defense measure is moot. interesting to see these ideas 
mentioned, as
  they are not even on the economic-political table for Homeland Defense, which
  is regretable and a disservice to the civilian population. there is 
an illusion of
  security now shattered. to pretend that building more and more centralized
  facilities for short term interests is in the peoples best interest, 
as it keeps
  the economy running as is, is a fatal strategic mistake. the time is now for
  massive chance and transformation of the industrial order to proactively deal
  with vulnerabilities, both to human safety, and also constitutional safety, as
  one can have a decentralized medical warning system, but without a decentral-
  ized energy infrastructure, the vaccine-making machines, the computers, the
  buildings would be uanble to operate. as energy is the foundation for systems
  using this energy, as are roads and rail petrol and electrically 
propelled. may
  someone in both military (security) and government be working on such vital
  and necessary changes, against all odds. it is well past due, and 
the opportunity
  does not come twice, but the catastrophes are predictable. it is time to talk
  about these issues of decentralization rather than continue to ignore them.]

  From the Dec  issue of Wired Magazine, available online at:

  [fair-use.edu, ~e.org]

Feature Divided We Stand

When war comes home, so must war strategy. Lesson one: Disperse
vulnerabilities - which means breaking up everything from the energy
industry to air travel to, yes, operating systems.

By Oliver Morton

It's a pretty good rule of military thumb that the greater the
concentration of value, the more attractive the target. If you have
all your fuel, or all your tanks, or all your intelligence-gathering
capability in one place, then that's the place the enemy wants to hit.
To keep things safe, you need to spread things out.

Guerrillas have understood this for centuries, arranging themselves in
a network that minimizes the concentration of value as much as
possible and makes the remaining concentrations hard to see. Terrorist
cells operate on a similar principle. Increasingly, so does the
regular military; much of the use of new technology by the US armed
forces is intended to make it easier to coordinate dispersed assets.
This is because warriors are used to seeing the systems they are part
of as targets. The rest of us, until recently, were not.

As targets on the battlefield grow increasingly diffuse, it becomes
all too clear that value elsewhere is still concentrated in the most
terrible way. A town's worth of people becomes a single target if you
put them in one great big building. And physical crowding is not the
only way to amass something into a valuable target. It's not even the
most worrisome. Creating targets with what we might call a
concentration of consequence can be just as risky. If a city's water
supply relies on a single river, or if all of its electricity comes
from a grid that can be brought down at a single switching station,
then there is a concentration of consequence in the river or the grid,
and that makes them high-value targets.

The concentrations of assets and people that make valuable targets are
to some extent unavoidable. Until recently, coming together in a
single place was the only way people could enrich the textures of
their lives, and that's not a freedom you want to give up. Mao saw
China's peasantry as a form of defense through distribution that made
the country indomitable, since an attack that destroyed all of China's
cities would leave most of its people initially unscathed. But most
people, given the choice, don't want to live as peasants. The urban
thrill of connectivity has been one of the driving forces of
civilization more or less since people started to notice that a civis
was an exciting place to live.

Concentrations of consequence, though, are not a necessary element of
civilized life. They come about not because of the nature of the world
or the fundamental needs of humanity, but because they have some sort
of economic or political appeal. The vulnerabilities they entail
persist because they are either underappreciated or not understood at
all. If civilization is going to come under attack - not just by
Islamic extremists, but by any number of other groups or even
individuals who fail to see its merits and wish to destroy or cripple
it - then those vulnerabilities need to be addressed.

Protecting particularly vulnerable targets is one answer. But a more
radical response is to look for changes to the infrastructure itself,
changes that more evenly spread out the risks and consequences of
failure. Defense requires distribution, and military strategists are
increasingly looking to technology to provide it. We should look for
similar help at home. The development of distributed systems
throughout the national infrastructure should be seen as a priority by
all the countries of the world.

Take energy. A nuclear power plant represents an almost unthinkable
degree of concentrated vulnerability. Nuclear plants can be well
engineered, but they cannot be made immune to all forms of attack, nor
can they normally be stopped from producing plutonium. If there's an
alternative, it has to be worth pursuing. And there is an alternative:
a lot more small generators, and a much more robust grid to hold them

A wind farm, for instance, represents a challenge that may be beyond
the most brilliant terrorist. The energy source is diffuse; the fuel
isn't toxic or flammable. There tend to be few people in the immediate
vicinity. And the energy from a single wind farm never represents a
vital, unmissable resource. Similar arguments apply to solar cells and
to distributed hydroelectric power, with high tech waterwheels along
the course of a river replacing a single big dam across it. (As the
Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron demonstrated in 1943, the way dams
concentrate value and consequence makes them particularly appealing
military or terrorist targets.)

Yes, to replace a significant number of the West's nuclear power
plants (let alone the big oil- and gas-fired plants, which, though
less hazardous to the public at large, still represent highly valuable
targets) you would need a great many wind farms, solar cells, and
other low-density installations. But that's the point; a greater
number of small systems is inherently safer, as is a diversity of
supply. Basing your whole economy on the import of petroleum products
from the least stable part of the world is a really serious
concentration of consequence.

The widespread adoption of hydrogen fuel cells as part of a
decentralized energy infrastructure would be a further means to the
same end. Hydrogen is a way of storing energy and thus increasing the
period during which supply and demand may be matched; it's a way of
distributing energy generation through time as well as space.

Another example is air travel, where ever larger aircraft serve ever
larger hubs. Author James Fallows has recently argued for an
alternative vision of air travel, one that involves more, smaller
aircraft flying in and out of more, smaller airfields. Fallows doesn't
argue for this on the basis of infrastructure security, but he could.
Smaller aircraft are smaller potential missiles. More airports means
less reliance on superhubs like O'Hare and Atlanta, which, given
terrorism's long-standing infatuation with air travel, have to be seen
as tempting concentrations of targets.

Small aircraft can't do everything that large aircraft can do, but
they don't have to. What's important is that the addition of small
aircraft to our skies is a good way to increase diversity and, as a
result, get the benefits of a more distributed system. In many ways,
diversity is just another sort of distribution; building it into your
system is really just a way of spreading your assets across the realm
of technical possibilities. So to redistribute travel in a less
concentrated way, you don't just want to move people from big airports
and big aircraft onto smaller ones; you also want to diversify the
total mix of traveler miles by making increased use of systems beyond

In America, the obviously underutilized modality for passenger
transport is rail. Elsewhere in the developed world, high-speed trains
are increasingly competitive for leisure and business travel in the
300-mile range; in the US, with two partial exceptions, there are no
high-speed train lines. Well-implemented high-speed links such as
those under discussion in Florida, between the main cities of Texas
and Oklahoma, and in the region between Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit,
and St. Louis could add a lot of redundancy to a transport
infrastructure that currently concentrates passengers on aircraft and
in airports. Trains are potential terrorist targets, too, but it's
very hard to use one as a missile.

The most famously distributed piece of infrastructure could use a
little more diversity, as well. Though the Internet was not, in fact,
"designed to withstand a nuclear attack," it was designed to be highly
robust. So it has proven, by and large. But its robustness is severely
diminished by the fact that so many of the computers linked to it are
running the same highly vulnerable software. Looked at in this way,
Microsoft's monopolistic practices are not just an antitrust issue;
they're a serious national, even international, security issue.

If computer viruses and worms shouldn't have their quasilives made too
easy by an absurdly homogenous host population, neither should
real-life viruses. High-intensity monoculture farming is vulnerable
enough to diseases that come along naturally; a well-chosen or
cleverly tailored infection delivered on purpose could wreak havoc.
Concentrate your food supply on a few highly profitable agricultural
genotypes, and you create some very high-value targets indeed.
Diversify the food production process, and you make the system more
robust and reliable.

Corporations like concentrations of capital. Politicians like
concentrations of power. "How can anyone govern a nation that has 246
kinds of cheese?" de Gaulle once asked.

For biological attacks against humans rather than livestock or
cereals, the arguments are a little different. Contagion makes viruses
and bacteria fundamentally unlike other weapons. A biological attack,
gaining new targets as it goes on, has no need to seek out
concentration; it can be diffuse in its essence, its impact building
up over time. There is no way to design around such a risk. But there
are ways to lessen its potential impact, and one is to become aware of
what is going on as quickly as possible. According to studies by the
CDC, in the case of an attack using tularemia (a disease, normally
spread by insects, that can be dispersed in the air), starting
treatments on the day after the attack reduces the death toll by a
factor of three; reacting on the fifth or sixth day has basically no

This sort of fast response is another defense that a distributed
infrastructure can help provide. To detect an attack quickly requires
a nimble, well-distributed public health information system, one that
can pick small epidemiological changes out of the noise. The
Internet-based Rapid Syndrome Validation Project led by Los Alamos and
Sandia National Laboratories shows some of what such a system might
achieve. RSVP will use a neural-net system or traditional statistical
analysis to see whether reports of symptoms from emergency rooms are
revealing unusual patterns of disease. Such systems could provide
warning of an attack much faster than would the current system of
disease notification, which in the US involves diseases being reported
at the state and then federal level in a centralized process that
takes weeks. Besides speed, such systems would allow better coverage
of outbreaks in other countries, a basic requirement for any
biowarfare early warning system. As Christopher Chyba of Stanford's
Center for International Security and Cooperation points out, any
attack using an agent with an incubation time significantly longer
than an international flight is not going to respect borders.

Other aspects of the response can be distributed through time.
Stockpiles of vaccines and antibiotics need to be built up and made
available at a range of locations in a range of countries. Another
distributed response to biological attack is partial immunity. There
are already vaccines against most plausible bioweapon agents. If a
small percentage of health workers - and indeed of the population at
large - were to choose to be vaccinated against one or some of these
diseases, then a reservoir of manpower would always be on hand in an
emergency, ready to help with the vaccination of others or to do
whatever else was necessary in places where infection was rife. You
can't vaccinate everyone against everything; but if some people are
vaccinated against most things and you know where to find them, their
distributed immunity could be a powerful asset.

These ideas share two problems: One is finding someone to champion
them; the other is dealing with the costs. Distribution and diversity
require champions, and there are good reasons to expect people in
power, by and large, to be reluctant to take on that role. Large
corporations like concentrations of capital and market share; they
have a great taste for economies of scale. Politicians like
concentrations of power and have a love for order (or perhaps a fear
of division) that leads many to distrust diversity. "How can anyone
govern a nation that has 246 kinds of cheese?" Charles de Gaulle is
said to have cried out in despair.

Sorting out a means by which governments might encourage the sort of
changes I'm talking about would be hard even if there were no costs
involved. And there will be costs. Distributing and diversifying may,
in many cases, mean introducing some waste into the system. This waste
is unavoidable; indeed, it will often be the very thing that provides
the resilience that the system needs. But the savings involved in
reducing vulnerability to attack, though real, will in all likelihood
not show up in the bookkeeping. The costs will. This means that making
changes will in some cases involve subsidies. To those opposed to any
governmental involvement in the workings of the economy (other than,
presumably, a willingness to defend its works, even if they are
indefensible), this will never be acceptable. Grover Norquist, that
nice man in charge of Americans for Tax Reform, has been quoted as
saying that advocates of new money for Amtrak in the post-Twin Towers
world "should be hanged as war profiteers."

In reply to these points there are principles, precedents, and
potential profits. In times of war, individual citizens are expected
to do their bit for national - or international - security. Surely the
enterprises responsible for crucial concentrations of value and
consequence should be expected to do the same. The status quo is
making developed countries, and particularly the US, harder to defend.
That must constitute a case for change. In a climate where serious
curtailments of civil liberties are being suggested and debated, is it
really out of line to ask that vital infrastructure be shaped by
something other than market forces and institutional inertia?

In terms of precedents, look no further than your nearest interstate.
The 43,000 miles of the interstate highway system (a mile for each
window in the Twin Towers) represent a defining piece of American
infrastructure. They were built by the government with something like
$250 billion (in today's dollars) raised through taxes dedicated to
the purpose. Part of the justification for this was economic:
Eisenhower wanted to generate a lot of employment after the Korean
War. And another part was military: The interstates, it was said, were
a way to move armies across the country quickly and to get people out
of cities threatened by nuclear attack. They were a means by which to
undo concentrations of value. To this day, the road network is
officially called the System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

If arguments over national defense could reshape America's
infrastructure in the 1950s, why not again? The parallels aren't
perfect, but they are suggestive. The interstates were conceived long
before the military rhetoric that surrounded their creation took form;
the same is true of today's ideas for reengineering the
infrastructure. There's the possibility that a serious recession might
bring out a surge of latent Keynesianism. And then there's the fact
that, as with the interstates, the military reasons for more
distributed infrastructure are only part of the argument. It's a
general truth that the systems history locks us into are not
necessarily the best, and that economic forces on their own will not
necessarily sort out such problems. There are strong environmental
cases for investment in micropower, renewables, and the transition to
a hydrogen economy. A less virus-prone Internet and less congested
airports would have benefits beyond defense. A better international
public health information system - a far cheaper proposition than a
new energy infrastructure - would have huge advantages on its own
terms for all the countries concerned, not least because of the
message it could send about global priorities.

There's also an important difference, though, between the
possibilities open today and the birth of the interstates. According
to Bruce Seely, a historian at the National Science Foundation, the
military arguments for the interstate system - even if they were
enshrined in its name - were mostly rhetorical; the forces driving the
decision within and beyond government were not defense-related. And
the interstates were never put to their "military" use as conduits for
Cold War evacuations. This time around, it may be that, at least in
some cases, the military arguments do stand up, and the military
objectives - avoiding catastrophic attacks by removing targets of
concentrated consequence - might be met. The infrastructure of the
developed world has real weaknesses that could be mitigated by new
approaches and fresh thinking. Distributed defense could save the
lives of a lot of people. And improved infrastructure could make those
lives better, too.


Contributing editor Oliver Morton (oliver@dial.pipex.com) wrote about
IBM's petaflop computer in Wired 9.07.

Copyright (C) 1993-99 The Conde Nast Publications Inc. All rights reserved.

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