Terrorism as Virus

I wrote this back in 2009, based on some work I did on the notion of cultural “contagion” in 1994. It’s actually a rewrite of something I wrote right after 9-11. I was trying to get someone (anyone) in the State Department to accept the emergence of new non-linear forms of communication, and come to understand how they depend on immune deficiencies in the target population. Just consider the difference between a Manson, whose commands to followers depended on his in-person charisma, and today’s terror cults who are capable of inciting activity entirely memetically through social media.

What I wrote below (I’m pretty sure it was for Daily Beast) is now common knowledge, I think. I’ll be interested to see what Obama says about all this tonight.

Fighting the Terrorist Virus

As we watch our grandmothers drop toothpaste tubes into Transportation Security Administration trash bins before boarding planes this holiday season, we might reflect on whether something is wrong with our current model of national security. It doesn’t take a military expert to see that a strategy of spot-checking for dangerous fluids or scanning international phone calls is a losing battle against a foe that can pop up literally anywhere.

Could it be that the approach to intelligence we adopted for past wars is no longer appropriate for combating the newer threat of terrorism? For terrorism isn’t so much an act of war as it is a virus—a very contagious set of destructive commands. It depends on our highly networked “media space” for its transmission and exploits our society’s immune deficiencies in order to find candidates to carry out its orders. This is a new phenomenon and one we must understand if we are to mount an effective resistance. Before terrorism, war was conducted mostly through the principle of “command and control.” Generals issued orders for troop movements just as artillery sergeants specified target coordinates to gunners. Military intelligence meant intercepting the enemy chain of command. That’s why so much energy was expended in World War II on breaking the Germans’ secret codes. The allies needed to know where the Nazis intended to strike.

Norbert Wiener, a mathematician who worked for the U.S. Army in WWII, realized that war—and society itself—was growing too complex to be analyzed purely under these rules. Back in 1948 he invented the term “cybernetics” to describe a much more complex range of communication. Biologists had already observed this interaction in living systems—a coral reef whose millions of tightly networked members could communicate data about weather over hundreds of miles and a slime mold whose millions of member cells, spread out over acres, could coalesce and take organized action for survival at a moment’s notice.
What makes these systems so different from the relationship between a general and his troops is the existence of feedback. Instead of just taking commands, each member of a networked organism can report back to the whole collective. Wiener believed that the proliferation of media and technology could make human society as cybernetic as any networked organism. Enabled by the media—from phones to blogs to podcasts—we have gained the capacity to generate feedback, and as a result our ideas are exchanged more organically, rapidly, unpredictably, and—most important—uncontrollably than ever before.

Back in the early 1990s, for example, the massive spread of the infamous Rodney King videotape inspired me to come up with the term “media virus.” The image was so powerful (white cops beating up a black man) and the medium so new (camcorders were still a relative novelty) that the video shot around the world overnight, leading to massive feedback: urban rioting in a dozen American cities. Why? Because our immune response to its content had been repressed through our inability to engage in constructive public discourse about issues of race relations and police brutality. Biological viruses spread when they can find hiding places in their host’s DNA. They stow away in the more confused portions of our genetic code. Likewise, media viruses nest in the confused portions of our cultural code. They find the regions of our collective mind-set where honest, open conversations aren’t being held. It’s the lack of constructive conversation—about the West’s relationship with Islam, our own Arab citizens, and the human suffering we might permit in the Middle East to feed our oil addiction—that remains charged beneath the surface, waiting for detonation. This is why the media space that we’d ordinarily assume would promote open and honest exchanges among people may actually serve the opposite function. Terrorism itself may be a cybernetic system’s uncontrolled feedback response to an unarticulated crisis.

To thwart this, we must stop asking who is giving the orders and how can we intercept them. Between bloggers, consumer researchers, YouTube, and MySpace, it’s hard to tell who is broadcasting what to whom. And it doesn’t matter. We must instead explore what makes certain individuals—our own citizens in most cases—so vulnerable to infection in the first place. I suggest we begin by promoting healthier forms of feedback through the very same media that are now transmitting such destructive behavioral codes. We can’t counter the bottom-up terrorism bug with top-down public relations. We must spend less effort constructing false, politically motivated images of America, its leaders, and their intentions. These only feed the cognitive dissonance—the confusion—of those whose real experience tells them a very different story, making them more likely to imitate the violent forms of feedback they are already witnessing on the news or over the Internet.

Rather, we must begin the hard journey toward honest conversation and a long-delayed reconciliation with the facts of history. Ironically, intelligence in a cybernetic age will be conducted not by intercepting or blocking messages, but by fostering them.