The Magazine

Unthinkable Thoughts

A strategist asks, Where is technology leading us?

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By ERIC COHEN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Annihilation from Within

The Ultimate Threat to Nations

by Fred Charles Iklé

Columbia, 142 pp., $24.50

Fear and trembling about the dark side of modern technology have been with us for centuries--from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World to J. Robert Oppenheimer's atomic remorse.

Technology is power, and power is dangerous. The arts of biology that allow us to conquer disease also allow us to manufacture deadly plagues and engage in eugenics. The mastery of nature's elements that makes modern life possible also leaves modern civilization imperiled. Without technology, man is impotent, and only a fool would romanticize the age when mothers and children died regularly in childbirth, when keeping warm and staying fed were life's central struggles, and when sending an email required actually sitting at a computer. Yet it is also hard to imagine how man's technological story can end well, at least in those temples of advanced civilization like London and New York that are also the most obvious targets for high-tech attacks.

Fred Iklé's new book is a sobering exploration of the perils of progress. "The history of the human race is a saga with many sad endings," he writes. "But new Great Destroyers are now arriving on stage--the spread of mass destruction weapons beyond national control, and technologies that can invade the sanctuary of the human mind."

Like a Greek tragedy in the making, technology has a relentless logic we cannot easily stop. And the more it shatters our hope in history's forward direction, the more fertile the ground for other-worldly fundamentalisms that worship death as an answer to life, and that employ modern weapons to destroy modern civilization.

To describe the origins of our technological predicament, Iklé adopts a fairly simple framework, what he calls "mankind's cultural split." Some 250 years ago, modern science broke off from religion and politics; the desire to explore and master nature's workings became an autonomous enterprise, ungoverned and ungovernable by the social orders in which science itself flourished.

This great divide served many legitimate human purposes: Once helpless in the face of nature's malignancies, technological man asserted himself with vaccines and electricity and the marvels of modern engineering.

Yet mankind's cultural split also had ominous consequences. Men's loyalties were divided between the restraining traditions of the religious past that gave life meaning and the liberating powers of progress that made life better. Even worse, the "ceaseless momentum of science" took on a life of its own. In trying to master nature to relieve man's estate, modern science also arms wicked men with nature's power. Meanwhile, our success at technological self-improvement tempts us to believe that genetic engineering, embryo research, and memory-altering drugs can perfect human life by human will. The science that liberates is also the science that dehumanizes and destroys.

While generally correct and useful enough, Iklé's neat framework oversimplifies the complex relationship between science, religion, and politics. Science emerged, in part, to answer the very fear of death that has long turned men to God. And science now serves, or might serve, the radical theology of radical Islam, by providing the means for destroying the West and ushering in the golden age of the Muslim God.

Moreover, as a historical matter, Iklé never explains what happened 250 years ago and why; the severing of modern science from both religion and philosophy actually goes back to Bacon and Descartes in the early 1600s. Their masterworks, like the New Atlantis (1626) and Discourse on Method (1637), are the key to understanding the origins, spirit, and tragedy of modern technology. Yet Iklé never even mentions them.

The focus of the book, however, is not theoretical but practical; not backward-looking to the origins of modern science but forward-looking to life in a world transformed by the dark side of modern technology. According to Iklé, the veteran nuclear strategist who served as the number two to Caspar Weinberger, "annihilation from within" threatens man from two directions, recalling Robert Frost's macabre poem about whether we should prefer the world to end in fire or in ice.

The first threat is the perversion of human life via biotechnology--by merging our minds with machines in the quest for "super-intelligence" and by extending the human lifespan in a way that destroys the soul-shaping rhythms of the human life cycle. The second threat is a nuclear or biological attack that turns liberal democracies into tyrannies, and shatters modernity forever with the permanent specter of mass death.

It is this latter threat that largely preoccupies Iklé, and he lays out, in detail, how such a nuclear takeover might happen: A home-grown cult akin to Japan's Aum Shinrikyo could manufacture a nuclear bomb, destroy a nation's capital, and capitalize on the chaos to take power. While we are all rightly worried about radical Islam, says Iklé, this is not our only, or even our most dangerous, enemy.

Iklé's book is elegantly written, and one ought to admire his sober willingness to confront the dark side of progress without false hope or debilitating despair. He alternates skillfully between the tragedian describing what cannot be stopped and the policy analyst counseling those actions that might prevent total annihilation--including a Manhattan-style project to develop sensors that detect nuclear bombs, better laws to ensure the continuity of the U.S. government after a nuclear attack, and a revamped strategy for mobilizing the industrial sector during a national emergency.

The book ends with a poetic homage to America, written as if by a living witness to a nation under siege, with millions dead and whole cities already burned to the ground, appealing again to the "mystic chords of memory" that alone might sustain us on the precipice between survival and oblivion.

But the book also rings many false notes, rooted in the analyst's temptation to make his own particular realms of expertise seem like the most important ones. For example, Iklé downplays threats from Iran and North Korea, believing the greatest danger to America and other democracies are local anarchists who may steal or make weapons of mass destruction. Yet he offers little compelling analysis of who these resident bandits might be, and what ideology might move them to annihilate America from within (short of a throwaway line about the mortal dangers posed by alienated Hispanic immigrants).

And when it comes to the dangers of man's merger with machines, it is hard to tell just what worries Iklé: the inherent dehumanization of becoming a cyborg, or the fear that our unscrupulous enemies will become cyborgs before we do. Indeed, he seems to believe that such hybrid super-intelligent beings would give any nation that possessed them (or became them) a strategic advantage. Think China ruled by a transhumanist think tank.

Needless to say, this seems not only unlikely, given the primitive state of brain-machine science, but also inherently wrong: Neither the cleverness and ruthlessness required to become a dictator, nor the prudence and courage required to be a great statesman, seem improvable by merging with a computer.

But in the end, Iklé's book is a much-needed invitation to reflection about the tragedy of technology--how the powers we have made may come back to destroy us, how the quest for self-improvement may only lead to self-degradation, and how the need to defend ourselves against ruthless enemies may require that we become so ruthless ourselves that eternity can only judge us harshly for doing what is necessary.

In the age of stem cells and suicide bombers, hybrid cars and hydrogen bombs, we live on the precipice between perfection and destruction, expecting endless life and imminent disaster simultaneously. Staying sane in such an age--politically, morally, and humanly--is no easy task. Which explains why the pacifying drug "soma" seemed so appealing to the denizens of Huxley's brave new world: "What's the point of truth or beauty or knowledge when the anthrax bombs are popping all around you? . . . People were ready to have their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life."

Eric Cohen is editor at large of the New Atlantis.