The Magazine

Unthinkable Thoughts

A strategist asks, Where is technology leading us?

Feb 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 23 • By ERIC COHEN
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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.