(This essay was originally published in November, 2001)
I’ve been slow to write about the events that changed the world on September 11, 2001, primarily because it was hard to find words to describe my shock and dismay. Yet, I have been reading and thinking about the words of other observers, and especially two interesting pieces published in Forbes Magazine.
One was written by a man historically recognized as having relevant opinions in the area of national defense, Casper Weinberger, Secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration. The other was written by Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes.
In my opinion, Weinberger’s column was stale and lacked some of the critical insight needed to move forward. On the other hand, Karlgaard’s was one of the few brilliant pieces on the horrific terrorist events, suggesting that we view Osama Bin Laden as a venture capitalist of mass murder and global terror. I recommend that you read Karlgaard’s article.
How Fundamentalism Seeks to Slow Progress
Although no trial has yet taken place, the evidence in the media shows that the September acts of terror were committed by radical religious fundamentalists. My observations about this are:
- Fundamentalism, in its broadest sense, is a negative reaction to changes, both perceived and real
- Fundamentalism is grounded in the belief that things were simpler, holier, and somehow better in previous times
- Fundamentalism strengthens its hold on its adherents in times of social inequity
- Fundamentalism should not be associated solely with any one religious community. Each of the world’s great religions have experienced periods of terrific technical innovation along with a natural resistance to the accompanying changes
- Reducing fundamentalism in one part of the world will not stop terrorism in other places. Religion is a fertile ground where a longing for the past and a desire for less change are easy to preach.
The terror attacks of September were precipitated by a fanatical resistance to the natural tides of scientific change. These are the same tides responsible for all human progress and social evolution, and thus the long-term prospects for the terrorists’ efforts would seem to be quite futile.
One more article to read here is by Dinesh D’Souza, who concludes (and he speaks for all of us in technology), “We are under assault because of the kind of people we are…”. You can read this article in the December 2001 issue of Red Herring Magazine. It is not published on the Web currently. Innovation creates enemies even as it solves problems in the world. D’Souza’s book The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence is worth reading.
A Brief History of Scientific Innovation
Here is a brief, personal 2,000-year historical view of scientific revolutions and technological change.
The first well-documented scientific revolution occurred a little over 2,000 years ago. It began about 500 BC with the golden age of Greece, and ended with the fall of the Roman Empire around 300 AD, lasting about 800 years. Change took longer in the days before newspapers, post offices, radio, television and email. Many men contributed to the knowledge of this time but some of the giants were Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, Euclid and Archimedes. As in every scientific revolution, the science came first and the engineering followed. The advances were most prominent in architecture (arch based structures), weapons of war (steel), and hygiene (wider access to pure water for bathing).
The next revolution occurred between 1450 and 1650 AD. The contributors were Copernicus, Tycho, Descarte, Galileo and above them all, Newton. This time, it took only 200 years to fill in the major details. For the first time, a scientific view of the world and the strict interplay of theory and observation-verified evidence were demonstrated. This revolution was driven by “experimental scientists,” those who made careful measurements and published their findings. Mathematics, physics, astronomy, optics and chemistry were subjected to major changes in their structures during this time. Substantial engineering marvels flowed from these times and thus we call this the Industrial Revolution. The ultimate fruits of this science also included automobiles, steam ships and airplanes. Engineering results always lag behind scientific advancements so that new ideas have time to be understood and made practical.
The next scientific revolution occurred during a 50-year period between 1880 and 1930. The contributors were Einstein, Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, Curie, Schrodinger, Hilbert, Hubble and Godel. Astronomy, mathematics, physics, quantum mechanics and relativity received new foundations. The engineering improvements that came from this period included nuclear reactors and atomic bombs, television and fiber optics, silicon chips and computers, vaccines and antibiotics. You can read further about any of the names above by using Wikipedia.
As we begin the year 2002, we are nearing the end of yet another scientific revolution. Its roots are less associated with famous names and more with technologies and advancements that have yet to be fully absorbed. Because we are so close to these unfolding developments, it is difficult for us to see this revolution from a broad perspective. The elements of this revolution include microbiology and the mapping of the human genome, the scale and wide pervasiveness of computing and advanced broadband networking. This period is centered around 1995 and I believe will have a total duration of 12 years or so.
The Rhythm of Scientific Innovation
Let’s look at a macro view of the four periods of scientific revolutions that I’ve discussed above. The following graph plots these four scientific periods in terms of their position in time, their overall length and the magnitude of their impact on an average human life.
You can see that the frequency of these events accelerates. The time gaps between them grow smaller and smaller. This shows how our scientific and technical infrastructure is accelerating at an exponential rate. The first two scientific revolutions are separated by 1,600 years. The next ones come in 400 years and then 100 years. The time period between revolutions is shortened by four times with each new cycle.
Also note that the length of the each period of innovative change is shorter than its predecessor by a factor of four. The Greco/Roman event is 800 years long, the science of the Renaissance spans 200 years, quantum mechanics and relativity evolve over 50 years, and the current period unfolds over a mere 12-15 years.
Notably, the impact on individual human lives grows with each new revolution.
The importance of Euclid’s geometry and the Copernican view of the solar system were not directly important to average men and women of that time. The relevance of the science of nuclear physics took only a few decades to impact many more individuals, and the impact of computing and networking has taken only a few years to enable you to instantly access and read this column via the Internet.
Please take a closer look at the graph and count the periods of scientific revolution once again. Note that there are five spikes on the chart, including two spaced very close together on the right side. This is because I believe the next event is coming in less than 20 years from now. It will last only five years and its impact will be exponentially greater than before, perhaps led by advancements in biological science rather than physics or mathematics.
The Relationships Between Science, Technology and Fear
Let’s get back to religious fundamentalism and the September 2001 attack on America.
Rapid changes in science and technological advances scare the daylights out of those who do not participate. Ironically, on September 11, the radical fundamentalists who opposed global change employed the very technology it produces to express their objections. The Internet, cell phones, world financial networks and aerospace simulation technologies were among the tools the terrorists used to make a statement our generation will never forget.
The march of science and technology cannot be halted. Its dispersal throughout the world is too broad. If you attempt to limit it here or elsewhere, it will drive on. So we had better try to make its benefits understood by as many people around the earth.
When revolutionary ideas from the previous cycle of scientific advancements produce new technologies and they become widely dispersed, those who are skilled in their use gain a substantial advantage. This is how the 911 terrorists were able to use flight simulators and jetliners as weapons, and it’s how the west uses its technical resources to dominate the world’s agenda.
We in the west can extrapolate, compute, simulate, consume, build, transport and expand economically much faster than those portions of the world where new technologies are not as widely available. The result of this is fear among those who possess fewer resources. It’s a fear that grows out of a misunderstanding of how scientific advances are possible, and a fear that something truly unfair may be happening.
Gates to Economic Prosperity
I have worked in the field of communications science and engineering for about 20 years. During this time, the communications capacity on an optical fiber has increased from about 10 Mb/s (million bits per second) to nearly 10 Tb/s (trillions bits per second). This is an increase in capability of about 1,000,000 times.
It’s possible that Finisar sold more communications bandwidth in four weeks during December 2000 than all of the communications bandwidth that the planet possessed just 10 years ago. For the record, Finisar sold about 150 Terabits (Tb/s) or 0.15 Pb/s per second of transceiver-based bandwidth in that month. Pb/s stands for Petabits (1,000,000,000,000,000 bits) per second — a word that will one day become a common part of the business world’s vocabulary.
Just 10 Mb/s of bandwidth may equal the communications capacity of the entire country of Afghanistan. How can we not expect people to fear change when the technology gap widens by such a massive amount over a short period of time?
Dynamic changes drive and underpin our lives more than in any previous generation. Change is integral not only to our culture, but also to the world economy. It used to be that economies rose and fell from fundamental fiscal causes such an excess of supply or demand. This is still true, but today the excess is measured not in goods and services, but in terms of ideas and the pace at which we embrace them. Technology drives the economy because it provides significant competitive advantages. In a larger sense, it is possible that the rate of adoption of technology gates economic prosperity.
It doesn’t matter whether those who impede the adoption of new technology do so by governmental regulation, stubborn clinging to an existing technology base in an old-line industry or through religious fundamentalism. To the extent that any of these elements limits us in ways that society would not choose, then we all suffer.
How Technology Enables Determined Individuals
Millennia ago most humans lived and worked as slaves or serfs. Lives were short and dominated by backbreaking work. The first scientific revolution came about and things changed a bit, but not very much for most people. Those closest to the changes experienced better health and longer lives.
Next came the science and eventually the technology that we call the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. This really improved the quality of life for most humans in western culture. Everyone could now have some of the niceties that were previously reserved for royalty. Mass production meant that everyone could have underwear, flatware, personal transportation, books and newspapers, warm homes and the ability to change jobs as desired.
The revolution that came with quantum mechanics and relativity made possible the manipulation of matter at the atomic level. The result of this was that communications and transportation could be global in every sense. Cultures that have been closed for millennia must now become open or risk being relegated to third world status. Elements in Japan and China are still wrestling with this harsh fact.
Human beings have always been biological thinking machines, able to work abstractly. The computing and communications revolution now coming to an end has provided us with tools so powerful that a single human being or a small group can do the work of legions.
For example, a decade ago only government entities and their contractors owned computers that could perform billions of calculations per second, and there were regulations that limited their sale. Today these powerful systems are plentiful, widely available and low in cost (and considering how they are used to empower our intellect, perhaps we should call them human mind amplifiers). Global networks now bring much of the knowledge of mankind to anyone who is appropriately subscribed. The impact of these changes has been more than spectacular in the past five years.
The combination of super-fast programmable mind amplifiers with unlimited Internet access to all of the collected knowledge of the ages used by beings dwelling in the realm of ideas is manifesting the most radical revolution the planet has ever experienced.
This revolution makes it possible for a company like Finisar to create new technologies and disseminate them profitably to our customers at a previously unimaginable rate. Unfortunately, it also allows small cells of terrorists to learn to fly Boeing 767s on simulators, access the structure of large buildings and city maps online, and use PC-based CAD programs to simulate the structural strengths and weaknesses of buildings, bridges, dams and tunnels.
Fifty years ago the world contemplated whether atomic energy was a blessing or a curse. Leaders pondered whether splitting the atom would bring plentiful new energy sources and medical wonders, or would just help us blow ourselves up.
A large-scale effort involving thousands of people with immense resources was required to manipulate this technology. This meant that participation was limited to government states that could raise the needed sums of money and support large teams of people over long periods of time. Private individuals could not individually participate in the atomic revolution.
In the current scientific revolution, individual entrepreneurs are the driving force and small teams can be highly effective. This helps enable the success of commercial ventures, but it also means that innovation can be wielded destructively by small teams with relatively limited capital.
For example, it has been estimated that Osama bin Laden funded the activities of the September 11 terrorists with just $500,000. This horrible, immoral venture has resulted in more than $50 billion in total damages to the USA and the world at large. At an ROI of approximately 100,000 times, this makes bin Laden one of the most successful investors in history, as evil and despicable as his acts have been.
We cannot build fortresses or defensive structures that are strong or agile enough to make us safe at all times. The inventiveness and nimbleness of determined, destructive offensive forces are far greater than can be countered by any reasonable and practical defensive effort.
I hope and pray that people throughout the world will use the technology we have developed to reach out to each other and build a future based on understanding, mutual respect and fairness. Without this, the radical entrepreneurs of social change will continue to find it easy to pursue their business plans. And this will be grievously unpleasant for the rest of us.