"After 9/11: Wiring Networks for Security and Liberty"

As part of the English Department's Transcriptions Project, directed by my colleague Alan Liu, I've joined with other faculty and grad students in teaching our students to use their core abilities to read and write so as to build web-pages that link their work to the resources and communities available through the World Wide Web. The events of 9/11 have dealt a powerful shock to this project. It is forcing us to ask difficult new questions about the utility and dangers of intelligent networks and the global communication of information. My talk this morning will seek to do three things: first, understand how the attacks on 9/11, and the subsequent anthrax attacks, have succeeded in compromising our networks; second, I will end this talk by arguing that 9/11 should not mean that we reconfigure American networks by bartering away our liberty in the name of security. Instead, in the wake of 9/11, we should think through ways to make our networks more secure by making them more robust, more extensive, and more intelligent.

The first networks compromised by 9/11 were the television networks that brought us the event. The affective power of the WTC disaster arises from the particular kind of concentrated televisual spectacle it produced. The first strike against the WTC tower #1 brings the cameras of news media into play around both towers, so that live coverage can capture images of a Boeing jet striking WTC 2. The second strike changes the meaning of the event. What was widely reported to be an accident-a small plane colliding with a WTC tower-is now revealed to be part of a design. [Aside: This initial act of misreading might have cost thousands of lives.] The 2nd strike, televised live, has a startling resemblance with television's favorite way of dealing with disaster: the instant replay. Within the rhetoric of television disaster coverage, the replay works to contain and incorporate a traumatic event by replaying it over and over (for example, in the footage of the Challenger disaster). This repetition can be understood as a coping mechanism, a response to shock, like the repetitive, post-traumatic responses discussed by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Through brute repetition, the replay incorporates the event into the spectator's experience, making it available for subsequent narrative. But the striking of Tower 2 of the WTC had an effect the opposite of incorporation and normalization; it brings an unsettling rupture at at least two levels-the level of televisual representation and the level of audience self-understanding.

At the level of television coverage, this sequence certainly looks like an instant replay-a jet is once again hitting a pristine WTC tower-but it is actually an uncanny double of the first, a second strike that is neither staged nor anticipated nor simulated by the TV networks which broadcast it. The second strike is a replay that isn't; it is controlled not by the broadcast network, but by the malevolent agents who have planned this attack and taken momentary control of the television coverage, so as to broadcast it, in real time, to the whole world. We learn something that was always true: that the television apparatus is not ours; it is not under "our" control. This network can be made to serve the agendas of others. Secondly, at the level of audience experience, this is "uncanny": it is both monstrously unthinkable yet bizarrely familiar. Familiar because, after all, hasn't Hollywood produced numberless action adventure films featuring malevolent Arabs plotting a disaster for us? Within these fantasy formations, the greater the disaster, the more evil the Arabs, the greater the opportunity for a redeeming heroism. [I think George Bush inserts himself into this fantasy when he says of al Qaeda, "these folks are evil."] But on the other hand, the literal collapse of the greatest office towers in the world was thought to be impossible. [It certainly was not reflected in WTC evacuation plans!] Although some had plotted to do this eight years earlier, surely that attack was merely symbolic; who would want to cause the deaths of thousands of innocent office workers?

The shock (and attraction) of the uncanny involves the eruption into consciousness of what was present in the unconscious, but inaccessible to consciousness. What is the repressed term here? It begins with the undeniable fact that 19 resolute young men and their supporters would wish to kill thousands of Americans; but it extends to a wider circle of implications: the fact that millions in the world do not accept American military and economic and cultural preeminence as a natural fact; millions may attribute their suffering to our use of that power; and finally, that many might take pleasure, whether vocally or silently, in the spectacle of the collapse of American invulnerability. If the first phase of the attack is hyper-visible, the anthrax attack has the invisibility of a disease: it offers a diffuse spectacle. The circulation of anthrax produces anxiety, precaution, a wondering who is vulnerable. Thus the anthrax attack is 99.9% scare, and .1% anthrax, but somehow all the more powerful for that.

What explains the remarkable success of the attacks of 9/11, and the anthrax attack, in disrupting not merely our economy but also our way of life and national mood? Both phases of this attack are perpetrated through a network-the first through the commercial air transport network, the second through the postal network. In both attacks we witness an astonishing multiplier There is the primary multiplier: in the attack on the air transport system, 19 men hijack 246 plane travelers, killing 4,312 people (NYTimes most recent account); then there is a secondary multiplier: 4 plane crashes leads to an immediate grounding of 4,500 planes, and then, in the days and weeks that follow, many millions of cancelled flights. The anthrax attack achieves multipliers of a similar scale: (apparently) 3 letters are mailed from one city and they kill 4, infect 17, send thousands out of their offices with medication: the vulnerability of the system exposed by this anthrax attack is said to require billions of dollars in expenditures. These multipliers are achieved by operating through networks-the attack travels along the network; but, this appropriation of the network, by the way it undermines user faith in the integrity and safety of each network, compromises the air transport network and postal network. If we cannot trust our planes or the mails, then the flows essential to our economy could contract to a trickle. Remedial efforts to assure the integrity of these networks cannot ignore calculations of speed and cost that motivated the original creation of networks. If network flows of people, paper and information become too slow or too inefficient, it could fatally reduce the productive strength of the economic order. The centrality of the issue of networks in this crisis is given a certain displaced expression in the US government's first definition of the real enemy: not one person (Bin Laden) nor the nation that harbors him (Afganistan), but the al Qaeda, network. This is the first war against a network.

The events of 9/11 (and after) help to challenge a certain American self-understanding of its networks. According to a familiar liberal interpretation, the kinds of networks the US has built (whether for travel, or posting mail, or circulating information) reflect our republican virtue: that is, these networks, when compared with those of many other countries, are "open," democratic and "free." Thus, as the story goes, this country's networks offer equality of access, lower the cost of entry, guarantee privacy, enable certain forms of anonymity, and finally, proscribe certain forms of censorship ["Congress shall make no law…"]. In short, our networks are wired for liberty. The Internet and the Web have been widely interpreted as deploying hardware technology and software code so as to give these American ideals a practical and world conquering realization. Wired into the design of a global network, liberal values could overcome all others. [Or, so the story goes.] This interpretation of American networks has encouraged a presumption since 9/11: that there is a necessary trade off between liberty and security; and therefore, to increase security we need to decrease liberty. The right and left have not so much disagreed with this premise as argued about how the balance between liberty and security should be struck. The USA Patriot Act of 2001 (signed on the 26th of last month) seeks to compromise certain liberties (to travel, to cross borders, and to communicate) so as to enhance national security. The Electronic Freedom Frontier rouses us to protect our civil liberties from government appropriation. [Aside: Not all of the abridgment of web-based information is an effect of legislation; since 9/11 the government has engaged in protective self-censorship by closing down a vast number of their own web sites (as documented by the Electric Freedom Frontier)].

How, in the wake of 9/11, can we develop our networks so we have the security we need and the liberty upon which our culture thrives? Rather than dumbing down, slowing down or reducing access to our networks, I hope we figure out how to use the resources of liberty to make our networks more robust, more intelligent, and still more inclusive, and thereby more secure. For while it is undeniable that networks open their users to vulnerability, networks also enable their users to fight back against a network's violent misappropriation. Thus, on September 11th, passengers on flight 93 used their cell phones to learn from television viewers about the dark new meaning of an airplane hijacking. This intelligence led them to make an heroic, and successful, effort to redirected flight 93 from its intended target-perhaps the White House or the Capital building-into a field in Pennsylvania. This might be called an intelligent network's immune response, a self organizing check on network misappropriation. Such a response depends upon two kinds of intelligence-that provided by users, and that which arises from the network's computational power, data set, and software code. The understandable response to 9/11, embodied for example in the many provisions of the Patriot Act of 2001, is to raise boundaries of entry to the US, and to undermine the privacy of network communication. Both weaken our networks. But after 9/1ll we may need to be not less, but more completely, and more intelligently, networked; this will allow us to learn from those who have the deepest understanding of those who threaten us. To close with a practical example: one speculates that US university faculty, who sponsor a conference on Islam, the Middle East or Terrorism, might find that the Patriot Act of 2001 makes it more difficult to bring into the country the very people we need to listen to, learn from, and network with.


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Created 12/03/01 | Last Modified 2/27/02

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