Innovation, Security, and Catastrophe

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, February 17, 2011, 3:04 PM

A new essay of mine appears in the Hoover Institution's publication, Defining Ideas. The essay is adapted from the chapter I wrote in the book "Rules for Growth" published by the Kauffman Task Force on Law, Innovation and Growth. It deals with themes on which I mean to spend a great deal more time in the coming months. It opens as follows:

Imagine that the Gulf oil spill had taken place as a consequence of a premeditated attack, rather than an accident. The damage is the same as it was; the oil flowed in the same volume. The only difference is volition: In this dark fantasy, someone meant to do it.

In this counter-factual scenario, we would immediately recognize the event not merely as a disaster but as the most successful assault on the United States since September 11, 2001. We would notice something else as well: The United States government—despite its ability to project military force anywhere in the world—lacked the capacity to defend the country effectively and swiftly against this particular attack. That capacity, rather, lay in the hands of a private corporation, one of a select group of corporations that have proven enormously innovative in off-shore oil drilling. Only these corporations have the technological and logistical capacity to defend the country against the national security events their very innovations can now bring about.

This rather startling conclusion represents a profound challenge to a country whose constitution vests the power to defend the nation in a unitary presidency. Over the past several decades—in a trend that is sure to accelerate rapidly with continued innovation—we have developed a category of non-military technologies outside of government hands and control that, when misused, can threaten extreme harms of various types, harms which the executive lacks clear power, authority, or even the simple capability to prevent.

The trend is not futuristic. It is already well under way across a number of technological platforms—most prominently the life sciences and networked computer technology. The technologies in question are widely proliferated. They are getting cheaper by the day. We are becoming ever more dependent upon them not just for growth, jobs, and development but for health, agriculture, communications, and even culture.

Yet these same technologies—and these same dependencies—make us enormously vulnerable. Whereas once only states could contemplate killing huge numbers of civilians with a devastating drug-resistant illness or taking down another country’s power grids, we must now contemplate the possibility that ever-smaller groupings of people can undertake what are traditionally understood as acts of war. The last few years have seen the migration of the destructive power of states to global non-state actors. And we can expect that migration to continue, ultimately giving to every individual with modest education and a certain level of technical proficiency the power to bring about catastrophic damage.