Belmont Club

Surviving Our Own Secrets in a Complex World Full of Danger

(Image credit: Romy Biner-Hauser via Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine if you could see a bullet coming for hours but never noticed in time to dodge it. My post on Dec 27, 2004, about the Indian Ocean tsunami, is as true of the 2019-nCoV as it was about the big wave.

In an abstract way, the information flows surrounding the Tsunami of December 2004 structurally resembled those preceding the Pearl Harbor and September 11 attacks. The raw data announcing the unfolding threat was there, yet the pattern so evident in hindsight was invisible to those who were not looking for it. But if tsunamis and asteroid strikes are rare events, they are comparatively more common than that still rarer object, the unprecedented event: the something that has never happened before. Threats like that can emerge suddenly out of chaotic systems, like WMD terrorism or new viral plagues. Against such events, specific precautions are impossible because no one can prepare for what cannot be foreseen. The real challenge is not so much to create a new dedicated network of staring systems against known threats but to tie current sensors to systems which are capable of cognition. The most valuable survival asset is situational awareness — the ability to recognize threats you have never seen before and respond in an evolving manner — and that capability has not yet come to the world as a whole.

For hours the giant wave traveled hundreds of miles toward unsuspecting victims, but the warning systems of the time were too slow to alert those in its path. It hit Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand. It killed as far as Kenya. “According to the U.S. Geological Survey a total of 227,898 people died. Measured in lives lost, this is one of the ten worst earthquakes in recorded history, as well as the single worst tsunami in history. Indonesia was the worst affected area, with most death toll estimates at around 170,000.”

The tally of fatalities for 2019-nCoV is still unknown. If it is on the scale of the Spanish Flu it may exceed the tsunami’s. But like the Indian Ocean tsunami, one could see catastrophe coming if only the information about it were not filtered out. Chinese medicos saw the danger as early as December 2019, the New York Times reports. “The doctor, Li Wenliang, had been silenced by the police after warning about the new coronavirus that has killed hundreds in China and sickened thousands.” Before he died of the disease himself Li told his deathbed story.

Q: When did you first realize that this new virus was highly contagious? It seemed that you hadn’t taken any precautions when you were infected.

A: I knew it when the patient I came in contact with infected her family, and I was infected right afterward. Thus I discovered it was highly contagious. The patient had no symptoms, so I got careless. …

Q: Was that at the end of December?

A: Yes.

Q: Were there other doctors who shared the information and reminded others to protect themselves from this mysterious pneumonia?

A: There were discussions among our colleagues.

Q: What was everybody talking about? How did they evaluate the situation at that point?

A: It was that SARS might come back. We needed to be ready for it mentally. Take protective measures.

Instead, Dr. Li was reprimanded by the police, who compelled him to sign a statement that his warning constituted “illegal behavior.” The chance was missed and the rest is history. Threats can emerge literally overnight in the complex and networked modern world, where the critical information needed to meet them is hoarded among competing, jealous agencies — not just in China but even in America. The conclusion of the 9/11 Commission report was that because there was no “Central” in Central Intelligence, no warning of a World Trade Center attack was forthcoming. If no one knew where all the secrets were, no one could even inventory them, let alone connect them up.

We learned of fault lines within our government — between foreign and domestic intelligence, between and within agencies. We learned of pervasive problems of managing and sharing information across a large and unwieldy government that had been built in a different era to confront different dangers.

The 2019-nCoV outbreak is the latest example of how excessive secrecy can kill us. It won’t be the last such threat and unless secrets are tamed, the next one may be even more deadly. The U.S. government itself recommended reducing surplus secrecy in the 1997 Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, also called the Moynihan Commission. The Commission’s relevant findings were:

  • Secrecy is a form of government regulation.
  • Excessive secrecy has significant consequences for the national interest when policy makers are not fully informed, the government is not held accountable for its actions, and the public cannot engage in informed debate.
  • Some secrecy is important to minimize inappropriate diffusion of details of weapon systems design and ongoing security operations as well as to allow public servants to secretly consider a variety of policy options without fear of criticism.
  • The best way to ensure that secrecy is respected, and that the most important secrets remain secret, is for secrecy to be returned to its limited but necessary role. Secrets can be protected more effectively if secrecy is reduced overall.

The best way to achieve these goals on a planetary scale is to implement a satellite-based, limited-length text-only messaging system confined to individuals willing to positively identify themselves through certification authorities. Think of it as a Twitter-like platform open only to blue checkmarks. Anyone who posts on it is responsible for content to the full extent of U.S. criminal and civil law but — and this is crucial — no prior censorship will be imposed.  This creates a single worldwide party line on which anything can be broached.

There are two technical—and one political—requirements necessary to make it work. Technically, the text-only limited-length format will make it impractical to use for WikiLeaks-style document dumps. Secondly, basing it on low-earth-orbit satellites should make it possible in principle to implement device-to-orbit communications, although Internet-to-orbit arrangements will be preferred. These two properties will ensure that news like virus outbreaks, impending asteroid strikes, tsunamis, etc., can be posted with the author taking full responsibility for it, and where it can be immediately refuted if wrong. The political requirement is even more important. The platform must operate under U.S. law, with the full protection of the Constitution and its institutions providing stable ground rules for its use.

Together these three requirements can form the basis of a worldwide implementation of the Moynihan Commission recommendations. It will serve as the foundation stone of a global emergency-alert system. By taking the initiative the U.S. can take the lead in an important—perhaps the most important—aspect of global governance.  It can do so at a time when the 2019-nCoV outbreak’s lessons are still fresh in the public’s memory. Never let a crisis go to waste—and this is a crisis.

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Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America, by Scott Adams. The creator of Dilbert has come up with a guide to spot and avoid mental habits trapping victims in their own bubbles of reality, such as the inability to get ego out of your decisions, thinking with words instead of reasons, failing to imagine alternative explanations, and making too much of coincidences.

Humanity in a Creative Universe, by Stuart A. Kauffman. Best known for his philosophy of evolutionary biology, Kauffman calls into question science’s ability to ever accurately and precisely predict the future development of biological features in organisms. He argues that our preoccupation to explain all things with scientific law has deadened our creative natures and concludes that the development of life on earth is not entirely predictable, because no theory could ever fully account for the limitless variations of evolution.

Working , by Robert A. Caro. From the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, an unprecedented memoir of his experiences researching and writing his acclaimed books.

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll. A masterful result of Coll’s indefatigable reporting, this book draws on more than 400 interviews; field reporting from the halls of Congress to the oil-laden swamps of the Niger Delta; more than 1,000 pages of previously classified U.S. documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act; heretofore unexamined court records; and many other sources. This is a defining portrait of ExxonMobil and the place of Big Oil in American politics and foreign policy.

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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.

The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free

The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age

Storming the Castle, why government should get small

No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.

Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.