2001 : WHAT NOW?

jordan_pollack's picture
Professor and Chairman of Computer Science, Brandeis University
Computer science and complex systems professor at Brandeis University

We know there will never have another hijacking. The heroes on flight 93 adapted and fought back when they learned (via cellphone) that other flights turned into missiles.

From now on, every person on an airplane will work to overwhelm any hijacker, even if equipped with Uzi's instead of plastic bagel knives. We don't need a federal air police. We can even take down the X-ray scanners.
The game has changed.

Consider this a phase transition in psychological evolution. I wonder whether another phase transition is possible.

Whoever directed the military attack last week was extremely sophisticated:

• to steal identities a decade ago, 
• to know that Saudi pilots are allowed to immigrate, 
• to learn to fly 747's, 
• to expect docility from travellers based on the history of hijackings, 
• to sell the airline stocks short, and
• to do structural simulations of the WTC to estimate strike speed and altitude.

So why would we assume such a sophisticated covert operation couldn't predict and exploit America's likely reaction?

In times like these, we revert from individuals to a bacteria colony. In times like these, Apple Computer could temporarily change its slogan to "Don't Think Different!" to stimulate sales.

Consider, with some pain: The JFK assassination, TWA flight 800, Pan Am 103, KAL flight 007, Iraqi incursion into Kuwait, the bombing of the Murrah building. Remember each aftermath. My recollection is that the American public has been ready to go to war each time. Therefore the attacker last week could anticipate the US reaction.

The behavior of masses, especially in response to strong stimuli, is quite predictable, and the science explaining it originated in the 1890's and was perfected by the 1950's and 60's. I'm not an expert, but I know coherent masses (Crowds) form especially in reaction to events, and all members of the crowd begin to express the same extreme opinion, and follow the leader. Imitation effects, authority effects, and fear of being different all drive the feedforward loop. We could simulate it on a computer, just like we simulate ant colonies or groups of robots.

The direction of the crowd can be modulated by information. if our leaders can convince us that it was a lone crazy, or an accident, or a renegade band of our own ex-special-forces, passions might subside. But name a foreigner and we must attack.

My "What now?" question is whether we can ever overcome our own mass psychology. Can humanity achieve group adaptation at the cognitive level?

If we were bacteria, we wouldn't avoid the fruiting body. If we were ants, we wouldn't abandon the pheremone trail, If we are lemmings, we wouldn't opt out of our mad dash.

But we are humans. I pray we can someday rise above our own mass psychological reactions to achieve a deeper strategy than those who pull the triggers or those who guide the crowd's reaction.

We need another psychological phase transition.

Otherwise, brains are going to lose the war to genes.