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John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

Scholars discuss technology in light of terror attacks

America should avoid thinking in terms of a "techno-fix" as it tries to figure out how to defend itself against future acts of terrorism, said computer scientist Eric Roberts, the Charles Simonyi Professor in the School of Engineering.

Roberts was one of four panelists who spoke last week at a forum organized by the Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS) about the intersections of technology, politics and culture that have been highlighted by the terror attacks. "Sept. 11, 2001: STS Perspectives on Technology, Politics and Culture" was moderated by STS directors Paula Findlen and Robert McGinn.

Roberts said various e-mail lists used by technology professionals have been abuzz with possible techno-fixes. One idea that's been floated involves making it possible to land airplanes by remote control.

While this idea is creative and cannot be dismissed out of hand, it might mean that a hijacker would not even need to board an airplane, Roberts said, adding, "All you would need to do is somehow tap into this system, find its vulnerabilities and you could crash a plane by remote control."

The gap between those who specialize in technology and those who specialize in policy-making needs to be bridged; there tends to be a disconnection between these two "cultures," he said.

"I believe we've lost a great deal in this culture by tending too much to rely either on policy-making that is done in the absence of technological knowledge, or technology that is pursued in the absence of any understanding of the social structures and the culture in which it is employed," he said.

Technologists may create sophisticated devices or systems that perform flawlessly, but they may not understand the culture in which the devices or systems will be used, Roberts said.

Meanwhile, very few policymakers in the country are trained in technology. He noted that Congress eliminated the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) under former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But during its 23-year history, the OTA provided a valuable service for lawmakers through expert analysis of complex scientific and technical issues of the late 20th century. One of its 1991 publications was titled Technology Against Terrorism: The Federal Effort; a section is titled "Defense Against Chemical and Biological Warfare (CBW) Agents"; another is titled "The Threat to the United States."

Yet the OTA was killed for political reasons, Roberts asserted.

Roberts also read a hauntingly prophetic excerpt from a 1949 essay by E. B. White titled "Here Is New York":

The subtlest change in New York is something people don't speak much about but that is in everyone's mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.

"[White] sees . . . , in a way that I think only the literary intellectual is likely to do, the downside of technology," Roberts concluded.

Solidarity via TV

But technology also provided a means for bringing the nation together after the attacks, said sociologist Aneesh Aneesh, a lecturer in the STS program.

Aneesh said he felt the first surge of "anger and sadness" upon seeing the destruction of the World Trade Center "before [his] very eyes." Media and technology let people far away from the city experience the Sept. 11 terrorism almost firsthand, he said. "We all felt that we were under attack," he said. "And in a stroke of irony, the terrorist acts enhanced national unity."

But he also noted that terrorism depends on the "illusion of spectacle" that is, images of terror.


Video games and terrorism

Toward the end of his remarks, Aneesh said that "terrorism is basically a masculine endeavor." So, too, it would seem is the practice of playing video games. A man attending the forum asked women in the audience to raise their hands if they had spent five minutes of their life playing such games. No more than one or two hands went up. When the same request was put to men in the room, close to a dozen hands shot up. (It should be noted that there were more men in attendance than women.)

STS lecturer Henry Lowood, curator for the Libraries' History of Science and Technology Collections, discussed the significance of interactive entertainment and video games in light of the terror attacks.

"Interactive simulations provide surprising ways of assimilating what is happening, creating narratives around these events and even learning through virtual experiences and simulations," Lowood said.

He said that following Sept. 11, Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis, which is described as a "military tactical combat simulation game," grew quite popular. It seems people became more interested in trying to experience the battlefield, Lowood said.

Lowood also noted that participants in EverQuest, a multiplayer game conducted over the Internet, held an online candlelight vigil for the victims of the attacks. (He showed a game clip in which computer-animated characters held candles.)  


The fourth panelist, history Associate Professor Ahmad Dallal, said that once the television media started to broadcast news of U.S. preparations for military strikes in Afghanistan, it became a kind of obligation that was difficult to reconsider America became committed to bringing back a photo or image of the "war," even though Afghanistan has "no big city, no industrial infrastructure."

A man in the audience pointed out how the media's coverage of the Sept. 11 events and the aftermath are reminiscent of the mythology of the Star Wars trilogy. News is broadcast via television, but television also is used for the "conveyance of fairy tales and fantasies and even of realistic shows that have an element of fantasy in them," he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. media have created a made-for-TV villain: Osama bin Laden. "I think what we've seen as a result was the construction of a narrative in which the United States is, of course, playing the role of the hero," Dallal said.

He noted that television newscasts have included a stream of logos, beginning with "America Under Attack," then "America on Alert" and now "America Strikes Back."

"So, we're getting this chapter-by-chapter breakdown through this technological medium which requires that at some point the protagonist is going to triumph over the enemy," he said. "And so we'll have 'America's Victory' on the screen. I think it sets up expectations and, in fact, influences the way in which we act toward the expectations."


By John Sanford

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