' The Internet and Terrorist Attacks on America

The Internet and Terrorist Attacks on America

The following set of questions and answers about the impact of the recent terrorist attack on America, in terms of the Internet, forms the basis of an interview I supplied for the French online magazine NetEconomie. The interviewer was the journalist Ariane Beky (abeky@neteconomie.com).

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Question: As an American citizen and consultant at Computing & Communications at the University of Washington, what was your reaction to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon September 11 2001?
Question: What is the main difference between the way that the Internet and other media treated this information?
Question: How does the presence of instant communication affect our lives?
Question: How do you think the world will change after these events: Are we in for a new "rapport de forces" between democracies and terrorist groups, who can hit everywhere anytime, or are we about to have a third world war ?

(Q) As an American citizen and consultant at Computing & Communications at the University of Washington, what was your reaction to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon September 11 2001?

At first it seemed unreal and very distant, but soon the flood of media coverage and the many conversations I had with people affected me strongly. Like most Americans I felt a strong sense of belonging to America and its ideals and was moved by the many vigils and gatherings. At our City center in Seattle people left one million (that was the actual number reported) flower bouquets and at our University I estimate 5000 people gathered for our vigil, many of who sang and held hands.

I was very impressed with how quickly people moved to protect and provide support for our local Muslim/Arab peoples. Every Mosque in Seattle that I know of was covered with flowers and American flags largely donated by non-Muslims. Muslim and non-Muslim people lined up hand in hand, waved to the cars going by, and stood vigils to ward off reprisals. Of course there were some attacks on Mosques and Muslim individuals (or on others such as Sikh's and Christian Sudanese who were mistaken for Muslims) but the overwhelming message from the media and individuals that I saw was that these were to be treated as fellow Americans. This is in strong contrast to World War II where my wife, who is of Japanese descent, grew up in a concentration camp in Idaho set up by our government. Perhaps we have learned something.

The outpouring of aid to the victims was very moving as radio and TV stations, schools, businesses, and ordinary people overwhelmed blood banks and charitable organizations with their donations. I have never in my life seen such a coming together and common purpose and resolve as in these past few weeks.

Much of ordinary life was suspended, TV and radio largely concentrated on the tragedy, Sports and many events were cancelled, and many of us at work interrupted our work and viewed events and news coverage via the Internet.

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(Q) What is the main difference between the way that the Internet and other media treated this information?

There are many differences between information provided via mass media versus the Internet. The former is delivered by very few sources (which is worsened by the national and international merger mania that is swallowing up independent groups), in amounts, and in formats, and sequences determined by a small number of people. There is little room for feedback, little ability to explore links to related information, or to repeat and review material.

In contrast, the main limitations of the Internet are its bandwidth, capacity limitations, and attack by viruses. Some feared that the Internet would collapse in a national emergency such as this, but, although there were some significant problems, it generally worked well. For example, a former co-worker at the Disney channel reported that they saw such a huge increase in volume they initially thought it was a Denial-of-Service attack, but when they realized what was happening, they quickly streamlined their content by removing most of the graphics and squeezed files by more than a factor of 10 to insure a steady flow of information. I personally did not experience any major slowdowns in either Web access or email.

Internet Email proved very effective in this emergency: one of our people was scheduled to talk at the Pentagon but was able to inform our entire group with a single email that he was safe. Another co-worker used the Internet to locate pictures of the World Trade Center, then created an abstract version of the towers with a gash in it which she could then email as an attachment to others in order to express her feelings.

The great power of the Internet is that you are the pilot and are able to go where you want when you want, unlike mass media where you are merely a passenger with no control. For example, you can select alternate news sources through streaming media, such as the streaming media BBC Internet broadcasts which many of us watched at work and which gave us a different perspective than that provided by American broadcasts.

But, in my opinion, it is the Internet newsgroups that provide the most power of expression. Not only do they expose alternate views and let you express your own, but challenge your beliefs through critiques (I have found that if I make substantive errors, others in the newsgroup will often quickly set me straight). For example, I have long been interested in space technology, but the media and government agencies in all countries have convinced the public, and most scientists, that space flight MUST be fabulously expensive, difficult, and risky, suitable only for hero astronauts. Those of us with a scientific background and access to expert opinion on (technically oriented) newsgroups know that the current costs are ludicrous, totally unnecessary, and are a political construct.

With reference to the current attack, most Americans view the world through the mass media and are extremely ignorant of other cultures and especially the effects of American foreign policy, which they view as benign and designed to foster democracy. This was also my view until I met fellow Americans who worked abroad in the Peace Corps or as researchers and presented a very different picture of an American policy that showed little interest in the local peoples or cultures and was dominated by business interests and securing access to resources.

But, until the Internet, if I had not made those contacts, I would have little clue as to why America is widely disliked. These views are now available to anyone with a cheap PC and access to the Web. They also seem to be leaking back into the mainstream media as I see more and more discussions about our tendency to prop up repressive regimes which support our economic interests.

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(Q) How does the presence of instant communication affect our lives?

It was the fervent belief of the 18-th century French encyclopedists that most of the evil in the world was simply due to lack of information and that if it were made freely available the world would be a vastly better place. Yet after they released their works we still had the bloody French revolution, continued mass slavery, hugely destructive modern warfare, the Holocaust, the extraordinarily inhuman Pol Pot regime, and many other atrocities. So it is clear that access to information alone is not sufficient.

Instant communication is soon to become more more instant. In the past, our communication was tied to specific places, such as your telephone or TV at home or work, but with cell-phones and PDA Web browsers it is available almost anywhere. In less than 10 years wearable computers with full function headsets and with most of the infrastructure to support them will provide the full range of modern communications in greatly enhanced form: widescreen 3D TV, VCR, radio, CD player, Email, camera, camcorder, computer, video game player, newspaper, books, magazines, maps, charts, etc.

In particular, cameras will be everywhere, and you merely need look at a scene, make a gesture or a sound, and your cameras will take a picture and automatically save it with a time-date-GPS-location stamp, along with a few keywords you utter in order to make it easily retrievable. This applies to motion clips as well.

While such technology will give us true photographic memories, and can capture scenes that can help us solve or prevent crimes, it will greatly affect our privacy and exposes us not only to floods of possibly useless, misleading, and inaccurate , information, but also to malicious computer viruses that can compromise our very identities and safety.

While many of us in the information industry look forward to such prospects, most people seek not new information but validation of their current beliefs and will limit their access to sources that make them feel good rather than challenge and inform.

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(Q) How do you think the world will change after these events: Are we in for a new "rapport de forces" between democracies and terrorist groups, who can hit everywhere anytime, or are we about to have a third world war ?

I alternate between optimism and pessimism. On the one hand I can see technologies that can reduce the destructive American foreign policies that help foster these attacks: the wearable computers mentioned above, which might be powered by your body heat and motion, and would weigh less than half a kilo, could replace the several hundred pounds and several hundred watts of materials and energy that most families consume, along with the hundreds or thousands of pounds of newspapers, books and magazines each year; fuel cells which greatly reduce the need for energy and materials; and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, along with conservation, could greatly reduce America's immense material consumption and so make unnecessary much of our interference in other countries.

However, the Internet constantly opens up new avenues of attack. Not only did the terrorists make heavy use of the Internet to plan and coordinate their attacks (the FBI now has traced Email used by the attackers to public sites such as libraries), but the Internet and all it controls are extraordinarily open to attack. Just today I had to download patches to ward off the Nimda virus which can infect you just by looking at a Web page.

Our security experts here at the University have demonstrated that the command and control functions of much of our infrastructure, such as pipelines, dams, water supplies, electrical grids, transportation, and others are open to attack by knowledgeable people. They currently spend most of their time warding off attacks from unknown and untraceable sources. The combination of cheap PCs, easy access to the Internet, the security holes that constantly open up as new products and upgrades are released, and the openness of American society has left us very vulnerable.

But just as parasites in biological systems have provided the greatest stimulus to biological evolution, I hope that our efforts to defeat the hacker "parasites" will rapidly evolve a much more robust Internet which enhances our security, along with the provisions for backup systems which are under manual control.

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© Copyright 2001 University of Washington Computing & Communications.

Larry Gales