The terrifying rise of intentional catastrophes

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We live in a world of complex systems and enormous, sprawling multinational companies. What's more, those systems and bureaucracies are becoming ever more complex and sprawling over time, which means that they're harder to manage and more likely to fail. That, in itself, is a huge problem for society to tackle. But there’s an associated problem, which is even bigger:

When a complex system fails, it tends to fail catastrophically.

As our economies and societies become increasingly complex and interconnected, when things go wrong — as they always will — they have a tendency to go very wrong indeed. The stock market will plunge in a matter of seconds. The Space Shuttle will explode. All of London’s airspace will get shut down, without anybody really understanding why. Entire airliners will simply disappear. And while it’s possible ex post to look at such events and try to find a root cause for them, such exercises risk missing the forest for the trees. The big fact is that there are so many millions of possible root causes of catastrophic failure, these days, in so many different industries and systems, that it’s impossible to anticipate them all and fix them ex ante. Catastrophic failures are, at this point, a statistical inevitability. And they’re only going to become more frequent in future.


And that’s not even the worst bit.

Catastrophes come in two different flavors: the intentional, and the unintentional. Unintentional catastrophes are sad, annoying, tragic. And while they can cause localized anger, they generally bring us together, rather than tearing us apart. We learn from them, we try to fix things so that particular kind of failure won’t happen again, and we move on.

Intentional catastrophes, by contrast, are malign, dangerous, destabilizing. If 3,000 people die in an earthquake, the world comes together to offer aid and support. If 3,000 people die on September 11, the world ends up gets torn apart. If Gawker Media gets hacked and all its internal information stolen, that’s a minor media story; the worst thing that happens is that there’s a bit of egg on some Gawker faces. If North Korea gets fingered as the culprit of the Sony hack, by contrast, that’s a national security issue. It's sufficient cause for presidential action, which may or may not include an entire country being deliberately (if temporarily) wiped off the internet.

We live in a world of terror cells, where small groups of malign individuals try to cause maximum terror and chaos. For the time being, most of them are still using what is at heart 19th-century technology: bombs, knives, guns. There’s no doubt that such tools can be gruesomely effective, and were having devastating effects even before Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 18, 1914.

Moving forward, however, it seems inevitable that the cost/benefit calculations within terror cells will have them reaching for a computer mouse rather than a stick of gelignite. In a world with millions of failure points, it’s inevitable that some will fail from time to time. But it also seems inevitable that both an increasing number and an increasing proportion of such failures will be caused by malign actors seeking to trigger some kind of national-security response. Not Russian thieves looking to make money from stolen credit card numbers, but full-on cyber terrorists fighting a guerilla war against western governments using trojans and spear-phishing rather than IEDs and snipers.

As the Washington Post explains, the combatants in guerrilla cyber-war are generally hard to identify, and the battle lines are extremely murky. The difference between an act of terrorism, or war, on the one hand, and an opportunistic act of hacking, on the other, is not always going to be clear, or even clearly defined. Shadowy actors will take credit for acts they didn't commit; others will perform dastardly acts while denying all responsibility. The potential for misunderstandings, bad intelligence, and baseless escalations has never been greater.


Fifty years ago, Stanley Kubrick made a movie in which an entirely plausible yet unanticipated sequence of events resulted in the annihilation of the planet in a global nuclear holocaust. Almost everything in the movie was true. If Kubrick were to remake Dr Strangelove today, it wouldn't feature the military-industrial might of the USA and the Soviet Union. Instead, it would center on a group of kids, spread from Scottsdale to Sofia to Shanghai, who communicate only electronically and who inadvertently start an unstoppable war.

That's the really scary thing about America's "proportional response" to an act which might, or might not, have been ordered up by North Korea. Either U.S. intelligence is right, and the North Koreans were behind the attack; or else they're wrong, and they weren't. Either way, this kind of conflict is going to become increasingly common.


It won't be long before the battles themselves, being waged by shadowy botnets and even more secretive intelligence agencies, will coalesce into a kind of permanent cyber-war where no one knows who all the different actors are, what they may or may not want, or even what victory would look like. In such a world, almost all catastrophes, bar the purest acts of nature like earthquakes and floods, will be thought of, within the NSA and similar organizations, as potentially being part of the greater conflict. In a world with an ever-increasing frequency of catastrophes, far too many will be considered, rightly or wrongly, to be intentional. And the consequences of that could be catastrophic on a much greater scale.