future freedom

It’s easier to destroy than to create. You can knock a house down in an hour. You can ruin a civilization in a couple decades, once you learn how, with an arms race and a nuclear war.

As technology advances, governments gain power. They can get state-controlled TV, conscript armies, massive police forces, databases of everything about everybody, near-unbreakable cryptography, all kinds of goodies. Individuals also gain power. They can get photocopiers, audio tapes, satellite broadcasts from other countries, air travel, dynamite, automatic weapons, near-unbreakable cryptography, and other dangerous stuff.

Nowadays, terrorist groups can blow up airliners in flight and set big bombs in downtown London and New York. The destroying is easy; their trouble is in evading the governments they piss off. In the future, terrorists will be able to do more and more damage. If they do so, governments will have to use more and more of their power to stop them. It may be that even democratic governments will decide to use their full power, greater than it is now, and will crack down on freedom to stop the baddies.

One kind of fission bomb is made with plutonium. You need nuclear reactions to create the plutonium, so it may be tricky to do in your average basement, even in the future. But it’s possible.

The other kind of fission bomb is made with enriched uranium. Uranium is common. The reason Abu Nidal does not have these bombs is that enriching the uranium, separating the exciting U-235 from the dull U-238, is expensive. In the future, enriching uranium will be easy and cheap. Separating isotopes is a simple application of nanotechnology—it’s trivial next to building a computer or an all-purpose assembler. I suspect that even current, primitive biotechnology could do it, if we we put our cleverness into designing the right proteins. You will be able to produce bomb material in your basement, and then all you have to do is look up a weapon design on the information superhighway. What’s your least favorite city?

It gets worse, but this is enough. The first time terrorists pop a nuke, the government will have to do something. Armies and massive police forces ought to be able to smash large organized groups. I’d vote for it; better them than Miami. The first time a disgruntled postal worker pops a nuke, it’s too late for everybody. The power achieved cannot be taken back. The choices are universal surveillance, mind control, or physical danger. What would you vote for?

Cheap nukes are only a for-instance. One person can already do hefty damage, and the trend is always up. People are willing to give up civil liberties for safety from serious crime, and the more damage one person can do, the fewer criminals it takes to make crime serious. The issues are bigger than I can write here (bigger than I can figure out, really). But the point is, freedom in the future is an iffy thing. We need to stay on our toes.

originally written May 1994
Having seen the reaction to the events of 11 September 2001, what do you think?