Impact on history

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Thu Sep 13 2001 - 00:23:04 MDT

Harvey Newstrom wrote:
> As a side note, how many on this list are emotionally devastated by this
> I have worked in the WTC and the Pentagon in my security work. If this had
> occurred one year earlier, I would have been in the WTC. My partner just
> flew via Logan airport on the weekend before the hijacking. If this were
> three days earlier, he might have been one of the planes. Most of my larger
> clients have been in New York. My business is based on my flying around the
> country. I am in shock. I'm not sure how to respond or how to change my
> risk factors. I am currently working in Oklahoma City, which makes me
> physically removed but psychologically connected. We are in a brave new
> world, and things are going to be different now.

I feel a bit uneasy about saying this, but I do think it needs to be
said: I'm not in shock. As far as the degree of separation between
myself and New York, I visited there once, I have a grand-uncle who works
across the street from the World Trade Center who was not harmed, and I
have a cousin who was due to take a field trip to Manhattan that day but
her school's bus was delayed.

This, however, is not the reason I'm not in shock. I think I recall
pretty clearly my reaction when I switched on my computer, opened Netscape
email, and saw in the helpful headlines that the World Trade Center had
ceased to exist; I saw it as a piece of future history that had just
turned real. It was something that any number of novels or fictional
timelines might have included to add color. So that fictional construct
turned real and thereby moved us a step into the twenty-first century,
albeit not in a nice way. Essentially the inverted version of the
reaction I had on reading about Dolly the sheep:

"Whoa, we really are living in the future."

My second reaction was to be glad that I wasn't reading "New York,
Chicago, and Washington D.C. Destroyed By Nuclear Detonations." We're
seeing the lite version of the "domestic massive terrorist disaster"
scenario here. The only really unusual thing about the disaster is that
it happened in America. Most of the impact, crashing global stock markets
and so on, consists of people reacting to the terrorism. A nuclear weapon
destroying New York, on the other hand, would be a significant disaster
regardless of how people reacted to it.

I think, when I heard the news, that I pretty much guessed in advance how
the rest of the day would go. I knew that I'd hear a lot of people saying
that things would never be the same again; a lot of grandstanding from
politicians talking about hitting back; the absence of any clear target
for said revenge; proposals for useless domestic security measures whose
sole real effect is giving people the feeling that they're "doing
something about it"; attempts to blame the intelligence community for
failing to stop something that I for one never *expected* them to be able
to stop, no matter how competent they were... and so on.

I think the only major surprise that day was when I heard a Congressman
say on CNN: "We have forgotten that the first priority of the government
is not education and it is not health care, it is the security of the
citizens". Apparently someone was angry enough to actually say something
intelligent without thinking about the opinion polls. I was also
surprised to learn that all flights had been grounded and that the stock
market would be shut down for two full days, then surprised again today to
learn the stock market would be shut down for three days.

My reaction, on the whole, is that people are trying to forcibly make this
into one of the most significant events in world history. I don't think
it is. Not intrinsically. I understand the impulse to magnify the
importance. One doesn't want several thousand people to have died for
something that doesn't ultimately change the course of history. But I
think we'll see similar events in the future, and I don't think those will
change the course of history either. It's just a lot of unnecessary,
pointless deaths.

If the US does do anything real, militarily, it will probably involve more
death and destruction than was caused by the destruction of the World
Trade Center, dozens or hundreds of bombs instead of two planes, dropped
on some dirt-poor country far less capable of dealing with the disasters
resulting from each and every bomb impact, and the only real end result
will be more hatred of the United States. I don't expect that will stop
the United States from doing it anyway.

This is pretty much how I expected the future to go. If we're lucky,
we'll make it to the Singularity inside the decade and we won't see
weapons of mass destruction used on major cities during that interval.
But if we aren't that lucky, I won't be surprised.

-- -- -- -- --
Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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