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Some events are better than others. At a reception preceding a presentation by Janet Napolitano (Secretary of Homeland Security) yesterday evening, I enjoyed a series of chats with Frederico Peña (former Denver mayor), Su Ryden (current Colorado state representative), Pilar Ingargiola (apparently a co-founder of the small policy LLC for which I currently do frequent short term research contracts), a bunch of guys from Iowa, and Aaron Harber (Denver talk show host).

Then the speeches began (for the smaller crowd invited to the reception; there would be another round for the full audience gathered upstairs in the auditorium where Secretary Napolitano was to speak). Larry Mizel of the CELL (Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab) introduced Michael Bennet (Junior U.S. Senator from Colorado), who had two endearingly spontaneous human moments during his speech: 1) He paused at one point during his introduction of John Hickenlooper (Denver Mayor and Colorado gubernatorial candidate) to say “God, I’m tired,” and 2) after saying that neither John Hickenlooper nor Larry Mizel would take credit for the CELL, nor would either of them give full credit to the other, Hick gestured from the side that he would give full credit to Larry, to which Michael said, “Well, John will give full credit, because he’s…,” quickly checking himself before saying “a candidate” or “running for office.” The audience filled in the blank and chuckled appreciatively.

After the speeches, we went up a back staircase to the auditorium, where the first few rows were reserved for us. Larry and John gave two more short speeches, and then Secretary Napolitano took the stage. Her presentation struck several chords with me, the underlying theme resonating with themes that I have been developing on this blog, and, in fact, with themes that are woven through my novel.

Secretary Napolitano referred to “the threat landscape,” a phrase that parallels my frequently used phrase “the social institutional landscape.” They are, indeed, two aspects of the same landscape, one a destabilizing, chaos-producing aspect, and one the ordering and re-ordering aspect. This was a major theme in my novel (An epic mythology): The interplay of chaos and order, and the ways in which the disorganizing influences (personified in my novel by mischievous imps, the Loci, who I considered to be, in effect, magical terrorists), lead to more subtle and complex, increasingly organic, re-orderings.

Indeed, that was precisely what Secretary Napolitano was describing.  Homeland Security recognizes that the best counterterrorism network would be an all-inclusive one, informing and mobilizing up and down through social institutional layers from the Department of Homeland Security to individual citizens, and creating channels for individual citizens (and others up and down the hierarchy) to inform those more charged with acting on that information.

The “see something, say something” campaign is one aspect of this attempt to mobilize and organize the populace in a decentralized system of cooperative vigilance, utilizing diffuse observation and information to create a counterterrorism network comprised of everyone, with eyes everywhere, far more comprehensive than anything that could be accomplished in any other way. Indeed, it is another example of activating “the genius of the many,” a theme I have discussed in my series of essays on the evolutionary ecology of our own social institutions and technologies (The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix), as well as my post on “wikinomics” (Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed) and “crowdfunding” (Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”).

The system is far more involved than just recommending that people report suspicious behavior. It involves a network of  “fusion centers,” basically information way stations and processing centers, through which information is channeled upward and downward. In other words, Homeland Security is consciously trying to create a centralized system of upward and downward flows of information, of utilization and implementation of decentralized effort and in-put. This is the increasingly organic  model of human social organization that I have long been discussing as our inevitable path of development.

To be sure, one model of such decentralization, with, in many respects, little need for a centralizing agent, is the market economy itself. But the market economy, while able to exist almost independently of governments, does so only in a crude, inefficient, and failure-laden form. Refining that organic system into the robust market economy of today required the development of government backed currency and clearly defined and enforced property rights. It has since benefited from the development of a complex regulatory structure that ensures that market actors aren’t able to exploit information asymmetries to their own advantage and at the public expense. And it will benefit in the future from increasingly sophisticated Political Market Instruments (see Deforestation: Losing an Area the Size of England Every Year) which both internalize externalities, and bring a variety of public goods and public bads under the umbrella of market dynamics.

But markets are just one social institutional material among several (A Framework for Political Analysis). Our development of a more organic, robust, sustainable, and fair social institutional and technological landscape does not benefit from monomania, but rather from a commitment to develop all of the social institutional materials we have in productive, integrated, and decentralized but coherent ways.

Despite the decentralization of the counterterrorism regime that Secretary Napolitano was describing, it was a return to a sense of communal effort, and away from our growing extreme individualism. It is a “neighborhood watch” writ large, a community of people watching one another’s back, addressing a collective need, nationwide. One of its benefits is that it helps move us back in the direction of recognizing that we are inherently in a collective enterprise, whether we are satisfying collective needs through markets, or hierarchies, or normative rules of conduct, or values and beliefs which motivate us to do so. We are not just a collection of disconnected individuals, neither in the production of wealth, in the production of human welfare, in the coping with life’s challenges, or in the vigilance against the violence of others. We are inherently interdependent, and need to cultivate the cultural and social institutional acknowledgement that we are, so that we are not constantly fighting to disregard the demand to meet the needs posed by that interdependence.

In terms of counterterrorism, there are other subtleties to incorporate besides the upward and downward flow of information, and the upward and downward flow of its utilization and implementation. There are also privacy concerns, which Secretary Napolitano addresses by having experts in privacy law at her headquarters, involved in the design of our counterterrorism architecture from beginning to end. There is the challenge to create an informed and activated society without creating a more fearful one (something accomplished by the sense of empowerment that participating, and knowing that most others are participating, in our shared vigilance against terrorism). And there is the emphasis on suspicious behaviors rather than suspicious ethnic membership, discouraging the ethnic profiling that is so corrosive to our coexistence in a diverse society, though completely avoiding the noise of prejudice in a decentralized system will undoubtedly prove to be impossible.

Nor will our ability to prevent all terrorist attacks. But the rise of this decentralized and very dangerous form of warfare, benefiting from modern communications and information technologies much as other decentralized enterprises do, increases the demand for intentional and coordinated development of decentralized and organic systems of response. Even terrorists contribute to the evolution of the human ecosystem, albeit at too high a price.

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