Monday, May 18, 2009

Fareed Zakaria: the sky isn't falling: our world is more stable than we think; but what about Ramo's sandpiles?

CNN Global Public Square host Fareed Zakaria has a great column in Newsweek May 16, “The Sky Isn’t Falling: Our world is more stable than we think,” reprinted in the Washington Post Monday May 18, p A19, original Newsweek link here.

Zakaria makes an interesting point about the sacrifice that citizens of Mexico, particularly Mexico City, made to contain the H1N1 swine flu outbreak, when we simply were uncertain as to the real danger and as to whether economic sacrifice (of social distancing) really was necessary. Such sacrifice would not have been tolerable in the United States, yet it was made in 1918 and it would be necessary if something really bad did get out there as a pandemic.

He says that the world is much more stable now than it was then. Well, it had better be, because of so many apocalyptic and asymmetric dangers, ranging from those of the Cold War to the post 9/11 world. He also points out a paradox: if it were not for fear of another Great Depression, we might have had one.

But Zakaria also touts the book “The Age of the Unthinkable” by Joshua Cooper Ramo, which makes the ("sandpile theory") point that we simply do not know how to anticipate the long term social and political consequences of innovation, where individuals, sometimes from dorm rooms, suddenly generate so much change and can have so much “power”. Despite the legal controversies, most of the individuals who have singlehandedly added to our communications revolution have done so with good intentions and generally in good faith. We can be frightened that out there could exist a digital “Dr. No” (well, there are plenty in the small fry area – look at all the worm and virus writers and the domain name apocalypse that was barely avoided in 2008 by a rushed international security conference and fix organized by Microsoft, after a discovery by one programmer, who, fortunately for all of us, did the right thing -- almost anyone can tap the “red phone” it seems).

What we are left with is something like l’Hopital’s Rule in calculus. We need to assess limits.

There seems to be one particular moral anomaly I’ve noticed. We’ve gotten used to the idea that specific responsibility for others occurs only when one chooses to have children. We may have it backwards. We could find us in a world where people need specific responsibilities for others (that is, a personal stake) before we can trust them enough to turn them loose. It seems like the "Greatest Generation" of Tom Brokaw understood that. Ramo’s book, in quoting Roberto Unger, makes that point. I wonder if Zakaria will mention it in a future GPS interview. Maybe Zakaria should interview Unger himself on GPS.

Oh well, if the sky really isn't falling, Chicken Little needs to fix his online reputation.

Update: May 29, 2009

Ariana Eujung Cha, Washington Post Foreign Service, "Caught in China's aggressive swine flu net: Quarantine measures keep cases down but virtually imprison healthy travelers," p A1, link, reports the detaining and quarantine of travelers with even slight fevers, and the surreal infection precautions. But the draconian measures seem to work. China is aggressive because of the bad press it got with SARS.

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