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Fred C. Ikle, a former Undersecretary of Defense, senior arms control mandarin and long time security scholar, has produced a thoughtful and provocative book with his Annihilation From Within. In the tradition of his fellow RAND alumnus, Herman Kahn, Ikle has tasked himself with thinking about the unthinkable but he has done so without the former’s sense of humor or optimism, which renders AFW a slim yet dour read.

Back in 1999, in The Future and It’s Enemies, Virginia Postrel hypothesized a growing political split over the implications of technology and social change between “dynamists”, who favored freedom of experimentation and “stasists”who favor top-down, social and political controls over technological progress. Ikle is clearly in the latter camp; while much of AFW is devoted to the outcome of a nuclear attack “from within”, Ikle spends a fair amount of time worrying about the advent of “superintelligence“, the dystopian potential of exotic technology and ends with a plea for a consideration of “stationary-state”economic theory. Shades of the Club of Rome.

Ikle adeptly identifies critical security vulnerabilities and likely hypothetical scenarios that the national security and defense communities have not adequately addressed. More than identifies, Ikle himself has attempted to nudge policy makers into taking necessary steps to minimize the chances of nuclear catastrophe as he once convinced General Curtis LeMay to establish screening procedures for military personnel who had access to nuclear weapons and used coded safety locks on the weapons themselves. The concerns Ikle raises are well worth raising and most should be acted upon to some degree, which is one reason AFW is a “must read” book for anyone interested in strategic or security studies.

That being said, Ikle falls into the common fallacy of futurist books of this type on two counts. First assuming that all that which is necessary for the worst case scenario to come pass will fall perfectly in to place. He does this most strenuously with the subjects upon which he has the least to say, such as on “superintelligence” ( which, none of us, in actuality can assess the parameters of, for reasons of self-referential limitations). Secondly, aside from dismissing the benefits of the exotic technologies that Ikle fears, he corrupts his probabilistic estimates of disaster by not accounting for all the positive downstream effects of new technologies that will also be causing societal shifts.

A stimulating and serious book.


James McCormick at Chicago Boyz

John Robb at Global Guerillas

3 Responses to “”

  1. A.E. Says:

    The book definitely has its flaws, but its a useful companion (and counterpoint) to Ray Kurzweil’s largely optimistic work.

  2. mark Says:

    True. A useful balance in that respect.

  3. A.E. Says:

    Perhaps the Hegelian synthesis of the two is John Robb?

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