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Superempowered Individuals…After Dark

Adam Elkus was kind enough to cite one of my old posts on superempowered individuals as a foil to develop the concept further in his DNI article “Night of the Lone Wolves“:

“Who is the “super-empowered individual?” He is talented, alienated from society, and willing to kill large numbers of people. The technological revolution has given him destructive tools unimaginable to the anarchists and terrorists of old. He is an innovator-he creates new doctrines, tactics, and operations. A “brittle” infrastructure that lacks redundancy and resiliency gives him a perfect target. Living off the grid, he is invisible to authorities. The unprecedented nature of his attack ensures that no counter-measures are in place to prevent it. And when he strikes, his attack will not only kill massive amounts of people, but also profoundly change the financial, political, and social systems that govern modern life.

This is a frighteningly plausible vision. As blogger and futurist Mark Safranski gloomily noted, “the world is but one self-sacrificing genetic microbiologist away from a super-empowered suicide bomber riding international air routes to a new black plague”. That being said, many scientists and security experts note the immense difficulty involved in acquiring, maintaining, and deploying weapons of mass destruction. One expert, Bruce Schneier, is especially vehement in deriding what he calls “movie-plot” threats.

Who is right? Both sides. For now, the probability that a super-empowered individual will trigger a extreme mass casualty event is extremely low. But the high odds against such a catastrophe occurring will ensure that when it happens we will be taken totally by surprise. If a mass-murdering microbiologist is indeed preparing to make engineered smallpox complimentary to the in-flight meal, there is little we can do to stop him. Confused? With apologies to The Matrix, it’s time to take the red pill. “

Read the whole thing here.

Elkus is correct, as he goes on to develop his thesis,  in assessing the mass psychology aspect of superempowerment as as aspect that will often be more significant than any kinetics in future SEI events. look at the societal shock delivered to the Netherlands by the murder of Dutch film maker, Theo van Gogh, a perturbation of Dutch society made possible not by the death of a single man but the reportage amplified through a modern mass media.  Often but not always. Aside from the microbiological example, the disruption or destruction of certain complex systems, such as financial markets, by an SEI, will have ripple effects of a significant magnitude.

Elkus closes with a positive prescription, one rooted in the strategic ideas of John Boyd, to which I can add my hearty assent:

“In any event, we have always lived with danger and always will. And the threat posed by murderous, alienated individuals, with or without weapons of mass destruction, will also always be with us. But the good news is that the key to overcoming these threats lies in two bedrock American values-hope and pragmatism: hope for a better world and the determination to create such a world; and the pragmatism that has helped us continuously innovate to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

What is needed is leadership at the top level that encourages and channels those values within the American people, instead of leadership that burdens them with fear. True leadership will recognize that strategy is not just wanton destruction-it is also, as John Boyd stated, “a pattern for vitality and growth“. If we recognize this, we can all be “super-empowered individuals” instead of victims huddling in fear of the sound of anything beyond the campfire.”

5 Responses to “Superempowered Individuals…After Dark”

  1. A.E. Says:

    Much thanks. Love the visual!

  2. zen Says:

    " Owwwww-ooooooooo…."

  3. Adrian Says:

    Why do super-empowered individuals have to be willing to kill lots of people, or even alienated from society?  I could imagine financial attacks that would certainly have a strategic effect on the US, global economy, etc., that wouldn’t physically harm a soul.  Or you could even have benevolent super-empowered individuals.  I interpreted super-empowered very simply – lots of power, outside the structures of the state – what to use that power towards is up to the individual.  Bill Gates is a super-empowered individual in my book.

  4. zen Says:

    Hi Adrian,

    "I could imagine financial attacks that would certainly have a strategic effect on the US, global economy, etc., that wouldn’t physically harm a soul"

    Agreed. I mentioned it in passing, I imagine derivatives would be a likely instrument.

    "Or you could even have benevolent super-empowered individuals."

    Also true – but I don’t worry about them.  :O)

  5. James Says:

    What is the process for creating benevolent super-empowered individuals?
    It seems that it is much more easy to be a destructive super-empowered individual than a benevolent one.
    In terms of time requirement, did the accumulation of capital to produce a super-empowered Bill Gates take vastly longer than the process to produce a Timothy McVeigh?

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