TechWatch: Is Technology the Villain for September 11?

Our thoughts and prayers continue to go to the victims of the September 11 tragedy in New York City and Washington DC. There is no way to make “sense” of these terrorist attacks but they can serve as a wake-up call on many issues: the creation and use of technology, the role of people in a complex technological system, security and freedom, and limits to tolerance, to name a few.

Because of the relevance of these topics to the issues of IBTE I thought it appropriate to comment on them.


Consider the role of technology. This was a sophisticated attack, drawing both on aerospace technology (in an obvious way) and information technology. The level of communication that was required to create and schedule multiple attacks, apparently coordinated from half way around the world, would not have been possible without today’s information technology. E-mail apparently played a critical role in communication between a group of people in multiple locations, as did on-line access to flight schedules and airplane types.

So, do we blame the technology?

Obviously, no. But these events provide a dramatic illustration, more dramatic than anything IBTE had ever anticipated, of two key principles:
– Technology is never neutral, but rather is ambivalent.
– Technology is an amplifier.

The differences between neutral and ambivalent are profound. If technology were neutral, it would stay on the sidelines during conflict. Since it is ambivalent, it can be used by both sides of a conflict. Technology is a powerful force and we must always be alert both to its potential value and to its potential harm. The same logistical coordination that allows the rapid shipment of goods was also used to launch a terrorist attack on multiple targets at the same time with ordinary commercial airplanes. The same e-mail system that enabled communication between terrorists left an electronic trail that others can use to unravel the plot. The same airplane technology used in the destruction has aided rescue efforts that followed.

The inventors of technology generally focus on the good that will come from their inventions. This is the driving force for their challenging, intellectual work. How an invention ultimately gets used is often a surprise even to the inventor. “We build (these airplanes) to put families together and use it for good, and somebody turns it around and uses it for a bomb, basically. It’s a horrible thing,” said Alton Folks, a Boeing engineer, as reported by AP writer Allison Linn on Thursday, September 13, 2001.

Technology is an amplifier. It can raise the stakes on both sides. Jack Welch, the recently retired CEO from GE, became known as “e-Jack” because of his zeal for digitizing everything at GE. He credited application of information technology for billions of dollars of savings over the past several years. Information technology has also greatly increased the “reach” of a business, enabling the globalization of business today.

On the other side, e-business has displaced a large number of people from their jobs. One response to globalization is the feeling of helplessness and lack of control that spilled out into the WTO riots in the streets of Seattle a year ago. Some in the Middle East blame globalization for destroying their way of life and their culture.

In the terrorist attacks, the stakes were raised to a whole new level. Terrorism itself was moved from a regional issue to a global one. Border skirmishes and car bombs that used to be the terrorists’ stock in trade and killed small numbers of people have been amplified to kill thousands of people.

This calls for all of us to be more intentional when thinking about technology. Don’t stop at what technology could be good for. Consider how it might be misused to bring about harm — in this case tremendous harm. Consider its role in amplifying other problem areas. Think about the mitigation strategy that may help prevent the mis-applications of the technology.

This is not a new challenge to the technology community. The words of the 1960s satirical song “Wernher von Braun” by Tom Lehrer come to mind:
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

We will never be able to anticipate all of the potential consequences of technology, and we will not stop its continued development. So we need to spend the time to create possible future uses of the technology. What is the worst thing that could happen? How could this be misused? Are there potential downsides to the technology and what might be done about them?


The human element comes into this story in many ways. First, there are heroes and villains, good and evil in the acts of people. Like technology, humans are capable of incredible giftedness and compassion, or incredible evil. Here, too, we see an amplification.

Second, human beings, when focused on the issue, are particularly good at envisioning the possible consequences that may arise from technology. This seems to be an area where humans are best and where technology, even “intelligent” technology may be unable to compete with people. Similarly, there is a complementary role between “human intelligence” and “technological intelligence.” Early after the tragedy, commentators were speculating whether too much of the investment in military and strategic intelligence was going into technological intelligence. It is too early to know in this case, but the question is a good one.

Human greed is also amplified by the quick access to information. Reports of gas stations raising their prices to four or five dollars a gallon the day of the attack are just one illustration of this.

Security and Freedom

We’ve seen and heard the quote from Benjamin Franklin a great deal since September 11. “The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either.” In response to the terrorists we bravely say we will not give up freedom for security. But how does this work in a technological age, where globalization made possible by technology can be applied to terrorism as well as business?

In Franklin’s day, security and freedom were defended at national boundaries. We must still wrestle with the implications for global business, where national boundaries have much less control, and are sometimes seen as irrelevant in the face of the multinational business. Using the same technology, terrorism can reach its arm through e-mail, postal mail, and
telecommunications. We must look carefully at how we set the boundaries between security and freedom in a global world.

It is easy to lose perspective, however. A recent account of newspaper columnists being fired for speaking their position at odds with the administration represents a disturbing trend regardless of which side you support.

Security boundaries will also be tightened in the information technology world. We will see an increase in the development and use of security measures in electronic communications helping businesses and individuals guard against hacking, viruses, and cyber crimes of all kinds. Interestingly, the computer ideal of openness, for ease of use and transparent interfaces is facing a challenge because of increased security risks.


Since the September 11 attacks, we have heard the terms “good and evil” more times over the news than for many recent years. Our society had become so focused on being tolerant of other viewpoints, the only viewpoint that wasn’t tolerated was “this is right and this is wrong.” These recent events have allowed us to say “this is wrong.” This is a good thing for any civilized society.

Don’t get me wrong here. Those who would stereotype people by the color of their skin, their gender, or their nationality should still be challenged. In spite of the environment we should even ask questions such as:
– Are there reasons why groups of people hate America?
– Are there lessons we should learn about our own behavior in the world where we may have overstepped our bounds?

The book Jihad vs. McWorld by Benjamin Barber (1996), reviewed in Ethix 13 (October 2000), offers some timely insight to the rising tensions in our world from the globalization of the American Way.

Asking these questions offers NO support or excuse to terrorists who would kill innocent people. If someone would run us off the road for poor driving, nothing would excuse his or her behavior. But we should still be willing to investigate factors contributing to poor driving today.

All behavior is not acceptable, and should not be embraced in the name of tolerance. But we must be careful how we draw the boundaries.

In a diversity training class a few years ago, I was told that all lifestyles were equally valid and there was to be no judgment made regarding right and wrong. I asked if we should embrace criminal behavior in the workplace. When told no, my response was “Then we agree there are boundaries. We just have to discuss where they are.” So the September 11 events have brought this discussion of right and wrong back to the table, and this is a lesson we must embrace.


The tragic events of September 11 underscore the need to spend more time in reflection on globalization and the application of our rapidly developing technology. There is evil intent among people, and there are tragic applications of our technology. We need to spend more time in reflection on these questions. This should not stop the application of technology in making businesses more efficient and effective. But here again, the questions about how the technology might be misused need to be raised early and often.

Similarly, we need the proper response to the terrorist acts. Justice and revenge may sound similar, but they are not. Let’s focus on justice without being blinded by revenge.


Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.