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Can IT Redeem Politics Gone Wrong?

We can try to use data mining to forestall terrorist attacks. We can also use it for precision marketing, to predict and reduce customer churn, to forecast product sales. Could our government not do a bit of data mining to understand why someone becomes a terrorist and then do some scenario analysis to see if we can constructively create conditions that will address root causes?
Retired Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, currently an executive at a Washington DC IT solutions provider, gives exactly the keynote presentation one would expect. He gives a keynote whose essence I've heard before: IT is a information sponge that can clean up some nasty, real-world spills. I heard this theme in 2003 when Richard Perle, former assistant secretary of defense, spoke at a Capital Hill program on data mining. It was the rationale for DARPA's ill-fated-but-resurgent Total Information Awareness program. It bespeaks an attitude that would apply IT on a massive scale in a rear-guard attempt to contain a political situation gone horribly wrong - we have to do something, right? - with not a moment's thought given to alternative paths.I heard Admiral Jacoby at the government users conference of an analytical technology company I follow. Don't get me wrong: the advocated technology solution seems compelling, capable, and even necessary. It also has great spin-offs in life sciences, industry, and business. I'm simply disappointed that the message seems to be, mimicking Clausewitz's famous line, "technology is the answer to a failing war," a message that ignores the potential for technology to address root causes and even to change the conditions that gave rise to current threats.

Admiral Jacoby, in his former intelligence job and in his current role at a defense contractor, has been a proponent of technologies that generate knowledge usable by analysts in the fight against terrorists. Terrorist networks are exploiting modern communications technologies. The admiral believes that the traditional "paradigm," filtering masses of information for presentation to analysts, should be turned on its head. "You don't try to decide on the front-end what's important. You try to put the information into a format where analysts" can work with "the full volume and variety of inputs of information, which has only been magnified in recent years."

Fair enough, but not enough. We can try to use data mining to forestall terrorist attacks. We can also use it for precision marketing, to predict and reduce customer churn, to forecast product sales. Could our government not do a bit of data mining to understand why someone becomes a terrorist and then do some scenario analysis to see if we can constructively create conditions that will address root causes?

I know that military and intelligence leaders "get it." The Washington Post cites Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, White House nominee as Iraq War coordinator, as having "told senators at a confirmation hearing that Iraqi factions 'have show so far very little progress' toward the reconciliation necessary to stop the bloodshed. If that does not change, he said, 'we're not likely to see much difference in the security situation' a year from now." ("Nominee to Coordinate War Offers Grim Forecast on Iraq," June 8, 2007.)

Admiral Jacoby, in his tech-conference keynote, said that "we need to harness the best capabilities and imagination that's available... in government, military, and civil service... plus industry, plus academia, plus think tanks here and abroad... to create an orchestrated [analytical] environment that allows us to deal with difficult threats... in the decades to come."

Contrast with a statement of architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff's: "At the height of the cold war, architect-engineers like Buckminster Fuller envisioned marshaling the immense resources of the American military-industrial complex to create a more ecologically balanced world." ("Why are They Greener Than We Are," New York Times Magazine, May 20, 2007.)

These two visions each call for the application of similar knowledge resources at similar scales in the face of similarly perceived threats. One vision is all reactive containment, all expansive single-mindedness. The other is confident that technology can craft a better world despite hugely difficult conditions. I recognize the necessity of the one vision but dearly wish that our politically fixated government, and its thought leaders as exemplified by Admiral Jacoby, would at least consider the second.

Seth Grimes is a Washington DC computing analyst at Alta Plana Corporation and a long-time member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

>>  Digg >>  SlashdotWe can try to use data mining to forestall terrorist attacks. We can also use it for precision marketing, to predict and reduce customer churn, to forecast product sales. Could our government not do a bit of data mining to understand why someone becomes a terrorist and then do some scenario analysis to see if we can constructively create conditions that will address root causes?