Robert Samuelson Engages in a Bit of Argumentum in Cyber-Terrorem

by on July 1, 2013 · 1 comment

Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson published an astonishing essay today entitled, “Beware the Internet and the Danger of Cyberattacks.” In the print edition of today’s Post, the essay actually carries a different title: “Is the Internet Worth It?” Samuelson’s answer is clear: It isn’t. He begins his breathless attack on the Internet by proclaiming:

If I could, I would repeal the Internet. It is the technological marvel of the age, but it is not — as most people imagine — a symbol of progress. Just the opposite. We would be better off without it. I grant its astonishing capabilities: the instant access to vast amounts of information, the pleasures of YouTube and iTunes, the convenience of GPS and much more. But the Internet’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous transformative technologies, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: cyberwar.

And then, after walking through a couple of worst-case hypothetical scenarios, he concludes the piece by saying:

the Internet’s social impact is shallow. Imagine life without it. Would the loss of e-mail, Facebook or Wikipedia inflict fundamental change? Now imagine life without some earlier breakthroughs: electricity, cars, antibiotics. Life would be radically different. The Internet’s virtues are overstated, its vices understated. It’s a mixed blessing — and the mix may be moving against us.

What I found most troubling about this is that Samuelson has serious intellectual chops and usually sweats the details in his analysis of other issues. He understands economic and social trade-offs and usually does a nice job weighing the facts on the ground instead of engaging in the sort of shallow navel-gazing and anecdotal reasoning that many other weekly newspaper columnist engage in on a regular basis.

But that’s not what he does here. His essay comes across as a poorly researched, angry-old-man-shouting-at-the-sky sort of rant. There’s no serious cost-benefit analysis at work here; just the banal assertion that a new technology has created new vulnerabilities.  Really, that’s the extent of the logic at work here. Samuelson could have just as well substituted the automobile, airplanes, or any other modern technology for the Internet and drawn the same conclusion: It opens the door to new vulnerabilities (especially national security vulnerabilities) and, therefore, we would be better off without it in our lives.

Samuelson does admit that “Life would be radically different… without some earlier breakthroughs: electricity, cars, antibiotics,” so it is obvious he thinks their benefits outweigh their costs. But I could just as well say that new technologies such as cars and planes bring death and destruction, both in the theater of war and in everyday life. So, one might conclude of modern transportation technology that the “virtues are overstated, its vices understated. It’s a mixed blessing — and the mix may be moving against us,” just as Samuelson concludes of the Net.  Of course, such an assertion would be absurd without reference to the many benefits that accrue to us from these technologies. I don’t think I need to cite them all here. But Samuelson is certainly a sharp enough guy that he would engage in such a cost-benefit analysis if someone made such an assertion about other technologies.

When it comes to the Internet, however, all he can say about benefits is that “the instant access to vast amounts of information, the pleasures of YouTube and iTunes, the convenience of GPS and much more.” (GPS? Really? Strictly speaking, that’s not an Internet technology, Bob. But perhaps you have something against satellite technology, too! Looking forward to your column, “Is Satellite Communication Worth It?”)

Of course the first benefit of the Internet that Samuelson cites — “instant access to vast amounts of information” — is nothing to sneeze at! The fact that he so casually dismisses that benefit is rather troubling. For the vast majority of civilization, humans have lived in a what we might think of as a state of extreme information poverty. Today, by contrast, we are blessed to live in amazing times. An entire planet of ubiquitous, instantly accessible media and information is now at our fingertips. We are able to share culture and engage with others — both socially and commercially — in ways that were unthinkable and impossible even just a few decades ago.

It’s hard to quantify the benefits associated with these facts, but I would think most of us would agree they are enormous. But it’s hardly the only sort of benefit that comes from the Internet and modern digital communications technologies. The fact that Samuelson can’t think of anything more is either a serious failure of imagination or, more troubling, an intentional effort to minimize and ignore those benefits in order to prey on people’s worst fears.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about “technopanics” and the role that journalists sometimes play in hyping them. See, for example, my essay last summer, “Journalists, Technopanics & the Risk Response Continuum,” which is based on my Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology law review article, “Technopanics, Threat Inflation, and the Danger of an Information Technology Precautionary Principle.” As I explain in that article, the model for what Samuelson has done in his essay is actually a very old logical fallacy: a so-called “appeal to fear.” Here’s how I explain it in my law review article:

Rhetoricians employ several closely related types of “appeals to fear.” Douglas Walton, author of Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation, outlines the argumentation scheme for “fear appeal arguments” as follows:

  • Fearful Situational Premise: Here is a situation that is fearful to you.
  • Conditional Premise: If you carry out A, then the negative consequences portrayed in the fearful situation will happen to you.
  • Conclusion: You should not carry out A.

This logic pattern here is referred to as argumentum in terrorem or argumentum ad metum. A closely related variant of this argumentation scheme is known as argumentum ad baculum, or an argument based on a threat. Argumentum ad baculum literally means “argument to the stick,” an appeal to force. Walton outlines the argumentum ad baculum argumentation scheme as follows:

  • Conditional Premise: If you do not bring about A, then consequence B will occur.
  • Commitment Premise: I commit myself to seeing to it that B comes about.
  • Conclusion: You should bring about A.

As will be shown, these argumentation devices are at work in many information technology policy debates today even though they are logical fallacies or based on outright myths. They tend to lead to unnecessary calls for anticipatory regulation of information or information technology.

I continue on in that article to provide several examples of how “argumentum in cyber-terrorem” logic is at work in several digital policy arenas today, especially as it pertains to cybersecurity and cyberwar fears. My Mercatus Center colleagues Jerry Brito and Tate Watkins have warned of the dangers of “threat inflation” in cybersecurity policy in their important paper, “Loving the Cyber Bomb? The Dangers of Threat Inflation in Cybersecurity Policy.” The rhetoric of cybersecurity debates illustrates how threat inflation is a crucial part of “argumentum in cyber-terrorem” logic. Frequent allusions are made in cybersecurity debates to the potential for a “Digital Pearl Harbor,”  a “cyber cold war,”  a “cyber Katrina,”  or even a “cyber 9/11.”  These analogies are made even though these historical incidents resulted in death and destruction of a sort not comparable to attacks on digital networks. Others refer to “cyber bombs” even though no one can be “bombed” with binary code. A rush to judgment often follows inflated threats.

And that’s exactly what Samuelson has done in his essay. He’s rushed to an illogical, sweeping conclusion — namely, that we would be better off just bottling up the Net, or “repealing” it (whatever that means) — and he hasn’t even bothered considering the costs of such action. Worse yet, even though he admits that, “I don’t know the odds of this technological Armageddon. I doubt anyone does. The fears may be wildly exaggerated,” that doesn’t stop him from suggesting that we should live in fear of worst case hypothetical scenarios and take radical steps based upon them.

Again, it is certainly true that the Internet creates new vulnerabilities, including national security vulnerabilities, but that simply cannot be the end of the story. Those vulnerabilities need to be carefully evaluated and measured and, before we rush to panicked conclusions and advocate sweeping policy solutions, the corresponding benefits of the Internet must be taken into consideration.

Instead, Samuelson has engaged in the worst sort of fear-based, factually-challenged reasoning in his essay. It’s a model for how not to think or write about Internet policy. A more thoughtful analysis would acknowledge that the Internet is more than just “a symbol of progress;” it constitutes real progress and an improvement of the human condition.  And while it’s all too easy for newspaper columnists to suggest “we would be better off without it” and that it should be “repealed,” there are all too many government goons out there who would like to do just that since the Net has empowered the masses and given them a voice like no other technology in history.

Shame on Robert Samuelson for dismissing these realities — and the Internet’s many benefits — so lightly.


[Note: See all my essays on “technopanics” here.]

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