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You Didn’t Build That … Terrifying Killing Machine

Here’s a really curious post by Kevin Kelly [1] that makes a curious argument:

A classic Hollywood trope is the evil genius madman who is using new technology he just invented to murder (or blackmail with the threat to murder) a large chunk of humanity. Always the lone evil genius works in a high tech haven, hidden from others, all by himself. At this point, the scenario is total fiction because no one can run all that technology by themselves. It is hard to keep 3 computers and a network going all by yourself. The madman’s electronic door hatch probably crashes once a month, particularly if the madman just invented it. So can you invent and keep operational the death ray? No. Way. No solo genius can destroy mankind. That kind of power takes cooperation.

In fact, I offer a new theorem: The power of an individual to kill others has not increased over time.

To restate that: An individual — a person working alone today — can’t kill more people than say someone living 200 or 2,000 years ago.

At first this seems to fly against all the other trends in technology, but I think this law is true, and it is true for the same reasons that overall violence is diminishing over time, as Steven Pinker points out.

Read the whole post to see how he develops the argument. He concludes,

The myth of the lone evil genius is that you can make complex technology all by yourself without the infrastructure of a society. You can’t, at least in the beginning. Because more powerful technologies require more social support, this increased social pressure keeps the technology in check. Crazy rogue geniuses with caves full of death technology ticking down to blow up the world make great villains on the big screen, but there is no evidence at all in the real world that anything like that has ever happened.

Is he right?

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9 Comments To "You Didn’t Build That … Terrifying Killing Machine"

#1 Comment By jeff On November 8, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

McVeigh only had Nichols, as far as we know. Though he doesn’t fall in the category of genius by any stretch.

#2 Comment By jeff On November 8, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

Check that, forgot about Fortier.

#3 Comment By NJD On November 8, 2012 @ 7:05 pm

Not if you are trained right. A lone biologist could kill thousands through the use of biological/chemical weapons.

#4 Comment By William Dalton On November 8, 2012 @ 9:04 pm

Depending upon the safeguards that may be in place to prevent doing so, one person with the requisite knowledge and access to the internet could conceivably take control, deploy and detonate weaponry developed by the military-industrial complex, perhaps even a nuclear explosive.

#5 Comment By Charlie On November 8, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

In fact, I offer a new theorem: The power of an individual to kill others has not increased over time.

This is an odd jump; he’s attacking the presence of lone super-villains in fiction by counter-arguing that those people don’t exist in real life. I don’t think it’s particularly controversial to say that humans working together can tackle more complicated problems, and create more complex systems, than a lone individual. It’s also a millenia-old observation that humans are naturally inclined to come together and create communities. Add to that the relative rarity of psychopathy, of genius-level intelligence, and of the patience to execute long-term projects. So, I’m not sure it’s novel to point out that 1) Genuine Bond-style super-genius villains don’t exist, and 2) If they did, they’d have a very hard time accomplishing much without being forced into hiding, isolated from the rest of the world, and eventually either shot or blown up by a nation-state’s armed forces.

As for the question of whether the potential lethality of an individual has increased over time, it seems reasonable that there’s an outer-limit to how much damage an individual can do, even with modern technology. But he stacks the deck by defining things such that, say, Charles Whitman would have had to brew his own gunpowder and build his own rifle to be credited as a “lone gunman” (e.g., he argues that the lethality of the Hiroshima bomb is rightfully credited to the entire 130,000-person Manhattan Project, not to the flight crew that actually carried out the mission). I think it would be more interesting to ask, “Given the world we live in, with its large weapon-producing bureaucracies and easy access to technology and information, is it now easier for more individual bad actors to inflict more damage than it was 25, 100, 1000 years ago?” I’d guess that the answer is yes, even granting that a lone murderer could sink a ship or burn down a church centuries ago.

#6 Comment By George Tirebiter On November 8, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

Speaking of classic fictional Hollywood troupes, you neglected to mention the evil genius madman that orchestrated the incredibly complex process of knocking down 3 prominent buildings in New York with 2 planes, using a passenger airliner to blast a missile sized hole in the Pentagon, leaving virtually no crash debris (at the exact place in the Pentagon where the information was located concerning the missing 2 trillion dollars) and crashing a 3rd plane into the ground leaving virtually no crash debris. He orchestrated all this from a cave in Afghanistan while his hijacked planes successfully eluded detection in the most highly guarded airspace in the United States. And he must have done this all by himself, since none of the supposed plane hijackers were listed on the passenger lists of the planes they supposedly hijacked. And thus he is responsible for killing upwards of 3000 people. So the ability for 1 evil genius to kill many more people by himself does exist today.
You’ve got to admit, Hollywood couldn’t put one together any better than this.
Believe it or not.

#7 Comment By Chris On November 8, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

Real evil people don’t give soliloquies before they kill, and they don’t built their own versions of things that are readily available on the free market.

#8 Comment By Josh On November 9, 2012 @ 12:00 am

What Charlie said. But I’m not sure Kelly is right that you can’t “make complex technology all by yourself without the infrastructure of a society.” No, you still might not be able to make complex technology by yourself, but you stand a better chance of doing it without institutional support, which is a different thing. I’d hypothesize that it’s easier right now to get access to the elements of societal infrastructure you need to carry out your nefarious plan, because there are more access points and their lack of physical proximity is less of an obstacle. And there’s much more access to the pure information you need to make use of that infrastructure.

#9 Comment By Darth Thulhu On November 9, 2012 @ 2:20 am

There seem to be two potential discussions getting conflated.

First: A lone homicidal maniac can’t self-create terrifying megaweapons, and never will be able to do so.

This is probably true. Given that the entire nation of Iran has been glacially working toward a nuke for decades, with tons of foreign assistance, and is nowhere close to finishing the job (Bibi’s ACME illustrations notwithstanding), the chances of some lone Qaeda Qommander whipping up a planet-wrecking Weather Dominator seem slim.

Second: A lone homicidal maniac can’t deploy terrifying megaweapons, and will never be able to do so.

Here I’d be much less sanguine. Just because it properly takes a village to make the weaponized biological agent or nuke or pulse weapon or network supervirus, doesn’t mean that rogues will forever be incapable of stealing or begging or jury-rigging these kinds of things. This is why counter-proliferation matters: the more widely these kinds of weapons spread, the more likely some rogue group of nutbars is to acquire and deploy one.

I agree with the original author that mad-genius supervillains aren’t plausible, but that is no reason to conclude that weapons of mass destruction will never be at risk of getting into the hands of dangerous individuals.