TCS Daily

Learning Faster

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 30, 2002 12:00 AM

Albert Einstein once said that the most powerful force in the universe is compound interest. There's a good argument for this position, but I think that the most powerful force in the human universe is the learning curve.

The war on terrorism provides good examples of this phenomenon on both sides. Before September 11, the terrorists were the ones with a learning curve. Although there is plenty of evidence that the Al Qaeda crowd isn't especially bright, over the years they demonstrated the salutary (for them) qualities of persistence and willingness to learn from mistakes. When truck-bombing the World Trade Center failed, they started looking at airplanes. When initial efforts to hijack airplanes failed, they changed their approach.

The aviation-security establishment, meanwhile, was much less adaptable. It concentrated on stopping 1970's style skyjackings, where the chief goal was publicity (and perhaps money) rather than murder. Later, efforts began to turn toward blocking Lockerbie-style bomb smuggling. And because the security system was blocking such efforts with a fair degree of efficiency, it didn't change its approach even when confronted with indications that the terrorists were changing theirs. Bureaucracies are supposed to be about sharing information, but information is power in bureaucracies, and people are not all that keen about sharing power.

The result was that, on September 11, the terrorists held all the cards. They carried only items that did not violate carry-on rules. They avoided scrutiny designed to thwart bomb-smugglers - scrutiny based on the assumption that terrorists wouldn't want to die with their victims. They took advantage of a stay-passive philosophy that urged (indeed, required as a matter of policy) cooperation rather than confrontation with hijackers.

But no sooner did the first plane strike the World Trade Center than the hijackers had to confront someone with a swifter learning curve. As Brad Todd noted in a terrific column written just a few days later, American civilians, using items of civilian technology like cellphones and 24-hour news channels, changed tactics and defeated the hijackers aboard United Airlines' Flight 93, overcoming years of patient planning in less than two hours. No one has successfully hijacked a civilian airliner since - and, as "shoebomber" Richard Reid illustrates, those terrorists who threaten civilian airliners now tend to emerge rather the worse for wear. Against bureaucracies, terrorists had the learning-curve advantage. Against civilians, they did not.

This should come as no surprise. American civilians, perhaps more even than their counterparts in Europe, Japan, and the rest of the industrialized world, are used to making rapid changes based on new information. Accustomed to a steep learning curve in business and in life, we should be able to out-adapt those who, after all, are ultimately committed to returning the world to a simulacrum of the 12th century.

And there's a lesson there. Societies that encourage open communication, quick thinking, decentralization, and broad dispersal of skills - along with a sense of individual responsibility - have an enormous structural advantage as opposed to societies that don't, an advantage that increases in a world of high technology and unconventional war. But tyrants and fanatics, of whatever stripe, can't afford to encourage those traits in their citizens if they want to remain in power. The message that this should send our adversaries is one they should find disheartening: the only way you're likely to beat us is by becoming like us - at which point, more than likely, you won't want to beat us anyway.

We shouldn't let this fact make us overconfident, of course. Structural advantages are a wonderful thing, but no one is invincible. But as we look at how to order our society in the wake of September 11, and in the wake of financial disasters like the Enron collapse, we should not lose sight of what it is that makes us strong - the flexibility and decentralization that make American society great, and that drive bureaucrats nuts.

Bureaucrats like centralization and control. But even fundamentalist terrorists can outthink bureaucrats.


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