Threat Share

Ted Anthony of the Associated Press interviewed me for his provocative analysis of the American spirit in a time of troubles. My take:

If people had a vivid enough imagination of the threats they really face, the reactions that might occur could be almost as severe as the threats that we're anticipating.

The dark side of the attention economy, in which human time becomes the scarce resource no matter how much content on the Internet is free, is competition among our anxieties, from emerging viruses to suitcase bombs. We probably worried too much about cyberterrorism in 1999 (and in general about computer failures in the date transition to the year 2000) and not enough about supposedly old-fashioned hijacking.

In a world of multiple threats, boldness and caution can lose their meaning. President Gerald Ford's decision to follow expert recommendations and immunize all Americans against the last feared swine flu pandemic in 1976 led to hundreds of cases of paralysis from Guillain-Barré syndrome and more than 30 deaths from the vaccine, versus only one from swine flu itself. Today, voluntary and imposed travel limits and government-ordered destruction of pigs can create economic, social, and political disruptions rivaling all but the most deadly strains. But how do we know how virulent the current swine flu virus will become? As Faye Flam reports, researchers still have a lot to learn about its complex ancestry and possible new forms. But the strain that caused the 1918 pandemic is definitely on its family tree.

So while we should be doing more to prepare for disruptions -- I remember how few people in my area had enough bottled water on hand when flooding in central New Jersey disabled a pumping station for a week or so -- it's good and healthy that we're not more concerned. We have learned to delegate our worrying.




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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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