It has been recently revealed that the
TotalTerrorist Information Awareness Office (a department of the Pentagon) has spent somewhere shy of a million dollars developing a system that will allow people to wager on terrorist events and assasinations in the middle east: SF Chronicle: Pentagon to start futures market for terror attacks
It sounds jaw-droppingly callous, not to mention absurd: An Internet gambling parlor, sponsored by the U.S. government, on politics in the Middle East. Anyone, from Osama bin Laden to your grandmother, can bet over the Web on such questions as whether Yasser Arafat will be assassinated or Turkey's government will be overthrown.
If the bettors are right, they'll win money; if they're wrong, they'll lose their wagers. The site itself will keep numerical tallies of the current "odds" for various events.
Defenders of this unprecedented idea claim that it is based on a well regarded theory called Efficient Market Analysis which operates on the idea "the collective consciousness is smarter than any single person. By forcing people to put their money where their mouth is, the wagers help weed out know-nothings and give more weight to the opinions of those in the know."
Ignoring for the moment, the global political aspects of one sovereign nation running a government sponosored betting pool on such things as the assassination of the leaders of other sovereign nations, I found the implications of such a system alarming.
I recently finished reading the worlds first cyberpunk novel, The Shockwave Rider written by John Brunner in 1975. In this novel he describes a system called Delphi which taps into the national consciousness via a wagering and opinion polling system. Almost anything at all can be fed into the system. Opinion feedback is tracked and bets can be placed. The government uses the system to keep a grasp, effectively in realtime, on national opinions on any matter, allowing it to operate within what it knows are safe boundaries. The problem of course, is that the government and criminals are manipulating the system. In effect they were able to turn it back on itself so that what on the surface seemed like a tool for tracking the publics wishes, instead was a means to manipulate the public's belief system.
The parallels with this recently discovered TIA program are obvious. And in an era where there are questions about the US Intelligence Community's pre-9/11 knowledege and who is profiting from the war on terror, would it be wise to introduce a system that can both be subject to manipulation and manipulative itself? Just think of all of the parties who could benefit from manipulating such a system; everyone from terrorists, to corrupt politicians, to intelligence community insiders, to organized crime and so on....
Personally, my gut feeling is that the theory of this style market is probably sound. However I also suspect that the implementation of the market system will be clouded in secrecy making it easily controllable by powerful members of the American plutocracy. Much like the electronic vote counting systems in use throughout this country which have never been publically verified as secure because the company claims trade secrets on it. Basically the outcomes of U.S. elections are completely dependent on faith in the goodwill of the companies doing the counting. This terrorism futures market would probably be a closed secretive system along the same lines.
Actually though, I found the idea of Delphi in the novel exciting. The theory seems promising to me and I'd be curious to see such a system implemented. The only necessity is that it is developed and operated in full public view, with total public accounting of all inputs, outputs and workings of the system. I believe this could be done. I'll close off with a quote from The Shockwave Rider wherein the authoer introduces Delphi:
It works, approximately, like this.
First you corner a large - if possible, a very large - number of people who, while they've never formally studied the subject you're going to ask them about and hence are unlikely to recall the correct answer, are nonetheless plugged into the culture to which the question relates.
Then you ask them, as it might be, to estimate how many people died in the great influenza epedemic which followed World War I, or how many loaves of bread were condemned by the EEC food inspectors as unfit for human consumption during June 1970.
Curiously, when you consolidate their replies they tend to cluster around the actual figure as recorded in almanacs, yearbooks and statistical returns.
It's rather as though this paradox has proven true: that while nobody knows what's going on around here, everybody knows what's going on around here.
Well, if it works for the past, why can't work for the future? 300 million people with access to the integrated North American data-net is a nice big number of potential consultees.
Unfortunately the most of them are running scared from the awful specter of tomorrow. How best to corner people who just do not want to know?
Greed works for some, and for others hope. And most of the remainder will never have any impact on the world to speak of.