SF Writers Visit with Homeland Security

A couple of years ago Arlan Andrews, Greg Bear, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven and Sage Walker got their pictures in USA Today when they represented Sigma at a Homeland Security conference. Sigma is a kind of think tank where science fiction writers share insights about the future with agencies laying real-world plans. 

This week Sigma sent sf writers Arlan Andrews, Catherine Asaro, and Greg Bear to another DHS conference and they made the papers again. The Washington Post reported:

Harry McDavid, chief information officer for Homeland Security’s Office of Operations Coordination & Planning, had a question for Catherine Asaro, author of two dozen novels, about half of them devoted to her Saga of the Skolian Empire. She also has a PhD in physics. McDavid’s job involves “information sharing” — efficiently communicating information about response and recovery across agencies, states, business sectors. How, he wanted to know, did Asaro come up with the Triad system in her novels of flashing thoughts instantly across the universe?

“It evolved along with the story,” Asaro said. Basically, she applied principles of quantum theory — one of her specialties as a physicist — to a fictional theory of “thought space.”

McDavid has no plan to add telepathy to Homeland Security’s communications strategy. That wasn’t the point of his question — or of the agency’s invitation to science fiction writers in the first place. He’s looking for ways to break old habits of thought.

“We’re stuck in a paradigm of databases,” McDavid said later. “How do we jump out of our infrastructure and start conceptualizing those threats? That’s very cool.”

Sigma’s website shows around 40 authors are in the group. The website looks homemade, and its content is rather uneven. However, what they do is illustrated by Michael Swanwick’s gem of an editorial, “Fresh Flowers and Small Robots: The Open-Security Airport of 2010”. Swanwick sketches a compelling near-future vision where TSA does its business quite differently, and “Most amazingly, nobody takes their shoes off.”

Sigma’s news page, regrettably, occupies the other end of the quality spectrum. A group striving to impress prospective clients with its professionalism should not be repeating headlines that read:

DARPA, who teamed up with Dan Quale to invent the Internet…

If somebody wants to give props to Dan Quayle, spell his name right. But stop portraying Quayle as someone trying to poach credit that another Vice-President once claimed for creating the internet. Everyone just ends up looking foolish.

[Thanks to Francis Hamit and Andrew Porter for the link.]

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8 thoughts on “SF Writers Visit with Homeland Security

  1. Of course it happened. Your own source verifies that it did. Says Gore: “During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” It’s a direct quote.

  2. Mike, it seems to me that a reasonable interpretation of that quotation is that Mr. Gore meant “I played a major role in crafting legislation which led toward establishing what is known today as the Internet.”

    The problem is that journalist Declan McCullaugh is alleged (so I have been told) to have deliberately shortened and re-imaged what former Congressman/Senator/Vice President Gore actually said, which you quote accurately, into “I invented the Internet,” which is a phrase one would expect from someone claiming to have built it in his basement laboratory with his crippled aide, Igor, and which Mr. Gore has never said.

    The one he did say makes him sound like a reasonable and thoughtful individual. The one he didn’t say but which has been put into his mouth makes him sound like a kook and/or a fraud.

    The misquotation has been a remarkably effective piece of political sabotage on the part of whoever created it, whether it was in fact Mr. McCullaugh or not.

  3. P. S.: I would agree with you that there’s a certain unfortunate irony in misspelling the name of a man who was so ardently taken to task for his own spelling errors. I don’t hold that again Mr. Quayle at all, as I have my own spelling idiosyncrasies which I carefully disguise with trips as necessary to Dictionary.reference.com.

    No, what I hold against former Vice President Quayle is that once while visiting the JPL he made the statement out of his own mouth, as recorded in context and re-played on that night’s network evening news programs, which I heard with my own ears, that Mars had an atmosphere and astronauts could walk around in their shirt sleeves.

  4. David – There isn’t anything unusual about a politician’s efforts at self-aggrandizement, for example by claiming credit for something he merely helped legislate funding for. When it’s done clumsily, as in Gore’s case, it becomes a natural target of satire.

    A lot of legislators get their names on things, and make political hay from the connection, without committing the gaffe of saying they created the thing they helped fund. I assume it was a gaffe, but there is no mistaking what Gore literally said. That somebody made it into a joke about him claiming to have invented the internet is a red herring — because the guy said what he said.

  5. And what the guy said is that he “took the initiative.” This weekend, I took the initiative in washing my car, but I didn’t wash my car. I took it down to the carwash place, paid the money, and they washed my car. And yet, if I hadn’t taken the initiative, it wouldn’t be clean now.

    Gore claimed he took the initiative in Congress. If you want to debate that, that’s fine. But he didn’t claim to have created the Internet any more than I claim to have washed my car.

  6. Mike, respectfully, I think it’s a bit more than that. This will be a bit lengthy for a normal weblog reply, so if you decide to delete it and let the issue end instead with your comment above, I’ll understand without taking offense.

    Okay, I’ve done some homework. The original quotation is part of a response to a debate question from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, which was: “Why should Democrats…support you instead of Bill Bradley?”

    The relevant portion of Mr. Gore’s somewhat long-winded response: “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.”

    I think it’s clear in context that he was speaking, as I said before, about writing legislation, not software.

    “We don’t think, as some people have argued, that Gore intended to claim he ‘invented’ the Internet. Moreover, there is no question in our minds that while serving as Senator, Gore’s initiatives had a significant and beneficial effect on the still-evolving Internet.” — Drs. Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, the men who created the TCP/IP communications protocol

    “In all fairness, it’s something Gore had worked on a long time. Gore is not the Father of the Internet, but…Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet, and the truth is — and I worked with him starting in 1978 when I got [to Congress], we were both part of a ‘futures group’ — the fact is, in the Clinton administration, the world we had talked about in the ’80s began to actually happen.” — Dr. Newt Gingrich

    “[Gore’s] meaning, obvious to anyone who knew the record, was that he did the political work and articulated the public vision that made the Internet possible. No reasonable person could conclude that Gore was claiming to have invented the Internet in any technical sense. The first half of his sentence makes this clear: he is talking about work he did in the context of his service in the Congress. The creation of the Internet was a process that had several phases and took several years, and Gore is claiming the principal credit for the political side of that effort. It is a substantial claim, but an accurate one.” — Philip Agre, professor of Information Science, UCLA, writing about the quotation in 2000.

    “I didn’t ask him about the Internet. I asked him about the differences he had with Bill Bradley…. Honestly, at the time, when he said it, it didn’t dawn on me that this was going to have the impact that it wound up having, because it was distorted to a certain degree and people said they took what he said, which was a carefully phrased comment about taking the initiative and creating the Internet to — ‘I invented the Internet.’ And that was the sort of shorthand, the way his enemies projected it and it wound up being a devastating setback to him and it hurt him, as I’m sure he acknowledges to this very day.” — Wolf Blitzer in 2008, about his 1999 question and Gore’s answer in response.

    And finally (and most polemically), remember what I said above about Declan McCullaugh? We can remove the word “alleged”:

    Wired News ought to apologize to Gore…. Media and political junkies may recall [it] played a key role in helping create the myth that Gore once awkwardly claimed to have invented the Internet. Indeed, Wired‘s new Gore profile can’t resist revisiting the tale in its headline: “He Invented the Internet (sort of)”. The inventing-the-Internet charade represented a new low in MSM campaign journalism; a case in which a fabricated story came to dominate the coverage. And make no mistake, it dominated. In researching my new book on Bush and the press, I went back to the 2000 election and counted more than 4,800 television, newspaper, and magazine mentions during the campaign of Gore supposedly claiming to have invented the Internet. The fact that it was not true seemed to be of little interest….

    “The tale was first hatched by the Wired News, the ‘online home of Wired Magazine.’ On March 11, 1999, Wired News‘ Declan McCullagh posted a nasty article mocking Gore for his little-noticed comments to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that, ‘During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.’ Inelegant wording perhaps, but Wired News treated Gore’s statement as an outrageously false claim. (McCullagh later bragged, ‘I was the first reporter to question the vice president’s improvident boast.’) To give the story some oomph, Wired News downplayed the real role Gore played legislatively in helping shepherd the Internet’s commercial applications to life (even Newt Gingrich vouched for that), did not call the Gore campaign for additional comment or explanation, but did include a quote from conservative flak who ridiculed the VP. In fact, the GOP partisan was the only person apparently contacted by Wired News for its Gore story.

    “The caustic Wired News story was quickly picked up by Republicans who, busy planting the Gore-is-a-liar narrative in the press, began the mantra that Gore claimed to have ‘invented’ the Internet. He never did. Nonetheless, pundits on the right (Bill Kristol) and left (Mark Shields) unloaded on Gore, as journalists ran with with the much more pleasing ‘invented’ phrase. Even in its follow-up Gore/Internet article, Wired News, which knew Gore never claimed to have ‘invented’ anything, effortlessly adopted the GOP spin, reporting in the very first paragraph that Gore ‘claimed to have invented the Internet.’ For that, Wired News announced in 1999, the VP was ‘spewing half-witted comments.'” — Eric Boehlert

    References to the above quotations:


    Thanking you in advance for graciously letting me make my points (I hope!),

    Your friend,


  7. David – I’m happy to give you the floor, and now I’d like to add a few more thoughts.

    Internet years, like dog years, seem out of synch with mere human time. It’s so easy for subsequent political developments to compel revisionism. Not revision of Gore’s legislative record, but revision of the popular culture as of the year 2000.

    It wasn’t just Bush’s writers who jumped on this, it was universal. It was fodder for Saturday Night Live and Letterman’s nightly Top 10 lists. Nobody would accuse SNL, Letterman, nor even Wired, of being Republican party organs.

    The phenomemon didn’t occur because people were deceived. People wanted to make that joke because they had volatile feelings about a candidate who came out of the Clinton administration, and lit off the kindling with a poorly-received claim. (And their desire to make that joke doesn’t mean that Gore didn’t get their vote later.)

    I also wonder if the reaction reflected a quality of overpossessiveness about the internet felt by its user communities — that no mundane politician was entitled to any credit for what they were pioneering.

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