Still Relevant After All These Years, Part III

Part III, Cat’s Cradle:

Kurt Vonnegut:

Kurt Vonnegut was an American author.  He was born in Indianapolis in 1922.  His great-grandfather was the owner and manager of the Vonnegut Hardware Company.  Kurt’s father and grandfather were both architects, and they designed a number of notable buildings in Indiana and the Midwest.  Kurt’s mother Edith (Lieber) came from a wealthy family, as the Liebers were the owners of a profitable brewery.   

Figure III.1: Author Kurt Vonnegut. 

But around the time Kurt Vonnegut was born, the family’s fortunes changed radically.  After the passage of Prohibition in 1921, the Lieber brewery closed down.   And a decade later, the Great Depression meant that clients for the Vonnegut’s architecture business vanished.  In the face of these setbacks, Kurt’s father became what he described as “a dreamy artist.”  His mother, on the other hand, became depressed and bitter. 

Kurt completed high school in Indianapolis and then enrolled in Cornell University in 1940.  He was persuaded by his family to major in a “useful” subject and so chose biochemistry.  But he had little interest in the subject.  He was also a member of Cornell’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC); however, his bad grades caused him to leave Cornell in January 1943. 

Kurt then enlisted in the Army.  When troops were urgently needed for the D-Day invasion, Vonnegut was transferred to Camp Atterbury, which was only a few miles from Vonnegut’s home; so he visited home frequently while at camp.  On the week following Mother’s Day in 1944, Vonnegut returned to his family home to learn that his mother had committed suicide on Mother’s Day. 

Vonnegut was then deployed to Europe.  In Dec. 1944, his unit took part in the Battle of the Bulge.  The German offensive overran Vonnegut’s division, and 500 members of that unit were killed.  Vonnegut was among 6,000 who were captured by the Germans.  Vonnegut and his fellow American prisoners of war were taken to Dresden, Germany, where they were housed in a slaughterhouse and made to work in a factory.  In Feb. 1945 the Allies bombed Dresden.  Despite the fact that there were very few military targets in Dresden, the Allies carried out saturation bombing over three days.  The bombs were dropped in a manner calculated to produce giant firestorms.  The firestorms destroyed most of the buildings of Dresden, and in addition the intense heat and extreme fire ignited much of the oxygen in the air; thus, citizens of Dresden who did not perish in the fire might well suffocate from lack of oxygen. 

Vonnegut and fellow American prisoners were able to escape the devastation because they took shelter in underground meat lockers, which could be closed to avoid the firestorms.  After the raid, Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners were put to work locating and removing bodies from the rubble. The nearly complete destruction of the city made an enormous impression on Vonnegut, and gave him first-hand experience of the horrors of modern warfare. 

After a couple of years study at the University of Chicago, Vonnegut was employed as a publicist by the General Electric Company at their headquarters in Schenectady, New York.  Vonnegut then began submitting short stories to magazines.  Several years ago, Indiana University’s Lilly Rare Book Library had an exhibition of Vonnegut’s papers (which are housed at the Lilly Library).  Among his effects, Vonnegut kept a shoebox full of rejection letters from magazines and publishing companies.  It must have taken enormous fortitude for Vonnegut to continue submitting works after receiving so much rejection.  However, after a couple of his short stories were published by Collier’s magazine, Vonnegut quit his job at GE and moved to Cape Cod, where he became a full-time writer. 

Vonnegut published his first novel, Player Piano, in 1952.  It received some positive reviews but sales of the book were somewhat disappointing.  He continued to release novels that were idiosyncratic and received mixed reviews.  He also wrote short stories that were published in a variety of different magazines.  Part of Vonnegut’s problem in getting his work published was that several of his works featured alien civilizations, and thus were considered science fiction.  That genre was not looked upon very favorably during this time, and publishers often struggled trying to find a suitable label for Vonnegut’s work. 

Vonnegut’s first major commercial success came from his 1963 dystopian novel Cat’s Cradle.  We will review that novel at length in the following section.  After that book Vonnegut gained a reputation as a serious novelist worthy of attention.  His works were particularly popular with college students, and his books began to appear on reading lists for college literature courses.  However, even then his next book did not sell well. 

All of this changed when Kurt Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse Five in 1969.  The bombing of Dresden, and the survival of the book’s main character Billy Pilgrim, are central features of the novel’s plot.  The book also features a race of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, so this book also contains science-fiction aspects.  But in Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut was finally able to express the horror of the Dresden bombing by the Allies in an effective and controlled narrative. 

Figure III.2: Cover of the first edition of Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s best-known novel.

Slaughterhouse Five shot up to the top spot in the New York Times bestseller list, and it became Vonnegut’s signature novel.  The book was especially popular with American youth, as it came out right when protests against the U.S. war in Vietnam were reaching their peak.  In fact, Vonnegut would later remark that opposition to the Vietnam war was one of the things that made it possible to revisit prior military actions such as the bombing of Dresden. 

While Vonnegut had become a famous author, his personal life was deeply unsatisfying.  He and his wife Jane separated and then divorced.  Their split was due in part to Jane’s attachment to Christianity; this clashed with Vonnegut’s outspoken atheism.  Vonnegut’s chronic depression flared up and caused him to seek mental-health counseling. 

Despite his personal ups and downs, Vonnegut established himself as a major writer.  Lev Grossman wrote in Time magazine, “Vonnegut’s sincerity, his willingness to scoff at received wisdom, is such that reading his work for the first time gives one the sense that everything else is rank hypocrisy. His opinion of human nature was low, and that low opinion applied to his heroes and his villains alike—he was endlessly disappointed in humanity and in himself, and he expressed that disappointment in a mixture of tar-black humor and deep despair.”

Author Josip Novakovich claimed that Vonnegut taught us “How to compress things and yet not compromise them, how to digress into history, quote from various historical accounts, and not stifle the narrative. The ease with which he writes is sheerly masterly, Mozartian.”  However, the exhibition of Vonnegut’s works at Indiana University’s Lilly Library contained five versions of the first few pages of Slaughterhouse Five.  The versions were radically different, and they demonstrated that Vonnegut worked extremely hard to condense his writing down to essential elements, and that passages that often seem to flow effortlessly were in fact the product of sustained and painstaking effort. 

In later life, Vonnegut was frequently interviewed.  He came off as somewhat of a curmudgeon, providing witty but darkly cynical comments about American life, and portraying himself as a committed atheist.  Biographies published after his death portrayed him as “cruel, nasty and scary.” 

Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007.  The cause was complications from brain injuries that he suffered in a fall at his home.  Since Vonnegut’s death, all of his novels have remained in print; this is a remarkable testament to the continued impact of his writing. 

Cat’s Cradle:

Cat’s Cradle is narrated in the first person by a man who calls himself Jonah.  He is describing events that were to have happened in the middle of the 20th century.  Jonah’s original purpose is to travel around interviewing people about their recollections of the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  Jonah intends to summarize these memories in a book to be titled The Day The World Ended.  As part of his journey, he travels to Ilium, New York where he wishes to interview associates and family members of the late Felix Hoenikker, a famed scientist and Nobel Laureate who was known as the “father of the atomic bomb.” 

Figure III.3:  Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle. 

Jonah visits the General Forge and Foundry Company, the firm that had employed Hoenikker, at its headquarters in Ilium.  Kurt Vonnegut had worked for a while at the General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York, and the General Forge and Foundry Company appears to be modeled after GE.  Jonah interviews Asa Breed, the Vice President of General Forge.  While Dr. Breed is attempting to sing the praises of basic research, Jonah persists in asking impertinent questions.  For example, Dr. Breed tells Jonah about a serial killer who lived in Ilium in the late 18th century.  Breed mentions that the man had murdered twenty-six people, and exclaims “Think of it!  Twenty-six people he had on his conscience!”  Jonah, knowing that Breed’s company had helped produce an atomic bomb that had killed 100,000 people, replies “The mind reels.” 

Jonah queries Dr. Breed about the creation and use of the atomic bomb.  Breed complains to him, “All your questions seem aimed at getting me to admit that scientists are heartless, conscienceless, narrow boobies, indifferent to the fate of the rest of the human race, or maybe not really members of the human race at all.”  In defense of basic research, Breed claims that “New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth.  The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.”  

To illustrate Hoenikker’s unique way of attacking problems, Breed mentions that Hoenikker had hypothesized that H2O might exist in a number of different states.  Besides the known states of ice, water and water vapor, there might be one or more solid crystalline states of water that remain solid at room temperature, above the normal melting point of ice (32o Fahrenheit).  Ice-nine was one of those hypothetical states.  These crystalline states would result from novel arrangements of their molecules.  If one were to produce a seed crystal of ice-nine, and then immerse it in water, the water molecules would immediately re-organize themselves into ice-nine; the result is that the water would instantly transform into solid ice-nine. 

Apparently Hoenikker became fascinated by the concept of ice-nine, after he had been asked by the military to do research that would allow its soldiers to avoid tramping through mud.  On missions, soldiers spend considerable time slogging through muddy ponds and swamps, and an army would make much faster progress if those areas were solid.  Jonah interrogates Dr. Breed about his hypothetical example of a Marine tramping through a swamp, and throwing a seed crystal of ice-nine into a puddle.  “The puddle would freeze,” Jonah was told.  “And the pools and the streams in the frozen muck?”  “They would freeze.”  “What about the rivers and streams in the frozen muck … and the rivers and lakes the streams fed?”  “They’d freeze, of course.  But there is no such thing as ice-nine.”  

The concept of ice-nine had been given to Kurt Vonnegut by his older brother Bernard, who also worked at the General Electric Research Laboratory.  Bernard Vonnegut’s boss, the Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir, had speculated about a possible form of water that would be solid at room temperature.  When novelist H.G. Wells visited the GE labs, Langmuir suggested to Wells that a form of ice that was stable at room temperature might make a good idea for a story.  Using the principle “finders, keepers,” Vonnegut later appropriated that idea and made it a central feature in Cat’s Cradle

Although Dr. Breed insisted that ice-nine did not exist, Jonah eventually discovered that this was false.  Hoenikker had discovered the existence and structure of ice-nine, and he had produced it in secret at his research laboratory.  Later, he took a chip of crystalline ice-nine, which had a melting point of 130 Fahrenheit, to his vacation home on Cape Cod.  There, he inserted the chip into a pot of water to form a batch of solid ice-nine in his kitchen.  Hoenikker then melted the ice-nine over the stove until it returned to its state of normal water.  He had to be extremely careful not to let the ice-nine come into contact with external sources of water, as they would instantly be turned into solid ice-nine. 

But apparently Hoenikker slipped up and touched his lips to a chip of ice-nine.  The water in his body froze and he died.  When his three children discovered Hoenikker’s body, they divided up the ice-nine amongst themselves (before his death, Hoenikker had revealed to his children the properties of ice-nine).  Although they pledged to keep the existence and properties of ice-nine a secret, each of his children had revealed this information to others. 

Franklin Hoenikker, the oldest child, had given away the secret to Papa Monzano, the dictator of the fictional Caribbean republic of San Lorenzo; in return, Monzano had named Frank the Major General of San Lorenzo and made him the fiancé of his beautiful daughter Mona.  Middle child Angela Hoenikker gave her secret to Harrison Conners; in return, Conners married Angela.  Because Conners works for a firm that specializes in military technology, the secret of ice-nine was apparently revealed to the U.S. government.  The youngest son, Newt was a midget, only four feet tall.  Newt has an affair with a Ukrainian acrobat, Zinka, who was also a midget.  After Newt reveals the secret of ice-nine to Zinka, she leaves him and it is discovered that she is a Russian spy.  Thus, the three Hoenikker children have revealed this priceless secret to the U.S. military, the Russians, and the dictator of San Lorenzo. 

The scene then shifts to the island of San Lorenzo.  Jonah had been assigned by a magazine to do a story there.  On the flight to San Lorenzo, Newt Hoenikker and his sister Angela Conners board the plane.  They tell Jonah about the day their father had died – leaving out any mention of ice-nine and its role in their father’s death.  Nor do they tell Jonah that each of them is carrying a thermos containing a chip of ice-nine.  They are flying to San Lorenzo for Frank’s marriage to Mona Monzano.  Jonah is devastated to hear this, as he has fallen in love with Mona after seeing a picture of her in a magazine. 

On the way to San Lorenzo, Jonah is introduced to the religion Bokononism.  This was a religion founded by a man who called himself Bokonon.  At the beginning of the novel, Jonah tells us that “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.”   Bokononism appears to be a parody of all organized religions.  Quotations from this religion are sprinkled through Cat’s Cradle.  They are often presented in the form of rhymes, and they range from deeply cynical to quite child-like.  Some examples of sayings from Bokonon are:

  • “So I said goodbye to government, and I gave my reason.  That a really good religion is a form of treason.” 
  • “Without accurate records of the past, how can men and women be expected to avoid making serious mistakes in the future?” 
  • Busy, busy, busy is what we Bokononists whisper whenever we think of how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.
  • The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon is titled “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?”  The book consists of a single word: “Nothing.”
Figure III.4:  A saying from the Books of Bokonon.

Jonah eventually adopts Bokononism as his creed.  He notes that “We Bokononists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing.  Such a team is called a karass.”  Jonah maintains that his actions in the novel reveal his participation in a karass. 

At this point in the novel, we learn the significance of the title of Vonnegut’s novel. Newt Hoenikker is deeply cynical about life.  A formative experience in his youth was when his father manipulated string from a package into a pattern called a “cat’s cradle.”  To Newt, this illustrates the meaninglessness of life.  In a conversation with Jonah, Newt complains, “No wonder kids grow up crazy.  A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s …”  “And?”  “No damn cat, and no damn cradle.” 

In San Lorenzo, the dictator Papa Monzano is found to be suffering from terminal cancer.  He takes a chip of ice-nine from an amulet around his neck and touches it to his lips.  The water in his body immediately freezes and he dies.  At this time San Lorenzo is preparing for a national celebration, the annual commemoration of the Hundred Martyrs to Democracy, a group of San Lorenzo soldiers who died while preparing to enter World War II.  Part of the celebration consists of a series of targets floating in the sea outside the presidential palace, with effigies of prominent Nazi and Japanese enemies from WWII.  A group of planes fly past and shoot at the targets. 

But the engine of one plane dies, and the plane crashes into the rock below the presidential palace.  A portion of the palace containing Papa Monzano’s body slides into the sea.  The ice-nine in Monzano’s body causes the sea and all bodies of water connected to it to turn into ice-nine.  At the end of the novel, millions of people around the world have died from contact with ice-nine; this includes Angela Conners, who picks up a clarinet without realizing that the reed was contaminated with ice-nine.  Several other characters in the novel are also killed; however, Jonah, Frank, Newt, Mona Monzano and a handful of others survive. 

Figure III.5:  A depiction of the Earth after ice-nine has come into contact with the ocean.

Since they realize the dangers of coming into contact with ice-nine, they are able to survive.  But they come upon a group of thousands of San Lorenzans who have committed suicide.  A note at the scene says that Bokonon has advised the people that God was apparently trying to kill them, and that “they should have the good manners to die.”  Upon reading the note, Mona touches her lips to a chip of ice-nine and also commits suicide.  The remaining group is able to fend for themselves by being careful not to come into contact with ice-nine.  The novel ends when Jonah encounters Bokonon, who informs Jonah that he is writing the final sentence of The Books of Bokonon.  Bokonon states that if he were younger, he would commit suicide, by ingesting ice-nine while thumbing his nose at God. 

Figure III.6:  Bokonon thumbing his nose at God, after the catastrophe with ice-nine.

Cat’s Cradle in Popular Culture:

Unlike the other novels reviewed in this post, Cat’s Cradle has not inspired the same level of insertion into our popular culture.  There is a heavy-metal band called Ice Nine Kills that hails from Boston, and that is known for its “horror-inspired lyrics.”  Perhaps the less said about this band, the better. 

Folk-rock artist James Taylor has written a terrific parody of a genre of blues songs where the singer extols his love-making capabilities.  However, in this song Taylor compares himself to some rather violent entities: a steamroller; a cement mixer; a demolition derby; and a napalm bomb.  If you pay close attention at the 4:45 mark in this tune, you will hear Taylor saying “Bokonon, Bokonon,” a clear reference to Cat’s Cradle (thanks to Christoph Irmscher for pointing this out).

Here is a video clip of James Taylor singing his R&B parody, Steamroller Blues.   

As always, Taylor is backed by a terrific band, including Waddy Wachtel and Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Russ Kunkel on drums and Lee Sklar on bass.  There are also terrific solos by pianist Don Grolnick and saxophonist David Sanborn.  

Cat’s Cradle, 2021:

First, let us mention that other forms of H2O, the water molecule, can exist.  In fact, scientists have recently created and observed a new form of H2O that they called “ice-seven.”  This is a form of ice that is stable in solid form at room temperature.  However, ice-seven only forms at exceptionally high pressures.  These pressures are much higher than are normally found on Earth.  A team of scientists from Stanford’s Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences was able to create this state using the world’s most powerful X-ray laser at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC).  With this laser, they were able to compress a sample of water to pressures 50,000 times greater than the Earth’s atmosphere at sea level. 

Then, using a device called an X-ray Free Electron Laser, they were able to produce pulses of X-rays with ultra-high frequencies.  These very bright, short-lived pulses enabled the research team to see a phase transition where the water under great pressure turned into solid rods.  It is believed that in giant gas planets such as Jupiter, gas pressures and temperatures on those planets may be sufficient to produce ice-seven. The results were published in Physical Review Letters in 2017. 

One of Vonnegut’s themes of Cat’s Cradle is to express deep skepticism at the notion that faith in science and technology will solve all of our problems.  Vonnegut strongly believed that scientists will pursue new technologies without considering possible negative, or even destructive, effects of their research.  In Cat’s Cradle, Nobel Laureate Felix Hoenikker invents ice-nine, ignoring the fact that if a seed crystal of ice-nine is introduced into a body of water at room temperature, it will immediately turn that water into solid ice-nine.  Here, we will review two areas where science and technology have led to actual or potential situations that could have serious drawbacks for mankind. 

  1. Global Climate Change:

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, developed countries have created an amazing technological revolution by utilizing fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas to power modern society.  In the process, we have excavated vast amounts of these fuels, that were formed over the centuries from decaying plants and animals.  Burning these fossil fuels releases gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane.  These are among a class of substances known as greenhouse gases.  These gases are rather transparent to the wavelengths of light reaching the Earth from the Sun; thus sunlight passes through them and warms the Earth.  The Earth subsequently radiates heat upward.  But the wavelengths of light emitted by the Earth are absorbed by the greenhouse gases, and the greenhouse gases subsequently radiate this absorbed energy in all directions. 

Figure III.7:  Schematic illustration of the effect of greenhouse gases on the Earth’s temperature.

Some of the energy from the greenhouse gases causes additional warming of the Earth.  At certain levels, this warming has largely beneficial effects.  However, if the greenhouse gas levels become sufficiently high, this additional warming can have many negative effects, including melting of glaciers and ice sheets, higher temperatures that are harmful to plant and animal life, and increased heating of the oceans.  CO2 levels in the atmosphere have been increasing steadily since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and increasingly rapidly over the past half-century, and scientists are concerned that if the atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases continue to increase, we will experience a number of increasingly dire changes in climate.  Climate scientists have been studying this issue now for decades, and we have reviewed this situation in a number of our blog posts (see here, here and here). 

The catastrophe in Cat’s Cradle happened in an instant; this situation is radically different from potential effects of climate change.  Global climate change has been compared to a “slow-motion train wreck.”  This is because several of the effects due to global climate change have accumulated over many decades; and some of the other effects of climate change may not happen for decades to come.  Thus, climate changes are easy to ignore relative to more short-term crises.  In addition, mediation of climate change effects is likely to require significant changes in the way we generate energy, or costly large-scale projects to slow or reverse the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.  Many such projects would involve slowing or stopping the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.  Not surprisingly, the fossil-fuel industry has fought against efforts to further regulate its activities. 

Companies such as Exxon Mobil have lobbied against such efforts, and they have also funded a number of “astroturf” think tanks and right-wing organizations such as the Heartland Institute, which opposes efforts to fight global climate change (except for “free market” efforts).  

The organized resistance to acknowledging the existence of global climate change, and to taking efforts to mitigate climate change, has spawned a “climate change denial” cottage industry.  We have reviewed several scientists who are leading members of this group (including Fred Singer, Will Happer, and John Christy).  In addition, there are now scientists who hire themselves out as consultants for companies that want to fight against government regulation of their harmful products.  We call these the “Toxic Product Defenders.”  

It remains to be seen whether governments world-wide can band together to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.  In addition, there is tension between the developed countries, that have emitted most of the greenhouse gases that are driving the climate crisis, and Third World countries that are likely to suffer the worst consequences.  The most promising developments that we see at the moment are organized efforts by young people who are committed environmentalists and who understand the concept of sustainability. 

2. Cyberweapons

One of our recent posts discussed the field of information technology.  Worldwide society now depends on computers and software to store our data, protect our secrets, communicate with friends and colleagues, pay our bills, and control our accounts, our elections and our infrastructure.  But we now realize the extent to which these devices can be used to extract sensitive information about our lives.  Exploitation of flaws in the software and hardware on which that technology rests fuel cybercrime, cyber-espionage and cyberwar.

Until recently, the general public had little or no knowledge of the degree to which these technologies can be hacked. The large software corporations and many industrial companies who have been subjected to massive hacking of one type or another are often reluctant to publicize detailed information about those flaws and incidents. The players in the black market of buying and selling the hacking tools and extracted information have little interest in going public. And the governments that wish to protect their ability to use such exploits for espionage and “warfare” are intent to keep details secret. Although we use military terms such as “cyberwar” or “cyber warfare,” we are discussing attacks that take place in supposed “peacetime.” Attacks by one country upon another occur in the absence of any formal declaration of war, and may even involve hacking our ‘allies’ (for example, in 2015 WikiLeaks revealed that the U.S. NSA had tapped phone calls involving German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her advisers for several years). 

In the recent book This is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race, New York Times reporter Nicole Perlroth tells a compelling and terrifying story of the development of cyberweapons based on the still incomplete information she and her colleagues have managed to unearth through a decade of investigative journalism. Perlroth’s title was apparently inspired by a quotation attributed to Nathaniel Borenstein: “The most likely way for the world to be destroyed, most experts agree, is by accident. That’s where we come in; we’re computer professionals. We cause accidents.”  This statement could well have been found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. 

Humans are imperfect and software developers are no exceptions. So, the occurrence of flaws in computer programs – errors in logic that can allow uninvited guests to burrow into, modify, corrupt, and even take over the workings of the program, often without detection – is at some level inevitable. But the frequency of occurrence of exploitable vulnerabilities has been enhanced by a business philosophy that incentivizes speed and disruption over care and accuracy. This philosophy is typified by Mark Zuckerberg’s admonition to Facebook staff to “Move fast and break things.” Developers of commercial software have traditionally been more focused on getting programs to perform the intended functions correctly than on making their code secure against unanticipated hacking attacks. It is only the worldwide proliferation of serious cybercrime, cyber-espionage and cyberwar attacks that has led the large software corporations to a belated emphasis on cyber-security.

Flaws that have not yet been patched or even detected, and patches that have not been adopted by commercial users of outdated software, are now widely and routinely exploited to steal proprietary information, to spy on citizens, to demand ransoms for “kidnapped” systems, to disrupt democratic elections, and to threaten the control apparatus for the technologies that govern so much of our lives and our infrastructure. The same flawed software is used in smart phones and computers worldwide, computers that often reside within large networks and are interconnected via internet access. The growing investment in the “Internet of Things” is rapidly expanding the diversity of devices and inter-device communications that are susceptible to infection.

Recent history has taught us that few, if any, systems are truly secure. New computer exploits have sometimes been implanted within smart phone apps, or software updates intended to patch previously identified flaws, or even through the anti-virus or anti-malware program updates used to protect your systems from infection. And a suitably designed exploit, once implanted in one system, can easily worm its way through networks and internet connections to infect vast numbers of computers.

The U.S., and specifically its National Security Agency (NSA), was once the only cyber superpower in the world.  They were able to discover a number of “exploits” that allowed them to penetrate computer security.  Instead of notifying the companies about vulnerabilities in their systems, the NSA jealously guarded a secret stockpile of exploits.  Initially, the NSA were confident that other countries could not match their proficiency in cyberweapons; furthermore, they believed that they could launch cyberattacks in a manner that blame could not be assigned to the U.S.  A first cyberattack was launched in 2005 by the U.S. and Israel against Iran.  Malware developed by the two countries was smuggled into Iran’s main uranium enrichment plant in Natanz.  The malware was designed to attack the massive centrifuges used to separate out the fissionable isotope of uranium.  These programs would cause the centrifuges to rotate erratically, which caused many of them to stop operating or to self-destruct. The U.S. and Israeli cyber warfare teams were apparently confident that the origin of their attack would never be discovered (a level of chutzpah worthy of a Kurt Vonnegut novel).  However, the cyberattack programs did not remain confined to the Iranian nuclear facility, but they became dispersed across the Middle East and then worldwide.  Other countries and individuals then used the information from those programs to inform themselves about cyberattack methods. 

As a result, the situation with cybersecurity has changed rapidly. A thriving black market and massive hacks and leaks have provided worldwide access to computer exploits. Potential exploiters and potential victims are now spread across the globe. Countries that could not afford to compete with the major powers in building conventional or nuclear warfare arsenals can easily purchase cyberweapons and set up hacking teams to use them against their enemies.  Even groups of hackers that are not affiliated with a particular country may be able to produce “exploits” that enable them to hack into computers and mobile phones. 

The U.S. is more vulnerable to cyberwar attacks than most other countries, simply because a wider variety of systems and infrastructure are computer-controlled and networked in the U.S.  One type of cyber warfare is known as “ransomware.”  In this instance, a malicious attack is launched on a computer system: for example, a hospital’s computer system.  The attack cripples the system’s programs and data files, making them inaccessible to the user.  As a general rule, the attacker demands that the attacked entity pay a “ransom,” generally paid with crypto-currency, where the path of the money is often untraceable.  The most visible ransomware attack was the May 2021 attack on the Colonial pipeline that sends oil from Texas to several Eastern states.  In that case, the attack appears to have originated from a group called Darkside that is alleged to operate out of Russia. 

Figure III.8:  A schematic showing the components of a pipeline system and its vulnerabilities to both physical and cyber attacks. 

The Colonial Pipeline attack shut down distribution of oil across many states in the Southeast for several days.  The company paid a ransom of $4.4 million dollars to purchase a “key” that would allow the computer systems to resume operation.  The U.S. Justice Department managed to claw back about $2.3 million by penetrating the blockchain operation that transferred the funds.  President Biden said that the U.S. was seriously considering retaliation against Darkside. 

Another widely used form of cyberwarfare is through hacking tools that enable the user to penetrate computers and mobile phones of individuals.  Recently, a cyber-surveillance company, the NSO Group, has been in the news, as an international alliance of news outlets reported that this group has sold its surveillance programs to repressive governments that use the software to target “journalists, dissidents and opposition politicians.” 

Although NSO and the Israeli government claim that their spyware is only used to target terrorists and criminals, there are widespread allegations that the company’s products have been used against journalists and human rights workers in Mexico and Saudi Arabia.  For example, after the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by agents of the Saudi government, spyware was found on the phones of some of Khashoggi’s colleagues.  

FILE – In this Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021 file photo, a logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir. The consortium of journalists behind the Pegasus Project investigation into malware from Israel-based NSO Group that provided further evidence that it was used to spy on journalists, human rights activists and political dissidents, won the top European Union journalism prize Thursday. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

Figure III.9:  The headquarters of the NSO Group in Sapir, Israel. 

The Israeli government also faced renewed international pressure for allowing the company to do business with authoritarian regimes that use the spyware for purposes that go far afield of the company’s stated aim: targeting terrorists and criminals.  The journalism consortium claims that an NSO product called Pegasus has been used in “attempt to hack at least 37 smartphones owned by journalists from countries that include Azerbaijan, France, Hungary, India and Morocco.”  The Pegasus program “can provide access to an infected phone’s memory and view photos, emails and texts, even on applications that offer encrypted communication.  The software can also let spies record conversations made on or near a phone, use its cameras and locate the whereabouts of its users.” 

The journalism consortium also released a list of 50,000 mobile phone numbers from 50 countries that it claimed were proposed surveillance targets.  The list included the numbers of “journalists, media proprietors, government leaders, opposition politicians, political dissidents, academics and rights campaigners.” Amnesty International staff inspected the mobile phones of 67 people on the mobile phone list.  They claimed that 24 of these phones were infected by Pegasus and another 13 had been targeted, while tests of the remaining 37 phones proved inconclusive. A spokesperson for the NSO Group strongly denied the claims of the journalism consortium.  But on Nov. 3, 2021, the U.S. has blacklisted the NSO Group after the release of the allegations against that company; the blacklist would prevent American companies from selling technology to the NSO Group and its subsidiaries.  And Apple has issued several patches in attempts to bolster the security of their iOS software.     

Almost twenty years ago, the NSA and Israel launched a cyberattack on an Iranian nuclear research facility.  Now, the number of malicious attacks on computers and cell phones has reached epidemic proportions.  At the moment, hackers and attackers seem to have the upper hand: the number of “exploits” that utilize deficiencies in cyber-security systems is escalating, individual actors can create and sell, or purchase, hacking tools, and episodes of ransomware and surveillance of journalists and their sources by autocratic governments is increasing exponentially. 

Although the growth of cyberweapons is not as global and lethal as the “ice-nine” episode in Cat’s Cradle, the use of these hacking tools against both governments and private citizens is a serious issue.  Like the situation in Cat’s Cradle, these cyber-attacks arose when researchers working for the government (in this case, the NSA) developed software and hardware systems.  They let the genie out of the bottle by utilizing these systems, without considering fully the ramifications of their hacking tools.  Free exchange of information is often a threat to autocratic regimes, and the ability to suppress information, attack journalists and spy on citizens gives tools for oppressive regimes and thus poses a real threat for democracy.  It remains to be seen whether the “defense” can catch up with the offense, or whether governments and tech companies can collaborate on methods that can ameliorate these hacking attacks.  

Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle was clear-eyed about the hubris of inventors of new technologies, which blinds them from a careful consideration of the ultimate dangers of their technologies. What he did not emphasize as much is the role of big businesses exploiting those new technologies in using their considerable power to protect their bottom lines by keeping those dangers hidden from the populace. That big business role is a crucial part of the story in the cases of both climate change and cyber vulnerabilities.

Source Material:

This list contains sources for all three parts of our post, “Still Relevant After All These Years” (i.e., the parts on Nineteen Eighty Four, Brave New World, and Cat’s Cradle).

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four, Harcourt Inc, 1949

N. Perlroth, This is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021

A. Terekhov, The Cyber Black Market: A Hacker’s Haven,

China’s Surveillance State Should Scare Everyone, Anna Mitchell and Larry Diamond, The Atlantic, Feb. 2, 2018

Hong Kong’s Freedoms: What China Promised and How It’s Cracking Down, Lindsay Maizland and Eleanor Albert, Council on Foreign Relations Feb. 17, 2021

Facial Recognition and Beyond: Journalist Ventures Inside China’s ‘Surveillance State’, Dave Davies, npr Jan. 5, 2021

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Harper Perennial Edition, 2006

The 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race, Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 2021    

The CRISPR-baby Scandal: What’s Next for Human Gene Editing, David Cyranoski, Nature News, Feb 26, 2019  

We Need to Talk About CRISPR, Vittoria D’Alessio, Horizon, Dec. 17, 2019

U.S. Spy Agency Tapped German Chancellery for Decades: WikiLeaks, Reuters staff, July 9, 2015.

The Era of “Move Fast and Break Things” is Over, Hemant Taneja, Harvard Business Review, Jan. 22, 2019

Using Texts as Lures, Government Spyware Targets Mexican Journalists and Their Families, Azam Ahmed and Nicole Perlroth, New York Times, June 18, 2017. 

Israeli Software Helped Saudis Spy on Khashoggi, Lawsuit Says, David D., Kirkpatrick, New York Times, Dec. 2, 2018

‘Stalkerware’ Apps are Proliferating.  Protect Yourself, Brian X. Chen, New York Times, Sept. 29, 2021 

Forensic Methodology Report: How To Catch NSO Group’s Pegasus, Amnesty International Report, July 18, 2021. 

U.S. Blacklists Israeli Firm NSO Group Over Spyware, David E. Sanger, Nicole Perlroth, Ana Swanson and Ronen Bergman, New York Times, Nov. 3, 2021. 

For the first time, Scientists Catch Water Turning into ‘Ice-Seven’ – a Strange Form of Alien Ice, Tibi Puiu, Zme Science, July 11, 2017

Compression Freezing Kinetics of Water to Ice VII, A.E. Gleason et al., Physical Review Letters 119, 025701, July 11, 2017