The Road to Hanoi

It seems like everyone I meet plans to follow the young Che Guavara, now that seduction of random latinos has been politically sanctified, and take off on their motorbike and adventure through the poverty and pleasures of South and Central America. And who can blame them? But there are other lands to explore.

Last year I rode my motorcycle from Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) to Hanoi, up the highway that borders the South China Sea.

On the road to Hanoi something caught my attention and that of every vehicle near me. We had to watch constantly and take action every few seconds or it would have killed us all.

The road to Hanoi is a Vietnamese economic artery but is nonetheless dominated by potholes, thousands the size of bomb craters. There are constant reminders of “The American War” all over Vietnam, and perhaps this was one of them, but in a more indirect way.

To a physicist a pothole has an interesting life. It starts out as a few loose stones. As wheels pass over, these stones grind together and against the under surface. Their edges are rounded off and the depression they are in also becomes rounder by their action. The stones become pestles to the hole’s motor. Smaller stones and grit move between the spaces of larger stones and add to the grinding action. The hole enlarges, and deepens. Small stones are soon entirely worn away, but in the process liberate increasingly larger stones from the advancing edge of the hole. The increasing depth and surface capture more and more energy from passing wheels. The destruction of the road surface accelerates until the road is abandoned or the hole is filled.

Road decay is, like a dental decay, a run away process. Utility rapidly diminishes and costs of repair accelerate, and just like teeth it is more efficient to fill a pothole as soon as it is noticed.

But this measure of efficiency is not the metric of politics and it is a political feedback process that lays behind the filling in of potholes on almost every road on earth.

That process is driven by the behavior of politically influential road users who are themselves motivated to action by psychologically negative encounters with potholes.

When potholes are small, the resultant political pressures are not sufficient to overcome the forces of other interests groups who compete for labour and resources. Likewise, it is difficult to motivate people who have other passions and pains in their life to go to the dentist when their teeth do not ache. Both are caused by limitations in knowledge and its distillation: foresight.

Why is this surprising? It is surprising because we are used to looking at government spending through the lens of economic utility; a lens which claims the political process as a derivative. This vision claims that political forces compete for access to the treasury to further their own utility. Hence, military intelligence and public health compete with road maintenance for funding and so should attempt to minimize the latter’s drain on the treasury. But that drain is minimized by filling in potholes immediately!

Foresight requires trustworthy information about the current state of the world, cognitive ability to draw predictive inferences and economic stability to give them a meaningful home. It’s not only in Vietnam where secrecy, malfeasance and unequal access have eaten into the first requirement of foresight (“truth and lots of it”).

Foresight can produce outcomes that leave all major interests groups better off. Likewise the lack of it, or doing the dumb thing, can harm almost everyone.

Computer scientists have long had a great phrase for the dependency of foresight on trustworthy information; “garbage in, garbage out”.

In intelligence agency oversight we have “The Black Budget blues”, but the phrase is probably most familiar to American readers as “The Fox News Effect”.

JULIAN ASSANGE is president of a NGO and Australia’s most infamous former computer hacker. He was convicted of attacks on the US intelligence and publishing a magazine which inspired crimes against the Commonwealth. He is the co-author of Underground and can be reached at http://iq.org/



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Julian Assange is the founder of Wikileaks. His most recent book is The Wikileaks Files (Verso).

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