Academic journal article Global Governance

Disseminative Systems and Global Governance

Academic journal article Global Governance

Disseminative Systems and Global Governance

Article excerpt

Disseminative systems are identified as central to the organization and dynamism of humanity's globalized condition. Three types of disseminative systems are defined and their characteristics are delineated in terms of the considerable challenges they pose to comprehensive and effective global governance. The pervasiveness and configuration of disseminative systems presents a further range of conceptual, political, and social difficulties that frustrate a "problem-solving" approach, both to the control of disseminative systems themselves and to wider global governance. Without discounting either the potential or the difficulties of conceiving and exercising governance over disseminative systems, the speed and extent of their proliferation and adaptability suggests a fundamental consideration for the development of global governance theorizing: whether its possibilities fall short of the world we have already created. KEYWORDS: disseminative systems, global governance, complexity, connectivity, comprehension.


In the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, the Pentagon initiated the Nth Country Project, a small initiative to determine whether two amateurs (individuals with doctorates in physics but with no nuclear expertise and no access to classified information) could design a nuclear weapon. As one of the participants recalls, "[after thirty months] we produced a short document that described precisely, in engineering terms, what we proposed to build and what materials were involved. The whole works, in great detail, so that this thing could have been made by Joe's Machine Shop downtown." (1) Thirty-five years later, in 1999, the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency commissioned Project Bacchus. With little more than a budget and commercial catalogs for laboratory equipment, a team was given the task of assembling a small but functional germ factory. It took them just over a year to produce two pounds of anthrax simulants. "The project had proven its point--a nation or a bioterrorist with the requisite expertise could easily assemble an anthrax factory from off-the-shelf materials ... probably without the intelligence agencies' knowledge." (2)

At least where the life sciences are concerned, the risks are no longer merely in the realm of intelligence agency speculation. Two years after Project Bacchus,

    A virus that kills every one of its victims, by wiping out part of
    their immune systems, [was] accidentally created by an Australian
    research team. The virus, a modified mousepox, does not affect
    humans, but it is closely related to smallpox, raising fears that
    the technology could be used in biowarfare. The discovery highlights
    a growing problem. How do you stop terrorists taking legitimate
    research and adapting it for their own nefarious purposes? (3)

The problem is compounded by the routine practice of scientific endeavor in our time--that is, publishing results for the scrutiny of the global scientific community:

    Defence experts are also worried about preserving the freedom to
    publish medical findings while trying to stop the information
    falling into the wrong hands. According to D. A. Henderson, a former
    US presidential adviser, and director of the Center for Civilian
    Biodefense Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, what
    are effectively blueprints for making microorganisms more harmful
    regularly appear in unclassified journals. "I can't for the life of
    me figure out how we are going to deal with this," he says. (4)

The dissemination of expert knowledge and the physical requisites for conducting scientific research are rightly regarded as global public goods, (5) but the potential for serious misuse of biological knowledge is a particularly striking example of a problem that is woven into the fabric of our globalized world: the nature and extent of disseminative systems that defy centralized control and in some instances, even comprehensive understanding. …

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