The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, inventor of, among other things, the Internet) dropped some chum in the political waters recently, and a bunch of elected sharks (creatures known for their outsized appetites and undersized brains) quickly congregated and ate a hearty meal. The particular provocation, of course, was DARPA's plan to establish a futures market that would "trade" in a wide range of geopolitical atrocities--assassinations, acts of terrorism, coups and so forth. People would wager on the likelihood of various specified horrors occurring and, so, intelligent inferences could be drawn from the aggregate flows of opinion around the competing scenarios.
The idea of wagering for profit on forms of human tragedy, being tailor-made for self-righteous umbrage, whipped politicians into rhetorical frenzies. Once the idea achieved consensus status as an example of certified idiocy, there was lots of piling on. It was obvious, though, that very little scrutiny was being devoted to the actual design and purposes of the program itself. As the turbulence subsided, people were applying the same sort of critique to DARPA that was once reserved for the National Endowment for the Arts, back in the day when that group sometimes bestowed generous funding on artists who happily defiled established standards of public decency. Regarding DARPA, the politicos vowed to take a damn close look at every penny the agency spends to see if more undiscovered lunacies might be in the works.
As it happens, though, DARPA's futures exchange might actually be a good idea. Unlike John Poindexter's other brainchild, the privacy-threatening Terrorism Information Awareness program, this DARPA venture seemed to be a way of creating a potentially valuable hive of collective thinking about an assortment of weird, though not implausible, menaces. The absence of well-synthesized, high-quality thought about such scenarios is exactly what many of the same sputtering senators and congressmen have been railing about both before and since the July release of the report on the 9/11 attacks.
There's no doubt that DARPA proved to be its own worst enemy in this case. To quote the estimable Thornton May, in his June CSO interview on a much different subject, "These guys couldn't sell water to a man on fire!" The very discovery of the website on which the futures exchange was prototyped seemed to have caught its inventors flat-footed and their masters by surprise. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz paused in being raked over the coals by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just long enough to disown the exchange as an example of "imaginative" excess. Once the feeding frenzy was in full swing, no one seemed the least bit interested in defending the idea on its merits. On the contrary, everyone wanted to run from it as far and as fast as he could.
But perhaps the venture deserves some second thoughts. Despite the unsavory imagery triggered by a futures market in outrages, is there really no value in inviting a group of knowledgeable experts to speculate on the relative probabilities of certain ghastly events? As we fault the FBI and other institutions for dereliction in putting the al-Qaida pieces together, we shouldn't condemn quite so casually an exercise whose aim is to address those derelictions.