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Weapons of Emotional Destruction

Published on 09 March 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

Over 5000 years ago, humans domesticated the horse. It transformed mobility. It also transformed local affrays into distance projection of power: warfare. Such is the unintended power of enablers.

The enabling impact of internet is at par with the horse. With a difference: the transformation of our civilizations has taken less than twenty years. There is no possible way back from internet. We fervently applauded the overt benefits of internet. The costs were hidden, ignored, or down-played. An eager bureaucracy emerged to deal with the phenomenon. It commented; it argued categorically; it tweaked the internet toward “optimization.”

Meanwhile, the reality is catching up with good intentions. Born to exchange verbal (and rational) information, internet has shown itself the perfect medium for spreading emotions. Political discourse could now be expressed in images: as gruesome as they were effective. Emotional excess, nay destruction, has come online.

On 9/11 the first Weapon of Mass Emotional Destruction (WMED) was brought to everyone’s screen. Its yield was humongous. For an investment of about US$ 200’000, the WMED brought to New York produced a swerve in the Western world. As emotional targets were hardened, fear captured everyone’s mind. Fear is now pervasive, and enduring. Fear, and its avatar, distrust, have the potential to destroy a society.

In about 2014, ISIS introduced the Improvised Emotional Device (IED): the gruesome killing of a person on the internet. The impact is instant and worldwide. It can be fashioned anywhere, anytime – provided there is somewhere an internet connection.

This phenomenon has deep evolutionary roots. The Law of Weber-Fechner describes it:

p = kln(I)

In short: perception (P) of an event (I) grows exponentially.

This law underlies “numerosity,” the pre-verbal and pre-symbolic awareness of quantitative relations which has been observed in species young and old.[1] Cultural pessimists please abstain from kvetching: it is not human nature – it is life itself. Humans, in addition, are social animals: gossip – the exchange of news and emotions – is central to their nature.[2]

IEDs have the potential to create an emotional firestorm: “During the formation of a firestorm many fires merge to form a single convective column of hot gases rising from the burning area and strong, fire-induced, radial (inwardly directed) winds are associated with the convective column. Thus the fire front is essentially stationary and the outward spread of fire is prevented by the in-rushing wind.”[3] If firestorms do not appreciably ignite material at a distance ahead of itself, the conflagration of many small fires will yield wholesale destruction.

During WWII, phosphorus bombs[4] dropped over Hamburg and Dresden. Their content broke open on impact and splattered on anything, burning it. As long as oxygen is available, there was no way to stop a phosphorus-induced fire. Curzio Malaparte[5] tells of people jumping into water to dowse the excruciating burn – only to realize that they could not ever escape the watery grave.

IED may be internet’s phosphorus bombs, spreading many fires. We may jump into the water of censure, but we might not be able ever to escape from it. In the long run, the only way is prevention: addressing the grievances that are setting the world afire – via internet.

Of course I have no solution to this civilizational quandary. Full, unflinching awareness is prerequisite, however. The stigmatizing Western response to ISIS is fanning the flames, rather than addressing the causes of the conflict Though unintended, this understandable reaction is counterproductive.

Will we succeed? I don’t know. I’m drawn here to old Indian wisdom


“Shiva Nataraja dances in a circle of flame. With his right foot he stamps down a goblin, the embodiment of ignorance; his left foot is raised in dance. (…) As Shiva Nataraja he possesses immeasurable energies, with which he determines the creation, being and end of all creation.”[6]


[1] See e.g.: Giorgio VALLORTIGARA – Nicla PANCIERA (2014): Cervelli che contano. Adelphi, Milano.

[2] See Robin DUNBAR (2010): Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language. Faber & faber, London.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firestorm

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_phosphorus

[5] Curzio MALAPARTE (2010): La pelle. Adelphi, Milano.

[6] Katharina EPPRECHT et als. (2000) : Museum Rietberg, Zürich.Zürich, pg. 28.

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