A History of Reverse-Engineering and the Planet’s Fate
Last December, a super-secret RQ-170 Sentinel, part of a far-reaching program of CIA drone surveillance over Iran, went down (or was shot down, or computer-jacked and hacked down) and was recovered intact by the Iranian military. This week, an Iranian general proudly announced that his country’s experts had accessed the plane’s computer -- he offered information he claimed proved it -- and were now “reverse-engineering” the drone to create one of their own.
Most or all of his claims have been widely doubted, derided, or simply dismissed in our world, and for all I know his was indeed pure bluster and bluff. But if so, it still managed to catch an urge that lay behind a couple of hundred years of global history: to adapt the most sophisticated aspects of the West to resist the West. That urge has been essential to the way our planet has developed. After all, much of the last two centuries might well be headlined in technological, economic, and even political terms, “The History of Reverse-Engineering.”
Starting in the eighteenth century, whether you were in the Ottoman Empire or China, wherever, in fact, cannon-mounted European ships appeared to break down doors and conquer countries or subject them to an alien will, the issue of reverse-engineering was always close at hand. For endless decades, the preeminent question, the crucial thing to debate, was just what could be adapted from the Western arsenal of weapons, politics, technology, and ideas, and how it could be melded with local culture, how it could be given Ottoman, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, or [fill in the blank] “characteristics” and made to check or reverse the course of events. The rise of Japan in the nineteenth century and the more recent spectacular growth of China are, without any doubt, cases of the history of reverse-engineering.
Whatever the successes and failures of that process, the question today -- as the U.S. declines, Europe stagnates, and (so writes Pepe Escobar) the explosive BRICS countries head for center stage -- is perhaps this: Can reverse-engineering really take us any farther, or will it in the end simply take us down? Isn’t it time for something new in the engineering universe or perhaps for the coming of reverse-reverse-engineering somewhere on this weather-freaky, overtaxed planet of ours?