Total digitisation – collapse only a matter of time

by Gotthard Frick, Bottmingen

More and more, our lives are permeated by electronic and electrically driven systems in all areas. A comprehensive collapse of these fully digitised systems, or at least one that affects significant areas, cannot be ruled out. What would that mean? Would we be prepared or able to deal with it?

A large proportion of the world’s people are becoming increasingly dependent on computers, fixed and cell phones, radio, television and their converging and intersecting advancements in their work and personal lives. The same is true worldwide for transportation, energy supply, business, government administration, and armies. Warehousing, production, control, accounting, management and monitoring operations in all areas make use of ever more perfect and faster systems, which are interconnected to form ever larger networks. Not only people, but also subsystems communicate among themselves in this network. This global nervous system is powered by electricity, the production and distribution of which is also electronically controlled and monitored.
  As a result, activities, processes and connections have been and continue to be enormously facilitated, accelerated and made infinitely more efficient, and access to many and much has become limitless. At the same moment that the quantity and price of the plums and eggs bought in the supermarket are read in the scanner at the checkout, they have already been debited from the warehouse there, but the group’s central warehouse is also immediately informed and knows what it needs to reorder, the accounting system has already recorded the amount received, and the group’s top management, if it is on vacation in Bali, can quickly access its own computer at home in Switzerland via the cell phone and find out about plum and egg sales.
  This development is still in full swing and will, for the time being, lead to further increases in efficiency and networking, but also to ever greater dependence and vulnerability.
  Surprisingly, not many people seem to ask themselves yet what it would mean if this system were to collapse for a shorter or longer period of time. They seem to take for granted that it will continue to function smoothly. Only recently have various armies and governments begun to address its vulnerability for military reasons.
  This vulnerability is constantly increasing. First, because of the ever-increasing interconnectedness. Even if attempts are made to prevent the consequences of a failure by compartmentalizing, creating several independent backup systems and storage facilities, providing emergency power generators and more, the functioning of these supposedly autonomous parts remains dependent on the functioning of the overall system beyond a short period of time.
  Second, the complexity of both programs and overall systems continues to increase. Humans seem to reach the limit of what they can still oversee and control, because they are no longer able to overlook the complexity of the processes quickly enough. For this reason, computer systems are being used to control and manage processes that can no longer be overlooked and controlled by humans. On the stock exchanges, for example, large parts of the buy and sell orders are decided and triggered by IT systems. Or computers use their analyses to block the server of a major Internet service provider for the duration of a day if, for example, a Nobel Prize is awarded to an unpopular opposition figure who has been imprisoned by the government. Or, based on a “sensitive” keyword in the text of an individual user, they prevent the corresponding email from being sent completely independently.
  Third, vulnerability is also increasing simply as a result of the ever-greater number of users – often many hundreds of millions – connected to a single service.
  Fourth, the volume of data is also growing ever more rapidly to gigantic proportions.
  Fifth, attacks deliberately launched by groups, governments, and armies also aim to shut down or mismanage networks or at least major parts of them.
  Finally, as many people overlook, every man-made system – despite the widespread obsession with feasibility – has occasional glitches, including those that can be triggered by natural events such as solar activity or major natural disasters such as earthquakes.
  A major breakdown at a central location, perhaps combined with a targeted attack at two or three other locations, would ripple through the network like the waves of a great tsunami around the globe or at least in larger regions, crippling one subnetwork after another.
  In view of these developments, it is not unlikely that a global or large-scale collapse of shorter but possibly also longer duration will occur in the course of the near or further future. This could lead to an unparalleled catastrophe that would dwarf even the Second World War, because then nothing will run anymore: There will suddenly be no electricity, no telephone connections, no radio and television, no newspapers, no production, no distribution of goods including food, no state administration in the affected area for a shorter or longer period of time. No railroad or streetcar, no cargo ship, no car runs anymore. No more airplanes flying until the problem is fixed. And that could take a long time because everything that would be needed to identify the problem and fix it – for example, lines of communication and command, people and material – would no longer be accessible or available.
  Food would be rotting in the warehouses, cows could no longer be milked, hospitals could no longer be run. Gas stations would no longer be able to pump gasoline into cars, and when they ran out, supplies would stop coming – and the water supply would also stop working. Public administration would collapse. We would be back in the Stone Age.
  In contrast to the time 100 years ago, when every household and almost every business had a certain number of supplies to bridge a certain time self-sufficiently, we live today “just in time”. Whereas we once had potatoes, vegetables, home-made preserves and supplies stored in the cellar for many months, we modern people live by the motto that everything must be available immediately at all times. Friends coming over for dinner? Quickly go to the supermarket and get the meat you need, some potatoes and salad, and a new bottle of oil. Protective masks for the pandemic? You should quickly order them in China ...
  How many people would then still have the necessary skills, and how many items would then be needed to set up a makeshift minimal organization that would secure our lives until everything was back to “normal”? How many people still know how to arrange life in more primitive conditions? The best off would be the people in villages in the African bush and in the slums of the world, who already have to struggle along without electricity and electronics.
  A government that thinks strategically – does that still exist in our country today? Even large companies would probably have to think about how they would deal with such a problem.
  Are these wild fantasies of an old man who no longer understands modern times, or could such a scenario become reality? The question will occasionally answer itself. •

(Translation Current Concerns)

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