David Madore's WebLog: Vulnerability due to interconnectedness—a reflection on the apocalypse

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Vulnerability due to interconnectedness—a reflection on the apocalypse

Boing Boing today points to this interesting comment (scroll down the page to where it says We're All On The Grid Together) by Albert-László Barabási on the New York power outage of a few days ago, first published in The New York Times and now on Edge. Barabási points out that the power grid's vulnerability lies in its large-scale interconnectedness. Indeed, as we put large systems together (such as large power grids, the Internet, or the world-wide stock exchange) made of a huge number of subsystems that interact and communicate in complex ways very rapidly, the ensemble acquires complicated and possibly unstable behaviors: faults tend to propagate faster than we can react to them, positive feedback on error develops and can cause catastrophic failure.

This is one of my pet theories. I believe the end of the world (meaning, the end of the human species) will come not through a well-defined cataclysmic event such as nuclear doomsday, biochemical armageddon, or ecological disaster (though these might happen as consequences), but simply because of an eventual instability in our globally vastly interconnected modern world. A very Asimovian scenario, in fact: this is essentially, perhaps, what Hari Seldon perceives as the end of the Empire, in Foundation; or this is the sort of thing that happens, for a futile (but definite) reason, in Nightfall (I mean the novel, by Asimov and Silverberg, which I recommend in passing).

Consider the following prediction, made half seriously: if the Internet were to somehow cease to function (in a sufficiently bad, and widespread way) for fourty-eight hours, this would trigger a cascade of consequences that would eventually lead to the destruction not only of civilization as we know it, but possibly, within a century, of every single human being on the entire planet (and, yes, I mean remote African tribes as well). The idea is generally ridiculed by people to whom I have submitted the thought, and they point out that not everyone depends on the Internet. Indeed, but the emphasis is on the word cascade: the Internet's failure would only be the trigger of a succession of instabilities of increasing magnitude. Certainly many people have never heard of the Internet, let alone used it; but people depend on other people, services, and whatnot, if only in a negative way (depend on the fact that other people will not come and rob them, or murder them, because society establishes some kind of civil pax). And, likewise, in 1929 many people had never heard of the stock market, yet it didn't help them when they suffered from the crash's consequences (and it is not entirely far-fetched to put the Second World War among the 1929 crash's consequences). Cascade, I say. The stock market is assuredly a good vector of instability: the Internet's lasting failure would cause an unprecedented crash on the world's trading markets, thereby triggering a huge economic recession (consider the worst moments of the crisis in Argentina, and imagine far worse), after what governments would either lose control entirely, or turn to demagogic and undemocratic means, war or civil war would erupt in various places, and so on.

I don't have a complete scenario, and I only half believe the whole thing myself anyway, but I don't think the possibility should be ridiculed: the wildly improbable assumption is the Internet's failure, not its consequences; but as every aspect of interconnectivity increases everywhere (perhaps nanotechnologies will bring newer forms of it, as yet unforeseen), this will all become less unreasonable. I don't see doomsday as happening in this century, but early in the next does not seem at all unreasonable to me.

Side note: some people point out that even if civilization collapses, there is no reason for mankind to die: after all, mankind has existed before civilization of any sort, and there is no reason why it could not survive in the same way. I think this is naïve. I would die within days if I did not have at my disposal the civilization on which I rely for my existence. Now perhaps other people would not: some people might know how to plant carrots and hunt and feed of berries and all that; but before they could do anything, their carrots and game and berries would be sacked by billions of starving people who do not know the basics of survival in the absence of civilization. Even the remotest African village would end up being sacked by neighboring people, more connected to the falling civilization and more affected by its fall. In essence: the situation in which mankind would be left after the downfall of our civilization is not at all that in which it was before civilization emerged—for one thing, there would be many weapons (including weapons of mass destruction) lying around, and people willing to use them.

All right—rant ends here. But don't say you weren't warned!

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