The adoption of digital communications technology keeps accelerating, but brings risk. The crash phase of the global population explosion may not start with food shortages, global pandemic, or world war, but with a widespread shutdown of the internet. The disruption to our shipping, energy, and food systems would be catastrophic. But isn’t the internet too resilient from its diversity, complexity, and vast extent to be at risk of a global shutdown? How might this come about?
The internet is more vulnerable than it seems. As distributed and diverse as the internet is, it has a few elements that make it vulnerable to a global-scale attack. One is the interconnectedness that makes it so effective, but also would allow a virus to propagate to the ends of the network in a couple of minutes. Another is that there are relatively few operating system families in use. With almost everyone using either Windows, Linux, Android, or Apple IoS, the internet is vulnerable to an especially vicious virus or set of viruses capable of disabling such systems and cutting off internet communication. A wholesale loss of the internet would be much worse than the average virus attack since, if it stops internet traffic, patches and other remedies would be blocked from quick distribution to users, who might not even receive news of the attack until too late. Until such an attack happens I predict our dependence on the internet will continue to increase, and our vulnerability and risk from a cyber attack will grow with it.
Why would a shutdown of the internet be so severe? Almost every kind of communication is now or will soon be carried over the internet. The old analog phone lines are gone, replaced by digital “IP phones” connected only via the internet. Even broadcast TV and radio stations use internet links to send their signal from the studio to their transmitter, so loss of the internet would cut off radio and TV broadcasts. Email is firmly entrenched for written communication, and instant messaging and other communication systems work only over the internet. Business meetings are held over the internet, including even those with most or all of the attendees in the same room. Filing systems of all kinds are increasingly stored in the so-called “cloud”, which is really just a newer form of server storage, the difference being that now you have no idea where the servers are or where your data actually is stored. To make matters worse, your files might not be stored as single objects, but might be broken up for security and the convenience of the server operator, and spread across the globe in many servers. Even the maintenance of the internet itself is coordinated and mostly performed over the internet. So what happens if a really bad viral attack shuts down the internet? The loss would be beyond imagination.
Our “digital risk” keeps increasing with no let-up in sight. More and more ordinary appliances are driven by software, and increasingly they are dependent on distant servers reachable only over the internet. This feature is ever more prevalent since manufacturers learned to use appliances to collect personal data about users. Many application program now fail to work unless they can use a website first. Some cars now won’t start or unlock without a digital signal, and if you forget the key they can be unlocked by someone somewhere else – anywhere – in the world via signals over the internet. Smart phones dominate our daily routine and communications, and they are increasingly functioning as our general purpose computers. The apps written for them are increasingly web-dependent. The totality of human knowledge is being systematically loaded into computers for easier internet access, and new information is rarely recorded on longer lasting paper, leaving more and more of human knowledge at risk. Computer viruses are plaguing people worldwide, many created by organized criminal groups and some, apparently, successfully lining criminals’ pockets with millions of dollars. As you can see, our dependence on the internet has become almost all-encompassing, and the risk of losing it has skyrocketed accordingly.
Today we might be able to survive loss of the internet, with great difficulty, but tomorrow? As our infrastructure becomes ever more dependent on computers and the internet, and while digital crime is essentially out of control with “no light at the end of the tunnel”, it appears that the biggest future economic collapse could be triggered by the loss of the internet, with one possible cause being a viral attack.
A coordinated viral attack on the internet could cause a global catastrophe. The viruses that shut down the internet, halt global trade, and stop the trucks bringing food to our local markets could do so much damage so quickly that even their creators could neither control them nor, because they would shut down communications, even tell anyone about them. The power of various organizations dedicated to keeping the internet up and running would be wiped out when they could no longer communicate with anyone. Delivery of antiviral software will have to be by disks and memory sticks sent through “snail mail”, but that will take days or weeks or longer, especially since the movement of mail is coordinated over the internet. Phone companies, having long ago transitioned to voice-over-IP technology, will be shut down and helpless (as will everyone else). Shipping lanes will jam with ships that can’t coordinate docking facilities, or possibly even avoid hitting each other without internet-based charts and other digital tools. Railroads will suffer backups and accidents as the coordination of trains falls apart. At first traffic jams will spring up as digitally controlled traffic light systems stop working or work erroneously. Then food and fuel deliveries will stop as intercontinental deliveries are delayed and local supplies run out. Electricity could become intermittent and unpredictable as providers lose their ability to monitor loads on the transmission system. Our dependency on global food supplies will turn out to be a big mistake, as we will be forced to try to subsist on locally grown food, of which there will be far too little quantity and variety to provide a healthy diet. The burgeoning population of deer that have moved into urban areas in North America in recent years will be slaughtered by hungry hunters, and their numbers will provide helpful protein for a few weeks or months and then dwindle rapidly. Fishermen will exhaust local supplies of fish within months, and many fish populations will not recover for many years, if ever. There is no resource that can’t be exhausted by the demands of a sufficiently large population, and the population will grow to that point inevitably unless people stop having children.
The global economy will stall and then disintegrate without computers or the internet. The stalling of the transportation networks will stop the delivery of parts and materials to companies as well as the shipment of products to consumers. Unable to continue operations, companies will have to shut down and send their workers home. The demand for food and other products will skyrocket as fast as the supplies are used up, and soon people will begin to move, many walking in directions where they think there will be more food, fresh water, and easier winter or summer seasons. Money may lose its value, or at least be valued differently between neighboring geographic regions, as the ability of government to manage the “new economy” will be limited. Sanitation systems will fail as sewage treatment plants are either shutdown or reduced to primitive and hastily rigged operations. Fuel shortages will idle planes, trains, boats, and most wheeled vehicles. Electricity may be available from nuclear and renewable facilities that survive the virus, but there will be far less than before, leading to brownouts and blackouts. In the longer term, availability of power will be increasingly sporadic as the transmission network decays. People who invested in home solar and wind power will have the most reliable electricity, but it remains to be seen whether that will be a significant factor.
Even if the remedy for the virus is created and made available right away, it will take weeks to months to manually convey it to all who need it. Some areas will suffer more than others due to pre-existing droughts, major storms, or other natural events, and response to disasters will be greatly hindered. In some areas famine may set in, followed by diseases that can no longer be treated without proper drugs and medical equipment.
If we are lucky enough to avoid mass epidemics and famine a slow recovery may be possible, but the incredible demand of 9+ billion hungry mouths on the planet will not be easily or quickly satisfied, and many millions – possible several billion – could die in the interim.
Immigration problems will far surpass any seen before in human history. Millions will realize they can’t stay where they are, especially in the big cities, and people will set off walking towards wherever they think they might find water, food, and shelter. This will create huge crowds in some places such as along the southern U.S. border and the shores of southern Europe, putting terrible pressure on the infrastructure in these areas and leading to local and regional tragedies. The emigrations of today will seem as nothing by comparison.
Is the growing dependency on computing and the internet our Achilles heel, or a means to a sustainable survival? Humanity is now facing its most serious problem in history because it will force us to change from the past model, where having more children or making it possible to have more children solves problems. Saving as many of us as possible will require reducing the birthrate to unprecedented low levels, far below the replacement rate, as quickly as possible, and then recovering our ability to provide food, energy, and infrastructure. This is only likely to come about if we use the internet effectively to educate every human being, worldwide, on the huge problem we are facing. If we wait too long the internet may not be available to help with this.
One extra risk is out there, and those of us who understand it are hoping it won’t come about. That risk is what some call “the Singularity”, which is the point where computers become smarter than humans and become self-aware. At that point I fully expect most computerized devices to start behaving badly. Hopefully the resulting issues won’t be too severe.
The internet is like a hammer: you can kill someone with it or you can build a house with it. The choice is ours, and I hope you will join me in promoting the understanding of our current situation, how we can use the internet to educate people so they will do the right thing, and how we can defy our own instincts and stop having children before the world economy is unrecoverable and hundreds of millions are dying.
Thanks for reading, and I appreciate your comments. — Tim #StopHavingChildren