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After the coronavirus? Watch out for the network of networks

by Oliver Letwin


We are all deeply concerned about the risk to public health caused by the coronavirus and the disruption it is already causing in the global economy. In my new book Apocalypse How? I have written about how we can best protect ourselves against the effects of a similar crisis.

     The problem I write about differs from the current situation because it derives from the inherent fragility of the high-tech world on which we depend, rather than from microbiological hazards. But there are considerable similarities in the scale of the impact.

     Every day, many times a day, almost all of us use smart phones. But how often do we pause to consider just how smart the networks are that support them? 

     Time was, not so long ago, when our ordinary life depended on lots of networks, each independent of the others: the postal system, the gas system, the telephone system, the electricity system and the various elements of the transport system were each identifiably separate things.

     All that has changed. Digitisation is everywhere. The internet of things is everything, or at least it’s about to become everything. The networks are converging; they are becoming a single, digitised, electronic network of networks.

     Technologically, it’s exciting. And it’s hugely powerful—for good as well as ill. We derive so much benefit from it, and have so come to depend on it in the conduct of our everyday lives that we would no longer willingly do without it.

     But what happens if it all stops working for even a moment?

     This is a question so uncomfortable that many people, including people in governments around the world, prefer not to contemplate. But it is a question we should contemplate.

     The convergence of networks into a single network of networks makes them smarter and brings huge efficiencies. But it also makes us more vulnerable than we used to be—because if something or someone switches off the network of networks, everything stops.

     And once you think through what that really means, you are driven to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be pretty.

     Of course, our network of networks is smart enough to heal itself when disrupted in various ways; it is also heavily protected against various forms of human and natural disruption. So for it to turn off all of a sudden would be what is called a ‘black swan’ event—something which, like a swan being born black, isn’t likely to happen in the foreseeable future. 

     But the fact remains that it could happen. No defences can be perfect; and, with one huge network of networks, there only needs to be one big disruption triggered by a hacker or an attacker or a coronal mass ejection in the sun, or any number of other natural disasters, to bring the whole thing down, at least for a few days.

     So how we do to buy an insurance policy against this risk?

     The answer is that we should look back into the simplicity of the past, not forward into the high-tech future. We used to get along OK without the smart network of networks. We could do so again for a few days, if governments take the precaution of keeping in store a set of old fashioned analogue solutions to this digital problem. Old fashioned things like stand-by generators for when the electricity fails, or paper records of key data for when you can’t turn the computer on, or physical maps for when the GPS is down: these are the low-cost, highly unsexy, low-tech items we need to have standing by just in case.

     It doesn’t sound romantic. But it might matter a lot.

     This is the situation I imagine in my book, Apocalypse How? 

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