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Fail-safe failures

Aug 23,2021 - Last updated at Aug 23,2021

LONDON — The other day, my wife and I were leaving our apartment building. I pressed the button which automatically opens and shuts the door. Nothing happened. We could not leave the building, except perhaps by jumping through a window. Eventually, the concierge, who happened to be outside, managed to open the door manually. He explained that there had been a power cut. The fail-safe system, which also worked electronically, had failed as well. The power cut lasted two hours.

I thought of all the doors in London and elsewhere which now open and shut automatically: Train doors, automobile doors, elevator doors, supermarket doors (not yet, thank goodness, aircraft doors). At one time, all these doors were opened and shut by hand. The same was true of locking and unlocking. Today my key fob causes my car doors to lock and unlock automatically. I googled to find out why: “Modern key fobs work through RFID, an intelligent barcode system that uses electromagnetic fields to identify and track data on ‘tags’ that contain stored information. The information then passes through radio waves.”

And apparently my key has become a source of risk: “If a digital key fob gets hacked or electronically duplicated, the cybercriminal who did it can steal your car! And now researchers have discovered “key cloning” is not only possible, but it’s a serious threat.”

So far, power outages have been local and temporary. India has experienced two major incidents, in New Delhi in July 2012 and in Mumbai in October 2020. The Delhi one affected 620 million people, some 8 per cent of the world’s population. In Mumbai, all suburban train services stopped, with passengers trapped inside; central heating systems failed; traffic lights went dark; financial services were suspended; intensive care units in hospitals had to run on generators to keep patients breathing; and online exams had to be canceled. Maharashtra’s energy minister attributed the two-hour Mumbai outage to  a “technical failure.”

A permanent outage that shuts down the entire world has been a favorite theme of science fiction. In E.M. Forster’s 1909 short story “The Machine Stops”, the survivors of an (unexplained) ecological disaster now live underground. Transport, communications, production, and services are powered by electricity, and there is no personal contact: Music is piped continuously into cells from which inhabitants never stir, beds descend at the press of a button, and human matter is excreted into giant “vomitories”, located above ground.

“Cannot all you lecturers see that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine,” the hero, Kuno, tells his benighted mother. “We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops, but not on our lives. The Machine proceeds, but not to our goal. We only exist as blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.”

But then the Machine starts breaking down. There are hiccups to the piped music; the “virtual” lectures suffer power cuts; the artificial food turns moldy; the air becomes foul; the bath water starts smelling; and the sleeping apparatus fails.

Then, one day, the Machine stops working altogether. Civilisation ends. Panic-stricken crowds fill the tunnels leading to the surface, but the jammed ventilation shafts have stopped working as well, trapping them underground. Permanent night descends.

Since Forster wrote his story, there have been many more explorations of this idea. In René Barjavel’s 1943 novel Ravage, electricity suddenly disappears, with chaos, disease, and famine following. More recently, in Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan, cyberterrorism has shut down the Internet, and with it, global production, supply chains, communication, energy, travel and state security systems. The population reverts to barbarism. The same idea is the premise of Blackout by Marc Elsberg, a disaster thriller about a cyberattack that causes the collapse of the European and US electricity grids.

Apocalyptic collapses on this scale are still the stuff of fiction. Apart from anything else, many places remain without internet, having never had the infrastructure to support it. But the number of such places is steadily and rapidly declining, in part as a result of the efforts of social media and tech giants, which, by expanding the number of internet users, also enlarge their customer base and broaden the reach of their information monopolies.

The slower-burning threat is that populations, accustomed to the “automatic” provision of services on which they rely, will gradually lose their resilience to “shocks,” both natural and artificial. Having lost their memory of how things were done in the past, and knowing little or nothing about how the processes on which they rely actually work, they will be helpless and panic-stricken in the face of even mild upsets to ‘normal’ life.

 They have made a God of the Machine, or as, academics more soberly explain, they live by the “scientific-technological paradigm” and are governed by its “frame of necessities”. The Machine promises to improve our lives, but what happens if the doors no longer open?

 

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is professor emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University. © Project Syndicate 1995–2021

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