Modern society has become fully reliant upon technology. While technology has certainly done much to improve just about every facet of our lives, it also leaves us quite vulnerable to a scenario where we abruptly lose it. What would a worst-case scenario like this actually look like?
To get to the bottom of this frightening inquiry, we look to David Gewirtz. He recently did a “thought experiment” for ZDNet where he went into details answering this very question. For Gewirtz, he refers to the state of society without its modern devices as a “Stone Age,” which essentially equates to the era of computing that precedes the Information Age–before personal computers were a thing and rock n’ roll was controversial.
Believe it or not, a scenario like this is more plausible than you may realize, especially if a hacker were to deploy the Stuxnet virus (a complex virus which targets nuclear reactors). The scenario that Gewirtz explored is one where this virus is deployed against The United States, along with other viruses meant to disable the country’s infrastructure.
Surprisingly, due to most of the country’s infrastructure being operated by older technology, a devastating hack like this is entirely within the realm of possibility.
To be sure, having the grid essentially go down would be much more than a minor inconvenience. Think about it, how often do you actually use cash? We’ve become so heavily-dependant upon electronic payments that losing this would literally cripple the economy. People would be unable to access the critical supplies they need, and since a country like America is so closely tied to the economic dealings of the rest of the world, the negative effects would be far reaching. And let’s not forget about how everyone is dropping landlines for mobile phones. People having to wait days to send and receive messages would be a complete shock to a society built on instant gratification.
Now, you might be an optimistic individual who has faith in humanity and thinks, “Okay, this would be a bump in the road. People would pull together, neighbors would help each other, and the good people of ON would get through it.” Gewirtz doesn’t think a happy-ending scenario like this where people “regroup, rebuild, and recover” is nearly as realistic as what Hollywood makes it out to be in their popular disaster movies.
Instead, he believes it’s more likely for people’s survival instincts to kick in as they selfishly look out for themselves and turn on each other. Think more “Mad Max” and less “Independence Day.” Also in Gewirtz’ scenario, he assumes that the culprits of the hack aren’t looking to just make a one-time big splash. He proposes that “clever enemies are capable of playing a long game.”
For example, people’s faith in recovery depends on their government having a plan. But what if these recovery plans are just as dependant on technology as the infrastructure that’s no more, and those backup plans were sabotaged too? Essentially, government as we know it would be nonexistent; and, if the hackers were to do something like infiltrate the ranks of government agencies using threat actors whose identities were compromised from the hacks of personnel files (a hack which actually happened recently to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management), then the government’s ability to function would be sabotaged.
Gewirtz theorizes that, in the government’s place, there might be small groups that work for the common good, but probably not. Here’s how he sees it:
Without financial support and communications, our supply chains would be toast. Goods and services would no longer move across the country. There would be mobs storming supermarkets, hardware stores, and gun shops. Gasoline for vehicles would run out in a matter of days. National government would cease to function. Instead, the primary governance touch points would be some responsible local law enforcement officers. More likely, we would see feudal governance take hold, where those with the most firepower, survival resources, and physical strength would take power.
Recall how we mentioned that a major hack like this would set society back to the days before the Information Age, well Gewirtz thinks this is the best-case scenario of a worst-case scenario. It’s more probable that, due to the sudden and drastic loss of the world’s communications systems, society would regress even further, perhaps even back to the 18th Century, before the days of the telegraph. This would be in part due to society’s inability to communicate apart from digital devices.
At this point in Gewirtz’ thought experiment, he tackles the likelihood of this actually happening. Thankfully, it’s not very likely. One reason is because the world’s economy is so connected that if this were to happen to a major player like The United States, then the standard of living for pretty much the rest of the world would take a nosedive. Therefore, a well-funded government organization wouldn’t be much inclined to engage in this level of cyber warfare because their nation would also be negatively affected by such a hack.
Instead, a more likely candidate to act out like this would be a group that’s dedicated to seeing the entire world spiral into chaos. Typically, people who buy into these anarchist ideas are lone wolves and lack the significant organizational capacity and resources it would take to make all of this happen. So with that in mind, the likelihood of this entire scenario goes down considerably, but it’s still not completely ruled out.
Therefore, we can take comfort in technology’s primary role in today’s society–but don’t get too comfortable.