The World will end with a flick of a switch

As waves of malware bring individual computer systems to a halt it’s worth contemplating what would happen if someone creates something so deadly it does corrupt the majority of our computer systems or a Carrington Event pulls the plugs on the Internet.

Some 40 years ago computers were as rare as hen’s teeth. Some small number of bearded men and women with bad hairstyles in lab jackets had ever laid hands on one. I was reminded of this when recently reading the editorial in the seminal Dr Dobb’s Journal of Computer Calisthenics and Orthodontia published in 1976:

The most exciting aspect of that hazy vision into the future, however, is my growing suspicion that personal and home computing well may have as significant an impact on the general public — the overall society — as has the automobile, the telephone, and television … all of which were considered to be mere technical novelties of no practical value, when they were first developing.

Seems cute in hindsight, doesn’t it? The possibility of computers having a significant impact on the general public!

Now of course computing is, in the first World at least, ubiquitous. We have fast reached a point where computers surround and support us in every conceivable way. Just contemplate for a moment the countless ways we rely on computers for everything from starting our cars, to telling the time, to paying for lunch, to making coffee.

And then imagine what would happen if they stopped working.

That’s the thing with malware like Wannacry. It’s not just about a few systems getting hijacked and ransomed: one of these malware attacks, or a widespread event like a Carrington Event, literally has the potential to bring the World we know to its knees.

Thirty or forty years ago we had back-up systems for the things we did. Computers just added value along the way. Now when I look at life in Sydney there is little that isn’t directly or indirectly entirely dependent upon computers. Could a supermarket function without computer assisted logistics to keep it stocked? Could petrol be pumped? Could we pay for anything? Would we have any idea how much money we had? Are there enough envelopes and post-people to make an email-less world function?

This isn’t an apocalyptic view of some unlikely dystopian future. It’s a horrifyingly likely event that someone’s back-room bodged ransom-ware stolen from downloaded NSA files and given an unforeseen twist could seriously damage, well, everything.

We’ve come a long, long way in a few decades but in doing so we’ve made ourselves vulnerable in ways that could not have been imagined in 1976.

I’m not saying that there’s anything easy to be done about it. Just wanted to share while I still can.

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