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As Long as We Remember...

May 18, 2009

Death by Technology Dependence

Steven R. Berryman

How do civilizations die? How do cultures die? How do people die?


By concentrating everything we center our world upon on the microchip, the digital domain, and the Internet, we create choke points capable of facilitating wholesale disaster of biblical proportions on our current way of life in the modern world.


We also invite exploitation upon ourselves on a much more personal basis, such as a side effect of computerizing healthcare.


Can a single mistake in concentrating a technological innovation topple a civilization?


With historical context!


It has been postulated that Ancient Rome fell, at least in part, as a result of one technological mistake: the use of the toxic heavy-metal lead as a food container lining. This food preservation method was thought to be preferred by the aristocracy, leading to brain affliction as the lead leached into the body. Poisoning the decision-making of leaders in this way facilitated irrational behaviors and mistakes, and shortened the period of decline.


One of our most important physical laws is the “law of unintended consequences,” which seems to be a constant over time.


By concentrating on all things digital and the silicon microchip for our computing, communications, data storage, and much more, we magnify vulnerabilities and frailties inherent in the technology.


Some background!


The Intel silicon chip was originally a technological leap forward over what had been the vacuum tube device of the 1940s and 1950s. Our very first computers were used in secret for the ballistic computations of aiming large naval guns from moving battleships.


These first vacuum tube computers took up an entire large room of the battleship, and were sophisticated enough to account for the rotation of the earth during the in-flight time of the 16-inch projectile of the huge guns.


As we fought the Cold War, our military took first advantage of the microchip technology that did-in the vacuum tube. Chips were much smaller, ran cooler, were less fragile, and took far less electricity to operate.


However, an “Achilles’ Heel” was discovered.


On a macro-level!


Vulnerability to a sudden surge of electrical field called electromagnetic pulse – EMP – could, in an instant, cause any device using integrated circuits made of the microchips fail.


The nuclear weapons of the Cold War, and especially a variant called the neutron bomb, created an enormous wave of EMP that could render enormous destruction over the electronics of an area larger than an entire city all at once!


Ironically, vacuum tube devices such as radios of the day had no such inherent weakness.


One old-line Soviet fighter defecting to Japan contained a tube-radio and sent a panic through our military, as we gave our adversary far more credit than they deserved. We had incorrectly surmised that they were planning to operate fighters in the aftermath of a nuclear conflagration, but in fact, they just had old radios!


Through various methods of shielding our modern military semi-conducting chips, we have mitigated much of the risk. Also, manufacturing methods using materials other than silicon, such as gallium-arsenide (GaAs), are said to “harden” against the negative effects of the EMP.


However, civilian standards are not so rigorous or cognizant of worst-case scenarios, but are impacted by market pressures, and an imperative to hit a price-point.


Today our postal service is being forced into competition with E-mail, driving costs up as even junk mail “goes postal.” Bills paid over the Internet are electronic funds traveling the ether from one bank’s server to the next.


Automotive engines use computer chips as brains to do everything from instantly making fuel-air calculations for best fuel efficiency, to storing your speed and recording the information for crash data analysis. Other on-board computers control your brakes, automatic breaking to the millisecond of control.


Even if you are not dependent on telephone connectivity over a computer line directly, the switching systems at AT&T and others uses digital switching relays to most efficiently route calls from normal older “land lines.”


On more of a micro-level!


Medical records will be the next focus of our continuing march to full dependence on the microchip and the digital domain. Almost 38 billions of dollars have been set-aside in the federal governments’ stimulus program to promote savings in our medical recordation and histories.


As the theory goes, savings will be realized by eliminating duplication in treatment procedures, and in collecting and collating the information of the records themselves.


This will allow for speed in diagnosis, course of treatment, and the reduction of redundant procedures and routines.


This will also facilitate the ability to “data-mine” information about what treatments work on specific sets of circumstances and which ones don’t.


However, real reductions in medical expenses may emanate from having this mined medical data used as a justification for skipping expensive therapy purely on economic grounds.


For instance, we will now look much more carefully at the odds of what will work, based on risk analysis. The problem is that the focus will be on the risk to funds as opposed to the risk to the patient as the ultimate benefactor of treatment.


Potentially, your life as a function of a medical decision could be based upon an algorithm buried into a computer chip!


But in a cataclysm, the cycle of dependence is awesome. Any full scale crash of our computer-silicon-microchip world would be a devastating “extinction-level-event” if we do not have back up ability to conduct our affairs using alternative methods.


NASA spent many thousands of dollars developing a negative-gravity pen for space to work in a failsafe manor. The Russians accomplished the same with common #2 pencils!


As our own semi-civilized worlds collide, possibly via a terrorist attack on our electronic infrastructure, understand the fragility of our universe itself. Some cosmic explosion – or solar disruption – may even possibly send the mother of all EMP waves to our little blue planet, sending us all back to the stone-age instantly, via mass failures of all infrastructure.


Airplanes drop out of the sky. Medical records evaporate. Cell phone texting ceases.


Then you would find the playing fields of Earth truly leveled!


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