Friday, September 9, 2011

How fragile we are

IMO, any post title that has me singing Sting lyrics is a good one.

In working on my new PA setting, I came to a startling conclusion. Our information-based infrastructure is like a gigantic balloon. Press it at any point, and it will give. Remove the pressure, and it will rebound. But pop it, and it cannot be repaired. It can only be rebuilt from scratch.

Let's start with a world a few years in the future, where the internet has truly pervaded every aspect of our lives. We walk around connected to the cloud 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Even our most mundane appliances run Java and can interface with some web-based apps.

Now, let's posit an info-pocalypse. Substitute whatever you want here. Global-sized EMP burst, omega virus, the internet gains awareness and kicks us out of its house, nanites run amok and eat up every scrap of copper on the planet. The details here don't matter much. The important things are three results. First, at least 90% of the computer infrastructure goes down hard. Second, as a result, the global power grid collapses (a pretty logical, and I think inescapable, consequence). Finally, the resulting collapse of finance, communications, etc. causes a general societal collapse, meaning that people spend several years far lower down on Maslow's hierarchy than "get the computers fixed."

Fast-forward about ten years. Society has reached a new stability, though with much lower population levels. A few intrepid engineers have gotten a major hydro-electric dam up and running again and providing power to a small nearby area. Former IT types want to get the systems up and running again. They start gathering together computers, hooking them up, and trying to recover data.

Obstacle #1: Corruption. Depending on the nature of the info-pocalypse, it's entirely possible that the information on the various drives is corrupted. Also, simply sitting around for ten years unattended and without environmental controls will likely have taken a toll on some systems. Several drives, tapes, etc. will be simply unusable. Others will require special tools to rebuild corrupted sectors (presenting something of a chicken-egg dilemma of trying to find the software that will help rebuild the drives that might have the software on them).

Obstacle #2: Security. Pretty much any system worth its salt has at least basic security. The kind of data centers that these neo-hackers will be targeting will have serious security. No access without checking with the now non-existent domain controller. Encryption protocols, and the people who know the encryption key are all dead. Even just simple password protection will be frustrating at first.

Obstacle #3: Software. In order to decode that database you just found, you need the database program. So, first you need to find a copy of the software. Not so easy without the vast reserves of the internet at your fingertips. Some of those install files might not even exist on media with a significant shelf life. Even if you find what looks like the install files, they might just be a relatively small set of batch files that downloads .cab files from the cloud. That's not going to work. And then, even if you do get it all installed, a large number of major software products even today assume an internet connection that will allow it to validate against the home office that your license is legit. It might refuse to work until you can give it an internet to connect to.

Obstacle #4: Lack of documentation. Have you ever tried to just pick up information that someone else has built and figure it out? It's hard. We pretty much assume that there will be documentation and/or an existing expert to guide us. But, hey, none of that for Mad Max or Snake Plisskin! You've just recovered all the data files for a massive corporation. But, it will take years to try and figure out what exactly all of it means or how it fits together. It's a bit easier if you also managed to recover front-end apps, but even then it's hardly a trivial process.

Obstacle #5: Crap information. This was the most insidious, and the one that really got me thinking about it. What sort of information is going to be most thoroughly protected with multiple backup and redundancy routines? Financial. Followed relatively quickly by medical and legal information, including police records. Ten years after society collapses, who's going to give a crap that you restored all of the credit card data for Capital One? Who will care that you can now prove which dead person owns a given home, and who their dead heirs are? What value will dental records have? OK, medical records might have some use, but it will be fairly limited. You may spend days, or even weeks, recovering a data site, only to find out that it is a server farm that hosts web space for various small businesses that no longer exist (or no longer need a "web presence") and various individual fan sites, blogs, and general blather.

The information you do need? Well, you might be lucky enough to find one of Wikipedia's server farms. That would rock. Scouring Silicon Valley for code libraries would be handy. Lucking into an archive of satellite maps would probably be insanely valuable. And, of course, finding Amazon's servers that host their vast ebook libraries would be critical (assuming, of course, that you could crack the DRM), along with Apple's and NetFlix's libraries. (I have a weird gaming scenario of having a post-apoc session in which one of Google's proposed floating data centers beaches itself on the Oregon coast, sparking a mad rush from the local powers to claim it.)

So, even if all the king's horses and all the king's men do find a way to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, they are likely to find that the internet is simply not capable of picking up again where it left off. Too much of its content is simply rendered irrelevant. But, it might be interesting to see a society that rebuilds itself with the internet always available to it, and not a game-changing add-on late in its life...


  1. I think one thing to consider about crap information: Even though we, as individuals, might not back up the information, sites like wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, the Oxford English Dictionary, etc. likely do frequent backups, so I doubt that if we could gain access to those systems again, that information loss would be so catastrophic that we couldn't recover it. Of course, the key there is if we could gain access to those systems again.

  2. Plus, there are museums. I hope I'm not totally screwing up your campaign world idea. :-)

  3. First, you really can't screw it up, because it's only half-formed at this point. Also, the primary question is how rapidly could we recover, and how many changes would come into play before we did? I have little doubt that we could reclaim all the knowledge we currently have, but what kind of society would we have by the time we did?

    This post was also mostly an interesting thought experiment. If society had collapsed in the 80s as we all assumed it would, many of the above problems would be as large an issue. But, because our society now takes internet connectivity and cloud computing for granted, any collapse of the internet presents massive chicken-and-egg problems for rebooting it.