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In a cabin built into the side of a remote mountain, a prepper and his family have established a totally self-reliant lifestyle. They are off the grid, have food stockpiled, a nearby source of fresh water from a spring, and they’re ready for anything. They are prepared for the worst.
And then it happens. A total, global collapse of computer hardware and software systems. They don’t even notice, but eventually, they hear about it from a neighbor. They consider themselves lucky. They don’t need the Internet nor computer technology and feel the world will probably be a better place without it… but there’s a problem.
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What Happens If Computers Crash?
The loss of digital technology may represent the most catastrophic threat to society we could imagine. The irony is that it’s our creation. We invented computers, programs, and the Internet, and slowly we have surrendered our lives to them.
We worry about artificial intelligence someday dominating our lives, but we’ve already given our lives over to the artificial intelligence of advanced computer systems and programs, and rather than dominating us to destroy us, all it has to do is cease to function.
It’s estimated that a total crash of computer systems would cause our society to revert to a life and lifestyle similar to the late 1800s. That may suit our prepper in the mountains, but a massive failure of computer systems creates a unique problem in the category of catastrophic disasters like a Cybergeddon—everybody survives. At least for a while.
The Population Problem
Imagine a world of nearly 8 billion people thrust back to a way of life without technology. How ironic that poor, rural communities in third world countries would emerge with the least impact and the greatest advantage. But they too would confront the same threat as our prepper in the mountains. It’s estimated that 9 out of 10 people would die in the first year after computer technology suffered a long-term failure.
During that first year, how many sick and starving people would look with envy at the well-prepared community or individual with a stockpile of food and medicine? Catastrophic events like asteroids, supervolcanoes, and pandemics would take out most of the people on the planet.
Not so in the event of Cybergeddon. The cold hard fact is that when more people die, there’s less competition for the survivors. If everyone survives, our prepper and his family may soon have more company than they can imagine.
What Could Cause Cybergeddon?
A lot of things, unfortunately. Most causes would be manmade, but nature has its share of surprises as well. It’s also a matter of degree—what parts of the world are affected, how badly, and for how long.
Here are some possibilities:
EMP or Electromagnetic Pulse
An electromagnetic pulse is a burst of radiation that could emanate from space, but it is more likely to be the result of a nuclear detonation. Every nuclear detonation generates an electromagnetic pulse. An airburst would cause the most electromagnetic damage while a ground burst would cause less.
An EMP would literally fry unprotected circuit boards and destroy any electronics with a circuit board as a component. This would include computers, phones, cars, trucks, airplanes, and every other piece of technology that uses a circuit board.
The range of the pulse is significant and could cover hundreds to thousands of miles, depending on the size of the detonation and the altitude. The damage would be widespread, and it would take years, if not decades, to make a basic recovery. As a cause of Cybergeddon, it’s the worst-case scenario and unfortunately, the most likely one.
Computer viruses are nothing new and we’ve survived them without catastrophe. But that doesn’t mean they can’t wipe out software and the Internet. In fact, it already happened.
In 1988, a graduate student named Robert Morris developed a line of code intended to measure the size of the Internet at the time. Due to a programming mistake, he accidentally unleashed a virus later called The Morris Worm. It took out 10% of all computers online and the Internet needed to be partitioned for several days.
Fortunately, it was the stone-age of computer technology and the effects were minimal. Today’s growing dependence on computers and the Internet would be a very different story.
This is a very real possibility. The recent meddling in American elections is a form of cyberwar and many viruses and hacks targeting banks, corporations, and various government agencies have been attributed to hackers from North Korea, China, Russia, and various lone hackers around the world.
In the event of a genuine conflict, the attacks would no doubt accelerate and could result in a massive crash of computer systems.
This has happened as well in all parts of the world. Cyber terrorism is growing and will no doubt be a constant companion to other terrorist activities.
Most have been disruptive at worst, but some governments have actually shut down the Internet in their countries during times of civil unrest. It’s happened in Syria, Egypt, and Turkey when the government used an Internet “kill switch” to halt all forms of digital communication on computers and cell phones.
How Bad Can It Get?
Very bad. Especially if computer technology goes down because of a widespread, global EMP. An electromagnetic pulse, especially from space, can and will destroy all circuit boards worldwide unless they are specifically protected from an EMP. The results would affect every facet of our lives.
Consider the consequences…
The Global Economy
Every banking transaction, every investment, every company and corporation’s operating systems, and every government’s currency and infrastructure are computerized and linked through the Internet and other digital technologies.
We live and function in a digital world where transactions happen at the speed of light across fiber optic cables. Records, receipts, investment and payment histories, everything that has to do with the global economy are now stored electronically, and any exchange of information or money is dependent on digital transactions. When the infrastructure to enable those transactions ceases, global commerce ceases.
Worldwide Manufacturing, Warehousing, and Distribution
Manufacturing processes occur on assembly lines manned by machines. Robots work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and they are operated by computers with instructions on how to do every step of any manufacturing process. Without those computers, they are nothing but hunks of metal.
Warehousing is a highly complex set of logistics designed to track the inventory of manufactured goods. Millions and millions of products—from tractors to shovels—are stored in massive warehouses across the country, all of it tracked on computers with digital records. Without those records, the location of most manufactured goods would be a mystery.
Distribution of anything from food to clothing and medical supplies is performed through a complex set of supply chain logistics. Computers and sophisticated tracking programs keep the products in the distribution pipeline moving. Without them, the pipeline stops.
Medical Technology and Medical Records
The success of modern medicine is largely defined by sophisticated technology. This includes diagnostic tools like CT scans, MRI’s and MRA’s, echocardiograms, TAVR heart procedures, radiation treatments, DNA testing, advanced blood tests and panels, medical research—the list goes on and on, and all of it is driven by digital technologies powered by computers.
There was a time where you would see a wall of file folders at the doctor’s office. Medical records were hard copies and any visit to the doctor was accompanied by written records of your entire medical history.
Not anymore. Now medical professionals access your medical records on digital databases that reside on a computer. It’s a highly effective way to record and cross-reference information, assuming the computers work and the files are accessible.
According to a recent study, more and more people say they can’t imagine life without the Internet. Email, social networks, and streaming entertainment, corporate communication, websites and search engines, cell phone service—all of it is channeled through a network of satellites.
Our communication matrix is driven by digital technology both in terms of hardware and software. Take that away, and the world goes silent.
The Power Grid
The global power grid is a complex, interconnected system. Everything is managed, monitored, and controlled by computer technology, from the electric meter on the side of your house to massive power plants creating and distributing energy.
Y2K raised the first fears of what would happen to the grid if computers failed. Twenty years later, we are more dependent on computers to control the power grid than ever before. Without them, the lights go out and it may be a long, long time before they come back on again.
Boeings entire fleet of 737 Max planes have been grounded due to a computer glitch. If a glitch can ground a plane, can any plane fly without onboard computers and programming?
But the bigger challenge is air-traffic control. Without computers connected to sophisticated radar, the ability to guide and direct air traffic would be next to impossible given the high volume of planes that fly on a daily basis.
Trains are equally dependent, and most new cars need built-in computers to fundamentally operate.
Agriculture and Food Distribution
The days of independent farming are fading fast. Agriculture has become agribusiness and crops are routinely genetically modified, planted according to computer-generated forecasts, and fertilized and sprayed with insecticides and fungicides according to a routine written by programmers and managed by computer models.
Food warehousing and distribution are guided by the same supply chain infrastructure used for all manufactured products, and any failure of the computers guiding food distribution would leave grocery store shelves bare.
Local Law Enforcement, Fire and Emergency Services, Civil Authority
When you dial 911, the phone doesn’t ring at your local police or fire station. It could be an operator hundreds of miles away tracking your location and the location of the nearest emergency assistance by computer.
Communication from units at the scene of any emergency requires a complex computer system to exchange information. Civil authorities depend on computers and programs to manage local needs and emergencies, both short-term and long term. Without those systems, you might as well flag down a sheriff on a horse.
If there’s one area that’s probably best prepared for a massive, global failure of computer systems and technology, it’s the military. Unfortunately, so much of military technology is dependent on advanced technological systems that there could still be a cascade of failures in key areas.
Their standard backups are systems that still operate with an analog interface. In fact, Air-Force One has a full set of analog systems as backups in the event of a loss of computer-aided technologies.
Political Infrastructure, Communication, and Elections
We hear plenty about interference in our elections, but without computers, there will be no elections. Some are calling for paper ballots to ensure an accurate vote count, but the paper is meant more as a backup for a recount or audit rather than an active way to count every vote in every election. Without computers, our elections would be almost impossible on a large scale.
Our government is totally dependent on computers across all of its agencies and organizations. Imagine NASA without functioning computers. It would cease to exist.
Is Cybergeddon Even Worth Preparing For?
Yes. It’s impossible to guess the degree to which any failure of computer systems may occur. If you have any doubts, think back to Y2K. A lot of people prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. But how many of those people were prepared for the best when Y2K never happened?
Preparedness is always a good idea, whether it’s for natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, or earthquakes, or something worse. A collapse of computer symptoms would definitely fall in the worst category.
Beyond the usual stockpiling, any preparation for Cybergeddon would include protecting any circuit boards from an EMP with a Faraday cage. And if the worst happens and you happen to get a knock on your mountain cabin door from a family of hungry survivors… Well, good luck.
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