In a recent TED talk, Danny Hillis, who just so happens to be the third person ever to register a domain name on the Internet and was around during its formative early days, pointed out something that may surprise you: If the Internet was taken out by a virus, an accident, or a deliberate, concentrated attack, we have no "plan B." And because so many surprising services and systems rely on the Net today, much of what makes our society work could simply cease functioning. Cue people screaming, running away in terror, the collapse of civilization and so on and so on. Well, maybe.
If you think this is just nonsense, and then cleverly point out that the Defense Department helped create the Internet as a decentralized and attack-resistance communications tool during the Cold War, then you should listen to Hillis's talk for more details.
He points out how in April 2009 "all of a sudden a very large percentage of the traffic on the whole Internet, including all of the traffic between U.S. military installations, started getting rerouted through China." China Telecom said it was an honest mistake, and Hillis says this is possible, but it does illustrate how disastrous a "dishonest mistake" could be for the entire Net. Hillis also commented that "in all of Asia recently it was impossible to get YouTube for a little while because Pakistan made some mistakes in how it was censoring YouTube in its internal network."
Little mistakes like these could really damage much of the Net because although we're not really living yet in the era of "The Internet of Things," many products and systems we encounter in daily life rely on the Net in some way. Pumping gas at the gas station is really about the physical process of sucking gasoline from a big tank through a tube to the smaller tank in your car, and that's not Net-related. But the gas company plans its delivery logistics using the Net, and the pump may even be chatting over the Net to the head office to report on how much it's pumped.
There's also the example of the Iranian nuclear hack, whereby a virus was used to deliberately sabotage nuclear enrichment centrifuges—systems that you would imagine were isolated from the Net for security. A different deliberate attack, targeting computers in hospitals or other critical infrastructure, could have disastrous impact in the West...which explains why the Obama adminstration has thrown such a big spotlight on cyberdefense.
But Hillis's point still stands, and here's where we turn it over to you, dear Netizens, for your point of view. If all this digital marvelousness went away—what would you do? Do you believe it's even possible? And would all sorts of chaos truly result?*
*In the meantime, watch this comedy clip from The IT Crowd for a humorous peek at what this all might look like.
[Image: Flickr user noii]