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Thursday, October 29, 2015

LIGHTS OUT


Technology is a two-edged sword. Sure, it makes life easier. But an over-reliance on our gadgets can make things complicated and leave us feeling lost and confused. For the more technically advanced a tool, the more can go wrong. Take bicycle riding, one of the simpler forms of transportation. And yet a tire can blow, a chain can break, and you are stranded on the side of the road. Which doesn't happen if you travel on foot. Without technology we wouldn't have methods of food preservation (which refrigerators provide), long-distance communication, and trans-Atlantic travel, not to mention many of the creature comforts we have grown to love and depend on, like lights, and air-conditioning, and TV.

The Internet and devices which allow us to access the Internet have become our constant companions. We are always connected. And in the age of the Internet of Things, when an increasing number of household appliances, even our cars, are online, one wonders if it is possible even to get along in a matrix-like world that is so wired without yourself being hooked in. I often think that if I entered medicine today I wouldn't be able to function without a smart phone. When I was a resident, I used to carry around books. Now all that information is on an iPhone. Luckily I'm not in medicine today, because I refuse to carry the gadget. The Blackberry I bought as a student, in 2006, is a dinosaur. I can't even receive photos, let alone take them!

But the more our technology does for us, the greater our dependence, the more can go wrong if suddenly it all shuts down. This is the subject of the new book Lights Out by former Nightline anchor Ted Koppel, who warns against a massive cyberattack that could knock out electric grids and leave millions of people evacuating cities without power or connectivity. Interviewed by Time Magazine Koppel says that some experts believe such an attack has a 90% likelihood of happening. With water and power run by the Internet, if such an attack took place we'd be back in the pre-industrial era overnight, left alone and cut off to fend for ourselves in a dark age - and without our favorite sitcoms! 

Koppel hopes that his book will serve as a catalyst for government action, that the Department of Homeland Security, and FEMA (whoever they are) will coordinate efforts to immunize cities from Chinese and Russian cyberpunks. But until that time, each individual should self-monitor. Observe how deeply you rely on the devices around you, and as often as you can choose old-fashioned ways of getting around and communicating. Walk to your friend's house rather than drive, and have a face-to-face conversation with said somebody rather than texting him or her under the table. Because that way, if the time comes that you are forcibly logged off, what it's like to be untethered won't be such a dim memory. Freedom, even from electricity, and TV, may not be such a bad thing.

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