The Next Big Thing
Posts about next generation technologies and their effect on business.

Our Increasingly Fragile Civilization

The August 2008 issue of Scientific American has an article entitled "Bracing for a Solar Superstorm". It describes the potentially devastating effects of a "Coronal Mass Ejection," a wave of charged particles streaming out from the sun, creating an electromagnetic wave that could alter the earth's magnetic field. Solar storms are observed as "sunspots".

The last solar superstorm occurred in 1859. "Scientific instruments around the world...suddenly shot off scale, and spurious electric currents surged into the world's telegraph systems". If such a superstorm were to occur today, "it could severely damage satellites, disable radio communications and cause continent-wide electrical blackouts that would require weeks or longer to recover from".

The number of occurrences of sunspots varies over an 11-year cycle. According to the article, ice cores suggest that a superstorm occurs about every 500 years. Storms that occur "every 50 years could still fry satellites, jam radios and cause coast-to-coast blackouts". NASA scientists have predicted that the next peak of the 50-year cycle will occur between 2010 and 2012.

The 1859 superstorm was disruptive, but the impact was in no way comparable to the devastation that could result from such a superstorm today. What might be the effects on computers and the Internet? Major power surges and outages would certainly affect computers and Internet communications. Would telecommunications facilities be fried along with electrical transformers?

In the last 10 years, we have become increasingly dependent on the Internet. Many commercial exchanges occur over the Internet. Our financial systems rely on global networks for monetary exchange, credit sales and payments. Enterprises have become globally distributed, depending on communications for daily business operations. Transportation and distribution systems depend on computing and communications for scheduling, coordination and operational controls.

While solar superstorms occur every 500 years on average, we should not assume that the next superstorm will not occur for another 350 years. When the next one occurs, will our computers be protected from the effects of an electromagnetic wave? Will our telecommunications facilities and the Internet survive?

Consider the demise of the ancient Mayan civilization. Between the 5th and 8th centuries, A.D., the Mayan civilization of Central and South America reached a peak. The evolution of Mayan civilization is described in The Ancient Maya by Philip Landmeier. There were cities larger, and with more people than cities in Europe. They had an advanced written language. "Astronomy and arithmetics advanced and the Mayans were able to measure the orbits of celestial bodies with unprecedented accuracy". They necessarily had extensive networks for supplies of food and water, and a sewage system. They had to have economic and political systems to exchange goods and maintain order on a large scale.

Then the civilization collapsed. The population dwindled and dispersed. Something happened that their civilization could not survive, drought, disease, political change; the cause is not known. The civilization was built on the state of their world as they knew it, and something went wrong.

As our global civilization evolves, we optimize our systems and our standard of living based on the current technology and the current state of our ecosystem. As we do so, our civilization is becoming more highly integrated, and our systems more interdependent and fragile.

Our free enterprise culture drives us to optimize based on current circumstances. An auto company cannot decide to significantly increase the cost of its cars to reduce emissions if other auto companies are not compelled to do the same. If a company significantly increases the cost of its products or services to survive a solar superstorm, will customers buy the products? Probably not. Unfortunately, our global civilization increasingly relies upon enterprises, products and networks of all kinds that are optimized for the way things are, and things will inevitably change.

While a solar storm is only one global threat, the severity of risk is directly related to the vulnerability of our computers and telecommunications networks and associated devices. This risk belongs to the information technology and communications industry. Our increasing dependence on computers and the Internet is making our civilization increasingly fragile. Are we ready for the next wave of solar storms predicted for 2010 to 2012?

If our systems fail to function on a massive scale, those of us in advanced societies can't just leave our cities and live off the land like the ancient Mayans. We depend on the continuous operation of our systems for survival.

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About the Author(s)
  • Steve Simske is an HP Fellow and Director in the Printing and Content Delivery Lab in Hewlett-Packard Labs, and is the Director and Chief Technologist for the HP Labs Security Printing and Imaging program.