The Fragile Digital World Described By Zeynep Tufkeci Invites Smashing

In “The Looming Digital Meltdown” (New York Times, January 7th), Zeynep Tufekci writes,

We have built the digital world too rapidly. It was constructed layer upon layer, and many of the early layers were never meant to guard so many valuable things: our personal correspondence, our finances, the very infrastructure of our lives. Design shortcuts and other techniques for optimization — in particular, sacrificing security for speed or memory space — may have made sense when computers played a relatively small role in our lives. But those early layers are now emerging as enormous liabilities. The vulnerabilities announced last week have been around for decades, perhaps lurking unnoticed by anyone or perhaps long exploited.

This digital world is intertwined with, works for, and is  used by, an increasingly problematic social, economic, and political post-colonial and post-imperial world, one riven by political crisis and  economic inequality, playing host to an increasingly desperate polity sustained and driven, all too often, by a rage and anger grounded in humiliation and shame. Within this world, all too many have had their noses rubbed in the dirt of their colonial and subjugated pasts, reminded again and again and again of how they are backward and poor and dispossessed and shameful, of how they need to play ‘catch  up,’ to show that they are ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’ and ‘developed’ in all the right ways.  The technology of the digital world has always been understood as the golden road to the future; it is what will make the journey to the land of the developed possible. Bridge the technological gap; all will be well. This digital world also brought with it the arms of the new age: the viruses, the trojan horses, the malwares, the new weapons promising to reduce the gaping disparity between the rich and the poor, between North and South, between East and West–when it comes to the size of their conventional and nuclear arsenals, a disparity that allows certain countries to bomb yet others with impunity, from close, or from afar. The ‘backward world,’ the ‘poor’, the ‘developing countries’ have understood that besides nuclear weapons, digital weapons can also keep them safe, by threatening to bring the digital worlds of their opponents to their knee–perhaps the malware that knocks out a reactor, or a city’s electric supply, or something else.

The marriage of a nihilistic anger with the technical nous of the digital weapon maker and the security vulnerabilities of the digital world is a recipe for disaster. This world, this glittering world, its riches all dressed up and packaged and placed out of reach, invites resentful assault. The digital world, its basket in which it has placed all its eggs, invites smashing; and a nihilistic hacker might just be the person to do it. An arsenal of drones and cruise missiles and ICBMS will not be of much defense against the insidious Trojan Horse, artfully placed to do the most damage to a digital installation. Self-serving security experts, all hungering for the highly-paid consulting gig, have long talked up this threat; but their greed does not make the threat any less real.

Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion: Portrait of the Apocalypse

If you find speculation about post-apocalyptic situations interesting, then you should find speculation about the progression of an apocalypse interesting too. Steve Soderbergh‘s Contagion is a fine cinematic take on this eventuality.

The movie’s plot is simple: a deadly new virus jumps the animal-human barrier, and is transmitted quickly by contact. The virus’ first appearance occurs in the Far East, and then, thanks to its method of transmission and modern international travel, it quickly acquires a global presence. Its rate of progression is geometric, and as disease control centers struggle to study its molecular biology–“a mix of genetic material from pig and bat viruses”–and devise a vaccine, the virus spreads, killing dozens, then hundreds, thousands and millions. This is a global pandemic, one that could terminate civilization as we know it. 

As the pandemic progresses, successive scenes in the movie–often sustained by Cliff Martinez’ excellent soundtrack– ratchet up the tension, leading finally, to the dreaded scenes of a possibly irreversible breakdown in social order.  It is all here: the run for food at supermarkets; the hoarding; the looting; the spreading panic; the evacuations and the exodus. Conspiracy theories make the rounds; the unscrupulous find ways to profit; the principled find new occasions for bravery; the diligent die; there is space aplenty for displays of love, cowardice, fear, and bravery.

Many entries in the post-apocalyptic genre leave the apocalypse unspecified; Contagion details it quite carefully.

It is be too simplistic to suggest, as many are often tempted to when confronted with such portrayals of social degeneration in response to catastrophe, that these are occasions when “true human nature”, inevitably described as “selfish” and “cruel”, is on display. Instead, as I have argued before,

There is an alternative moral to be drawn…the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

What makes Contagion as compelling as it manages to be is ultimately its commitment to scientific and political fidelity: the genetics, the virology, the epidemiology, the development of a vaccine, are all carefully and knowledgeably described and deployed in storytelling, as are the machinations of interactions between state and federal officials, and national and international public health authorities. This is a cerebral thriller, whose slickness of production artfully complements its keen eye for detail.

Mankind makes it back from the brink, but it has been a narrow escape, and it will not bring back to life the twenty-six million that do lose their lives. This is fiction, but the perils it depicts are not too far from actuality.