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HOW MIGHT A DIGITAL DARKNESS COME ABOUT?

Predictably unpredictable. The evolution of life and its peripherals have always been intriguing. Traversing through time, technology has always been a double-edged sword: it can both liberate and enslave, accelerate and impede, enlighten and darken the microcosms of life. Rapid technological advances since the past decades have fundamentally altered the economic, geopolitical, social and ethical ecological canvas. The 21st century is an era of uncertainties, silent manoeuvres, paradoxical wisdoms and confounding justifications. Charles Dickens’ preamble in the famous Tale of Two Cities resonates this stage perfectly, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” This may be coincidental but nevertheless consequential with regards to the emergence of significant disruptive technologies that are both benefiting as well as debilitating.


For better or for worse, till ‘darkness’ do us flight! The causa causans of a digital darkness can be attributed to natural and unnatural or man-made factors. The contraposition deployment of technology today has surpassed the first machine age in the 1700s. Hail the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation where pervasive digital technology permeates every aspect of a thriving civilization. Breakthrough innovations precipitated by AI has distinctly heralded implausible creativity and catalyse phenomenal shifts. Creativity breeds complexity and complexity kills agility! Has technology made our life simpler, or has it codified our thinking into a labyrinth of darkness?


In the race for supremacy in a singular mechanised era, nations across the globe are shoring up on digital technology which inadvertently increases fragility of the society as a whole. The world's digital footprint has increased exponentially. Today, global IP traffic is almost 150,000 GB per second compared to 100 GB per day three decades ago. Ubiquitous data and connectivity has manifolded around 60 zettabytes in 2020 and will inflate to three times as much by 2025. The spread of cloud computing and billions of digitally connected devices are taking things to an entirely new level. And technology is not perpetual, just like humans are not immortal. As our cyber connectedness continues to increase, so does our susceptibility to cyber attacks.


Inexplicable cyber-breaches, hacks, or malware, including the use of ransomware and phishing continue to escalate in proportion to the dynamic digital advancements. These result in social trust fractures and severely damage reputations. In the worst-case scenario, severe cyber-attacks may lead to governmental malfunctions, the outage of critical services and the compromise of secured data.


In the callous hands of mankind, technology broadens the digital divide. Illumination of glory by cutting-edge technology becomes illusory. Developed countries in North America, Western Europe and East Asia currently have control over 90% of the world's data centres, while Latin American and African states procure a meagre 2% or less. Superpowers of US and China dominate over 75% of cloud computing, 75% of all patents related to blockchain, and 50% of transactions on IoT. With over 90% of market capitalization in the world's largest digital platforms in their hands, it is apparent that some nations gain far more from digitalization than others.


In juxtaposition, significant breakthroughs and extensive interventions of technology come with considerable trade-offs. Si vis pacem, para bellum, a Latin adage translated simply as, "If you want peace, prepare for war". And ‘peace’ here denotes a diversed context - the propitious peace and the voracious peace. This crossroad leads to the dark side of technology procreating undesirable impacts leading to extreme maladies of nuclear and biological weapons, of desecration of humanity through deprivation of basic human rights and subsistence. Such infinite impacts of a digital darkness evoked by human’s irrationality result in acute catastrophes.


Living in the best of times with dominance over technology, may form the illusion that we have transcended the natural world, until the natural world drops in to remind us who is in charge. Sophisticated as it may seem, technology has no control over the wrath of nature. Recent decades have shown a profound increase in global energy requirements accelerated by robust digital developments. The internet as the lifeline of digital technology relies indefinitely on power and in the event of natural hazards, interruptions in transmission and generation of electricity, may cause severe economic, political and social damages.


Hurricanes, pandemics, earthquakes, flash floods, supervolcanic eruptions, solar flares, wildfires and tsunamis are all calamitous to the behemoth effect of obliterating a civilization. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reductions reported a rise in climate-related casualties during the past 20 years. Between 1980 and 1999, there were 3,656 climate-related events, as opposed to 6,681 between 2000 and 2019. The number of floods has more than doubled in the past 20 years, while the incidence of storms increased from around 1,457 to around 2,034. The eventful year 2020 is not spared either from the data. Subtropical Storm Theta became the 29th named storm of the 2020 hurricane season. The novel Coronavirus wreaked havoc at the close of 2019, raging throughout 2020, claiming a staggering 1.76 million lives to date. The deadliest Vamco and Goni typhoons compounded extensive damage in the Philippines. Bushfires in California and Australia incinerated lands and aggravated carbon emission. Flash floods in India and Bangladesh incapacitated infrastructures and livelihoods. Impacts of such devastating natural disasters not only decimate the living but also affect the instrumentalities of food and supply chains, could induce a digital darkness, accelerate biodiversity loss, disrupt climatic patterns, and worsen a global water shortage.


While we keep our guard up against the common natural hazards, we must not ignore the magnitude of a solar flare. True to nature, if a major solar flare were to hit Earth, the strength of its geomagnetic storms could lead to infinite digital cessation. Dr Robert Wicks, an Associate Professor of space risk at UCL's Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction purported that a geomagnetic storm is also able to cause very severe radiation in space. Satellites would be damaged or disabled, risking the functionalities of satellite communication, GPS, and weather forecasting. Presently, the blue light services and the military are highly reliant on satellite services. In an event of a digital darkness by a natural cause as powerful as a solar flare, the probability of an aggravation to superpower conflicts in the realms of military and political surveillance becomes higher.


When all is said and done, can a digital darkness be more constructive than destructive? Can this narrative of the collapse of a civilization by a digital darkness be rewritten with regards to the plausibilities of a digital darkness as a substantial leading to a better future? How would human’s ingenuity and command over technology become a compelling force towards the betterment for all? Can we capitalize on technology's time out to reconnect humanity and restore fractured social trusts? There would be much to do. The benefits of digital technology could be redesigned towards sustainable growth that benefits everyone.


© Fazidah Ithnin 2021

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