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Futurist Friday: Internet Fail

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Futurist Friday is a series of occasional posts featuring recommending reading, viewing or listening resources to expand your thinking and fuel your  forecasting.

When I teach forecasting workshops, I lead participants through the process of identifying trends and disruptive events that may shape the future.

As I’ve written in CFM’s Futures Studies 101 series, trends sneak in under our radar because we don’t notice their gradual effects, or project where they will take us. Disruptive events, on the other hand, spring out to take us by surprise. By spending some time contemplating what kinds of events could have sudden and profound effects on our world, we can be prepared to respond quickly and effectively. A good example is your museum’s risk management and/or emergency response plans. (You do have one, right?) These typically cover floods, fire, storm, power outages and, sometimes, terrorist attacks. As my workshop attendees consistently demonstrate, however, a intelligent and imaginative group of people can come up with a far, far longer list of credible threats we may have to deal with in the future.

Inevitably, one of the disruptive events that workshop participants throw into the mix is “massive solar flare brings down the internet.” Yes, such an event is well within the Cone of Plausibility, and yes, it would have huge effects on society as a whole, and certainly on our institutions.

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So, for your futurist Friday reading, here is a interview with David Eagleman on the vulnerabilities of the internet. To summarize:

  • Solar flares can and do put communications satellites out of commission, and can cause geomagnetic storms that could “blow out transformers and melt our computer system.”
  • Cyber-warfare directed at military or corporate targets, or civic infrastructure. In the future, governments or terrorists may target general internet connectivity as well as specific targets. Or the perpetrators may simply be malicious hackers (this type of malicious “griefing” was one forecast explored in the Institute for the Futures “SuperStruct” game –n 2008.)
  • Political mandate, as in Iran and Egypt which both shut down the internet in the recent past to exert control over social media. Did you know that 61% of Americans approve of the idea of the U.S. president having a “kill switch” to shut off internet access? Homeland Security’s 2010 proposal on this didn’t make it through Congress, but stay tuned…
  • Cable cutting. I didn’t know 99% of all global web traffic runs through deep sea networks of fiber optic cables. Apparently there is growing history of sabotage of these networks, and they are understandably difficult to protect.

If you prefer to listen to reading, you can download a podcast that Eagleman did on the subject on 4/1/2010.

Spend a little time imagining that you wake up, one day, to the NPR Morning Edition lead story “Internet down, across the globe, no projection yet to why or when connectivity will be restored.” What would be the immediate implications for your family, your neighborhood, your museum, the country, the world? What steps would you take to adapt?                                           

The next major geomagnetic storms are forecast for mid-2013—plenty of time to review and revise your emergency plans. 

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