Are We at the Start of a Tech World War?
It’s a battle unlike any we’ve ever seen before
06 July 2016
During this past year, various theories have been posited to suggest that our current political mood might foretell a reckoning so dark that it could eventually spiral into a veritable international crisis—some terrifying World War III doomsday scenario. Some of these hypotheses have been undeniably hysterical, for sure. But others have been remarkably, even eerily, sober. And now, with a world on edge, they have gone mainstream.
In the weeks preceding the Brexit vote, outgoing prime minister David Cameron admonished listeners that the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union could cause instability in the region that might indeed lead to a significant geopolitical conflict. Various members of the media echoed this sentiment, and offered up a theory that other countries might subsequently exit the E.U. (Sweden, Holland, Hungary, and Greece are on the short list to try to walk first), potentially setting off a battle of influence between Russia and the United States, a Cold War 2.0.
Three-thousand-plus miles away, in America, politicians, the media, and most reasonable humans have been agonizing that Donald Trump’s foreign policy (if you can dignify a plan as sophisticated as putting the world in a vice grip and giving it a noogie, while calling it names) would lead to another martial crisis. And then there’s the other side of the coin. Trump himself has argued that if he is not voted in as president, a populist uprising might ensue and we could end up in the midst of just such a violent battle. (Personally, I’d prefer to take my chances.)
It doesn’t take a political scientist to see that the world is on edge. And technology, we often forget, undergirds this political reality. The Internet and innovation have made cultures around the globe collide with historically unprecedented force. With the exception of perhaps a handful of rogue states, like North Korea, we all now eat at the same McDonald’s, use the same iPhones and discuss the same hot-button topics on the same social networks. Every corporation on the planet can do this thanks to—not in large part, but in all parts—technology.
And it’s that same technology that has helped oversee an extraordinary re-distribution of wealth that has tilted American society off its axis. Since 1979, when Steve Jobs was first visiting Xerox Parc and learning about the computer mouse—a moment that would change computing, and hence society, forever—the bottom 80 percent of American families has had their share of the country’s income fall, while the top 20 percent has enjoyed modest gains. The top 1 percent, of course, has coincidentally seen their income rise stratospherically. To borrow from Bernie Sanders’s stump speech, the richest 1 percent in America have almost 40 percent of our country’s wealth, while the bottom 90 percent have 73 percent of the debt. This is largely the result of technology. And just wait until our work force is truly affected by the rise of robots and automation.
You don’t have to look too far back into history to see that when the marginalized have had it with the system, it doesn’t take a lot to set flame to tinder. World War I didn’t begin with two countries invading each other. It was inaugurated by a tense global climate, a matrix-like alliance system, and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by a passionate 19-year-old in Sarajevo. It was only one spark that blew up the world.
Technology is also likely to be at the center of the next major geopolitical battle. The anti-immigration, anti-one percent, anti-capitalism and anti-everything else we’re seeing right now isn’t just going to go away in a society where people feel their voices are not being heard. They’re going to continue to try to affect change, and increasingly, they will rely on technology. And it’s that same technology that is likely to ensure that all future wars bear little resemblance to previous ones.
I learned this terrifying lesson a few years ago, when I attended a small conference in Canada focused, in large part, on futuristic tech—robots, cyborgs and artificial intelligence, usual stuff like that. But at some point, an older man calmly made his way to the lectern, and placed on the projector a crude illustration of America with three concentric circles emanating from the center. The man introduced himself as a former government spy, offered up some impressive credentials, and said that he had seen some dark things in his lifetime, but the darkest was still to come.
The next major war, he said, wouldn’t be fought with bombs, men, or even robots. It wouldn’t be waged on a battlefield or in the sky. Instead, it would be a silent war. He explained that during the past couple of decades, most of the world’s private and public infrastructure had become predominantly digital. And that the next major war could decimate that infrastructure. Water-treatment facilities, oil pipelines, dams, electrical grids, telecommunications platforms, food shipments, public and private transportation, traffic lights, prisons, every single drip of media—and a long, long list of other things we need for survival but take for granted—would all be vulnerable.
What could happen in such a scenario? According to this man’s prophecy, at first people wouldn’t know what had happened. The lights would simply go out. Our smartphones and computers would be black rectangles. The Internet: poof! Water infrastructure would stop working, power plants would go offline. Cars that were built after the 1970s, when manufacturers started adding integrated circuits, would never start again. Crops, which are now operated by digital irrigation systems, would die. And that would all be in the first few hours. Imagine what would happen in the coming days, weeks, and months.
How could such a terrifying thing happen? There are several scenarios. The concentric circles on the man’s slides were meant to illustrate the fallout from an E.M.P., or an electromagnetic pulse bomb, which can fry computer circuits hundreds of miles away. A silent flash later and we would essentially be sent back centuries, he told the audience. He noted that it might sound hyperbolic, but when you think about just how dependent we are on all of those little computer chips, it’s actually rather terrifying. Another theory for such a catastrophic event, and perhaps a much more likely scenario, is the prospect of computer hackers—possibly from an adversarial country—taking down power plants, water systems, the Internet, or private infrastructure. (America has been trying to retrofit its infrastructure to avoid this, but it’s still unclear if it’s avoidable at all.)
It’s important to understand that the right hackers, with the right tools, wouldn’t just crash our computer systems, forcing us to hit the power button and restart them. Real cyber warfare could destroy actual machines. We saw this happen with the Stuxnet virus, in 2010, where security experts had identified a malicious computer worm (nicknamed “the world’s first digital weapon”) which was built to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program by making its centrifuges spin so fast that that they tore themselves apart. (Numerous reports claim that the worm was built by the United States and Israel.) Then there are the endless data breaches that have occurred with regularity over the past few years. Maybe there’s a worm already sitting somewhere inside our computers, waiting to be prodded awake.
Over the years, I’ve learned that these predictions weren’t simply the doomsday prophecies of older government agents who attend conferences. A report this year from the The Gatestone Institute, a not-for-profit policy council and think tank, noted that “an EMP attack on the U.S. would leave the country with no electricity, no communications, no transportation, no fuel, no food, and no running water,” and that such a situation “could be far more deadly and dangerous to the United States than the most powerful H-Bomb ever built.” The same, it appears, could be true for hackers able to penetrate systems that govern our infrastructure. Just watch this staged cyberattack, which shows how some code can destroy the power grid.
It's also important to remember, of course, that technology facilitates democracy in many ways. Unlike previous turmoil and wars, where coups took place with guns or pitchforks, the stepping stones that could lead us into a worldwide tumult today seem to be taking place with voters at the ballot boxes. Whatever you make of the events in Britain or Austria, where the far-right anti-immigration candidate Norbert Hofer lost the presidency there by a mere 0.6 percent (Hofer may still end up as president as Austria threw the last election out plans host a re-vote), the demonstrations were largely bloodless. (The tragic murder of M.P. Jo Cox is, of course, a heinous exception.)
But it’s also important to recall that unstable government, and disaffected polities, can lead to mass unrest. And the consequences of that unrest could be more terrifying, and indefensible, than we have ever seen before. When you look at the ease with which North Korea (as the F.B.I. claims) broke into Sony, or Guccifer, the Romanian hacker, who has claimed responsibility for dozens of high-level breaches in the U.S., including penetrating Hillary Clinton’s server, or how easily the Chinese have popped in and out of our government systems, we shouldn’t scoff at the warnings that something like this could happen one day.All it took during World War I was one shot. Maybe all it will take for World War III is one line of code.
Nick Bilton is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair.