world war E
dispatches from the network society

mainstreaming cyberwar

In the wake of the attack on Estonia, an article in the venerable New York Times ponders when ‘the Big One’ – the first destructive cyberwar – will occur and how it might look. Despite the name – which recalls the inevitable earthquake that will send California off into the Pacific – the Times is rather sanguine about World War E.

An industry expert interviewed for the article downplays apocalyptic scenarios: “I think cyberwarfare will be far more subtle…certain parts of the system won’t work, or it will be that we can’t trust information we’re looking at.” Another interviewee, an editor at Wired, remarks, “They unleash their deadly viruses and then they land on the beaches and sweep across our country without resistance because we’re rebooting our P.C.’s?”

The article concludes with lighthearted recollections of the fractious relationship between humans and technology:

Down on earth, by comparison, this correspondent found himself near the Kennedy Space Center in a convenience store without cash and with the credit card network unavailable. “The satellite’s down,” the clerk said. “It’s the rain.” And so the purchase of jerky and soda had to wait. At the center’s visitor complex, a sales clerk dealt with the same problem by pulling out paper sales slips.

People, after all, are not computers. When something goes wrong, we do not crash. Instead, we find another way: we improvise; we fix. We pull out the slips.

But the central issue of World War E is not when ‘the Big One’ materializes to incapacitate all cybersystems or convert docile robot drones into merciless killing machines; it is how the ongoing development and deployment of information technology engages social networks, forcing them to evolve into new formations, and what these formations reflect, in turn, about the shape of social relationships. Indeed, the first commentator has it right: the social impact of World War E will be at the very basic levels of trust and risk that structure all human relationships.

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