Tag Archives: pandemic

What happens to the internet if there’s a viral pandemic?

Map of the internetOur beloved internet could suffer badly at the hands of a pandemic virus. And not just computer viruses, either: a pandemic attack of an illness like swine flu might have knock-on effects in the digital domain, and the US General Accountability Office isn’t pleased that no one appears to making any contingency plans [via SlashDot]:

… the Homeland Security Department accused the GAO of having unrealistic expectations of how the Internet could be managed if millions began to telework from home at the same time as bored or sick schoolchildren were playing online, sucking up valuable bandwidth.

Experts have for years pointed to the potential problem of Internet access during a severe pandemic, which would be a unique kind of emergency. It would be global, affecting many areas at once, and would last for weeks or months, unlike a disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake.

H1N1 swine flu has been declared a pandemic but is considered a moderate one. Health experts say a worse one — or a worsening of this one — could result in 40 percent absentee rates at work and school at any given time and closed offices, transportation links and other gathering places.

And what do you do if you’re stuck home from work or school under house quarantine? You fire up your computer and mess around on the internet (unless that’s just me), meaning a severe pandemic will cause a serious uptick in bandwidth demand, potentially slowing down essential infrastructure systems at the same time. [image by matthewjethall]

In a rare display of pragmatism, Homeland Security has told the GAO that there’s not really much it can do to prepare for this sort of eventuality – despite theories to the contrary, the internet is not a series of tubes. Commercial ISPs are unlikely to be keen on being told to lock down the connections of their customers, either.

Homeland Security might well have spent a moment to think about the psyops angle of such a move, as even the positive practical results of restricting consumer bandwidth might be seriously outweighed by the psychological negatives. Ill internet habitués might break quarantine to go to locations where the connection was faster; the state of fear and paranoia that attends a serious pandemic might be amplified by the perceived restriction of information channels (“what are they trying to hide?”)… having technological impossibility as a scapegoat is probably something of a relief.

The good news, however, is that most of the major securities exchanges and financial institutions have their own private networks that don’t rely on publicly-available bandwidth, so we can rest easy in the knowledge that, even when we’re stuck at home sweating out a nasty virus without so much as a bit-rate that’ll let us peer at Fark every ten minutes, greedy shysters in expensive suits will still be able to skim the cream from the global misery without any inconvenience.

Frankly, I’m not sure that the issues would be as big as is being suggested; schools and businesses surely contribute significantly toward bandwidth consumption during the daytime, so there’d be some slack to take up thanks to absenteeism. The whole thing has a slight smell of Millennium Bug about it, at least for me; if there’s a networking expert in the audience, I’d appreciate being set straight on the details.

And while we’re talking about the internet, good old DARPA – who invented the thing in the first place – are trying to work out how to extend it into orbit and link up our swarm of satellites to their own broadband connections. That’s easy enough (though still slow) when you can set up a persistent link from ground to orbit with a geostationary platform, but not so simple for sats that move relative to the Earth’s surface. If you’ve got an idea of how to get around the problem, DARPA would like to hear from you before 5th November…

… but in the meantime, would anyone like to open a book on how soon a military or commercial satellite will be hacked over its own broadband connection?

Swine flu – panic, precautions and practicalities

flying pigWelcome to the 21st Century, wherein you will be informed of potential disasters more quickly than ever before… and, quite possibly, in indirect proportion to their actual threat. Unless you’ve been ignoring digital media completely for the last two days, you’ll already be aware of the swine flu outbreak in Mexico – but how much do you really know, and how much of that is actually useful? [image by aturkus]

New Scientist is a good place to start for a factual overview of the swine flu situation:

Should I worry about this flu?

That depends on two things: how severe the flu is, and how far it spreads. Its severity is still unknown. Those who died in Mexico were young adults who don’t often die of flu, so we know this virus can be serious. But it isn’t always bad: the cases picked up in the US were mild. Outbreak investigators are now trying to find out how many people have had the virus, and how many of those were seriously ill, to get an idea of how bad it is.

In other words, panic is not only unproductive but as yet unwarranted, despite being amplified by Twitter, whose rapidity and limited bandwidth is spreading fear faster than facts. Of course, there’s always some humour to be found in the darkest of situations.

That said, this is a serious situation and there is the possibility of a global pandemic, though without access to hard data it’s impossible for anyone to really assess the likelihood in anything more than hypothetical terms… which is doubtless why the conspiracy theorists are having such a frenzied field day.

But it’s grist for the mills of thinkers with a less alarmist bent, as well:

Swine flu, we could say, is a spatial problem – an epiphenomenon of landscape.

I’m reminded here of a point made recently by geographer Javier Arbona. Referring to the increasingly popular and somewhat utopian idea that, in the sustainable cities of tomorrow, agriculture will have returned to its rightful place in the city center, Arbona asks: “Did everyone think that so much lushness and farming envisioned in the city aren’t going to open up new Pandora’s boxes of infectious diseases and sanitation problems as we come into contact with more manure, more bacteria, and more wild animals that we urbanites are not at all ‘naturalized’ to?”

Thought experiments aside, the sensible thing to do is ignore anything repeated in hysterical terms by media outlets with a reputation reputation for sensationalist reportage, while making sensible and proportional preparations for the worst. Although at time of posting it is currently missing (in what is presumably a Wired CMS brainfart – ZOMFG kover-up kkkonspiracy!!!1), Bruce Sterling has an uncharacteristically level-headed and sensible analysis of the true global extent of the threat (in short: compared to the ongoing AIDS pandemic, swine flu at its worst will be a picnic); in the meantime, Charlie Stross links to some genuinely useful practical advice:

Oh, and if you want to know how to ride out a flu pandemic, Jim MacDonald explains how to tell flu from a cold, what you should have in your home in case you catch the flu, and how to wash your hands. Pay attention at the back: I don’t want to be needlessly alarmist but knowing how to wash your hands properly might just save your life.

The panic and hype around swine flu is certain to get louder before it gets quieter, especially once the daily tabloids take up the slack after the weekend, so let’s all try to keep a level head. Life can get messy, but it’s not a Michael Crichton novel.


“The Existential Cure,” a new short story by Will McIntosh, is now available.

[ IMPORTANT NOTICE: This story is NOT covered by the Creative Commons License that covers the majority of content on Futurismic; copyright remains with the author, and any redistribution is a breach thereof. Thanks. ]

The Existential Cure

by Will McIntosh

I stood on the edge of the curb, out of the flow of pedestrians, and watched for my son and my ex-wife. A blonde man with a twisted face and raging skin ulcers brushed against my shoulder as he lurched past. He was laughing like a loon. I tried not to flinch.

I spotted Caroline’s van and flagged it to the curb.

She stared at me through the window as Matt got out on the passenger side, her fat red lips set in an adolescent pout, cheeks streaked with too much blush, her big boobs spilling out of a low-cut blouse. I tried to recall a time when those boobs had made my head spin, but my revulsion was bone-deep and set like concrete.

Her window glided down. “He’s all yours,” she said.

“Mm-hm,” I said, not meeting her eyes.

Matthew waddled around the front of the van wheeling a suitcase, puffing from the exertion. Jesus, he’d gotten huge. How could Caroline let him get so big? Continue reading THE EXISTENTIAL CURE by Will McIntosh