Non-Fiction Reviews

Apocalypse How
Technology and the threat of disaster

(2020) Oliver Letwin, Atlantic Books, £14.99, hrdbk, xiii + 248pp, ISBN 978-1-786-49686-7


What would happen if the internet crashed for a few days due to, say, some sort of intense virus or a Solar sunspot storm?  The latter is the premise behind Oliver Letwin's Apocalypse How.  This is not some sort of purely abstract thought experiment as the author is a politician.  He served as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer under Michael Howard, and as Shadow Home Secretary under Iain Duncan Smith. He was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster from 2014 to 2016 and was in the Theresa May Cabinet 2016 to 2019.  He is therefore aware of how matters are considered and managed at top governmental levels.

Now, I have to say from the outset that I totally concur with the author's broad thesis – that Britain lacks proper preparedness for 'black swan' (unlikely but not impossible) events – and indeed I have noted and personally told politicians as to how bad they are at preparing for future events 'over the horizon'.  And so I disagree with Oliver Letwin focussing on the specific 'black swan' of internet collapse.  As I write this we are in the middle of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic that in Britain has demonstrated the foolishness of investing in the NHS to a level of zero winter spare capacity and under-funding social care.  Furthermore, the government some years ago game-played the scenario of an influenza pandemic that found that the UK lacked the quantity of reparatory equipment, yet nobody picked up this ball and here we re today…  From this, two things are patently obvious.  First, that there are a number of potential 'black swan' events: in addition to possible internet collapse, among others there is the risk of afore-mentioned biological pandemics, antibiotic resistant strains and staple crop harvest failures.

(Regarding this last, being wealthy – not living on US$2 a day – you are probably unaware of the poor 2007/8 rice harvest in E. Asia and India that caused a 5 kg bag of ASDA 'smart price' basmati to nearly double in price and – more dramatically – food riots in many southern hemisphere cities: you were probably more worried about your savings' interest rate collapse or decline in your home's or your pension pot value in the wake of the 2007/8 financial crash caused by politicians failing to instil a proper governance regimen for the financial sector that allowed them to get away with falsely valuing, and risk-assessing, US sub-prime mortgages.)

Consequently, with Apocalypse How there is more than a little of the pot calling the kettle black. (With regards to the 2007/8 financial crisis, Labour at the time was saying financial 'regulation with a light touch', while Letwin's opposition party called for even less regulation to let market forces control matters!)  Furthermore, we are living longer with less a proportion of our lives in peak economic generation but still expect services in our extended old age.  That politicians, especially in Letwin's party, are unwilling to appropriately tax to pay for this demographic change (as pointed out by many including recently Sarah Harper), has led us to an impoverished, minimum-pay, dysfunctional social care sector which is panning out as anyone with a modicum of foresight would expect in our current coronavirus, black swan event.  It would almost be funny were it not so serious.

Leaving aside the author's own myopia (though I note the irony in his pointing it out in others), let's concentrate on his specific black swan bugbear: national internet collapse.

Letwin's central tenet is that our society is now so interconnected that should the internet fail (in the book's hypothetical case due to a massive Solar storm) that the electricity grid would collapse along with telecommunications and all commercial activity save cash buying and selling.  The impact of all this would be considerable and a winter event lasting just five days would result in well over 100,000 deaths.

Letwin explains the issue in two ways, side-by-side. One is a novelette interspersed throughout the book, that tells of a banker leaving London to aid his wife's elderly mother, along with the governments emergency briefing meetings.  The other is a non-fiction book outlining why we should be concerned about our over-reliance on the internet and the need to have non-digital back-up systems in place: we need to maintain analogue land-lines, power stations need to have a second alternative grid co-ordination separate to the internet. The analogue land-line telephone system also needs to be independent of the internet, and so forth.

The author makes his case well and I am totally with him as far as he goes.  He recognises that back-up systems are less perfect/ideal, but they are functional.  For example, you may rely on your school to look after your kids during the working day, but if the school closes you will have a less-perfect or desirable, but functional back-up alternative (parents of other children, grandparents, or even taking annual leave, etc) to fallback on.

Where I disagree with the author is that while a total internet failure lasting five days would be critical, as mentioned, there are other black swan events against which we need to protect society of which the current coronavirus pandemic happens to be just one.

In his closing chapter, Letwin cites where we have been more successful in recent future-proofing society and here includes climate change.  But, again, I must differ with him.  We have known, since the work of Arrhenius in 1896, that adding fossil carbon into the atmosphere would result in warming. That most politicians are largely scientifically illiterate is not the electorate's fault.  Such climate change was touched upon by, for example, the UN Conference on Human Development in Stockholm in 1972 (in its action plan recommendation 70) and we have had plenty of time since then and being on the, over four decades long, tortuous road to the UN's 2015 COP21 Paris Accord whose climate goals we are on track to spectacularly fail to meet.  If anthropogenic climate change is to be considered an example of success, then perish the thought as to our being able to successfully address Letwin's own bête noire of catastrophic internet collapse!

However, despite my criticisms, this is nonetheless a very worthy book that deserves attention.  And so I must jump to Letwin's defence as this book has had some very undeserving reviews in the mainstream press, including by the The Times whose reviewer flaunted his own scientific ignorance of systems analysis while criticising the literary elements of the fictional story Letwin uses to illustrate his case.  This was underhand: Letwin's fiction is not a work of literary fiction but an outline storyboard aid in a treatise call-to-arms to address a hitherto under-recognised societal threat.

Let's hope that the political classes will read Apocalypse How, but sadly I suspect they wont in the numbers needed, nor heed its message to the degree required.  Nonetheless, you can and so make some preparations to ensure you have non-internet dependent options in your life.

Jonathan Cowie


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