6 global catastrophes that could kill your gadgets forever
12th Dec 2013 | 14:00
Lock up your tech, disaster is on its way
Since the Sony Walkman crashed onto the shelves worldwide in 1980, consumer technology has slowly been taking over our lives.
From washing machines to digital watches and from electronic word processors to modern tablet computers, the march of technology has been unstoppable.
It now sits at the heart of everything we do, as we manage our schedules with Google Calendar, keep in touch via Facebook and mobile phones and entertain ourselves with games consoles and Netflix.
But it could all change in an instant. The (atrocious) NBC drama series Revolution explores what the world would be like if all technology were to suddenly stop working. An appalling prospect, but could it actually happen? Here are six scenarios for the death of tech.
1. Financial collapse
7 crucial scientific breakthroughs
The work of physicists over the ages has led us to where we are today
Bubbles always burst in the end, and a catastrophic failure of the global markets would certainly stagnate the development of technology if nothing else. In the 21st century a collapse of this nature is certainly not hard to imagine. Indeed, technology itself has often been blamed for financial crisis in the first place. The late Charles P Kindleberger was just one of the historians to lay the blame for many a crash at the door of technological innovations.
The theory goes that new technologies such as the internet cause financial instability as new investment opportunities arise and cause widespread failures in economic reasoning. Kindleberger blamed the dot com bubble crash on the irrational exuberance caused by new internet technology.
The truth is that technology changes the world in ways that are rarely predicted. It brings us back to the well-trodden theory that humans will eventually destroy themselves. But if there's one looming disaster that could cause the mother of all financial disasters and the end of the connected, technological world as we know it, it's be the (hypothetical) horror story of peak oil...
Tech that might survive:Bitcoin becomes the de facto currency of the new order! Litecoin rebels plot in secret for global domination.
2. Peak oil
Peak oil refers to the exact point in human history where oil production reaches its absolute peak and then begins to decline until it runs dry completely. The theory goes that when this peak is reached, demand for oil will continue to rise as supply diminishes, causing huge and unstoppable price escalations (sound familiar?), eventually reaching the point where no one can afford oil anymore, bringing the whole industrialised world to a grinding halt.
So why is this relevant to technology? Well because everything we know and rely on in the 21st Century is entirely dependent on an ever increasing supply of oil out of the ground. This is how we're able to continue printing money every day without inflation taking over, making tangible oil supplies absolutely critical to sustainable economies. But more than that, oil is used in practically every single aspect of human life, including the, conception, design, manufacture and shipping of our gadgets.
Oil is used to heat metals in the manufacture process, it's used to build cars and planes and ships and to fuel the transportation of products around the world. It's the most important raw material on our planet and when it's gone, there will be nothing to replace it. In short, without oil, there would be no way for Foxconn to manufacture Apple's iPhones, and certainly no way to then ship them around the world. The fact is that oil is a finite resource and one day it will run out. On top of that, we don't even have any idea how much oil is left, and when it runs out we could see the biggest population crash in human history.
Tech that might survive: Hand made tools and toys. Use them to plough the garden to grow your own food. Pee on everything.
3. Solar superstorm
Every joule of energy we use on Earth ultimately comes from the sun. But the sun also looms over us as one of our biggest threats. In 1989, a geomagnetic solar storm knocked out the hydro-electric power grid in Canada, leaving millions of Canadians and Americans without power.
The geomagnetic storm altered Earth's magnetic field, causing huge current surges in powerlines, damaging all sorts of sensitive equipment.
A massive solar flare has the power to knock out satellites, communications systems and damage the digital technologies we now all use daily - phones, tablets, computers, smartwatches. Most of these things didn't exist in the 1980s. Hurricane Katrina cost in the region of $100m to recover from - a solar storm could cost up to $2trillion.
Some studies of solar activity say the risk of a serious event will peak in 2015, threatening to leave many places without power for months. It might not even be our own sun that bathes us in this harmful radiation. Any star in our galaxy within a few tens of lightyears would cause mayhem beyond imagination if it went supernova or worse, hypernova.
It would bathe planet earth in x-rays, scorching to ashes anything not stowed away deep underground. This is extremely unlikely to happen within the next few million years, but that's just the blink of an eye in cosmic terms.
Tech that might survive: Mechanical timepieces. Your digital watch is dead but the grandfather clock in the shed still works OK.
4. Cyber terrorism
There are many ways that an unprecedented cyber attack could take down our tech and change the world forever. Computer viruses could, in theory, devastate our infrastructure to the point where every digital device on the planet would be left useless. Stuxnet is one active example of this threat.
Stuxnet is an infamous computer worm and was first detected in 2010. Of unknown origin, it's assumed to have been coded by the US and Israel in order to destroy Iran's uranium enrichment infrastructure. The worm is highly complex and spreads indiscriminately between all kinds of devices, searching for and targeting the very specific computer codes that control the centrifuges inside nuclear power stations.
Whatever its original purpose, the worm escaped into the wild almost immediately and is still spreading virulently and out of control from device to device all over the world, attempting to find more nuclear centrifuges to destroy (it spins them out of control so that they disintegrate, while fooling computer systems and engineers into believing all systems are running normally).
Now imagine a super-worm that's designed to do a similar thing to Android smartphones and Windows PCs and you've got a potentially world-changing technological disaster on your hands. Cyber terrorism has so far been only a minor threat but it's likely to become a more serious obstacle in the decades ahead.
Of course, there's always the looming threat of a Skynet-style artificial intelligence gaining sentience and deciding we all deserve to die. But most people in the know say this is not only unlikely but technologically impossible for an army of Terminators to achieve.
Tech that might survive: Your granddad's electronic word processor from 1992. It can't interface with other devices so it's immune to viruses and if you're lucky it might let you play Snake.
5. Nuclear winter
10 uses for starlite
The potentially world-changing substance that has baffled scientific minds for decades
Nuclear winter would potentially have the opposite effect to a solar megastorm with essentially the same consequences for our gadgets and lifestyles. What's worse is that there are many plausible ways that it could happen. By sending millions of tons of debris into our atmosphere, we'd block out the sun and slowly everything on Earth would die.
Our gadgets would be the first to go belly up because we wouldn't be able to generate the energy required to make them work. Nuclear holocaust would be one way for this to happen, but it could also come about through impact winter - an impact with a comet or asteroid - or volcano winter - caused by the eruption of a supervolcano. The most famous supervolcano on Earth lays under Yellowstone National Park and it's overdue a world-changing eruption already. Be afraid.
Nuclear oblivion comes hand in hand with an additional threat, of course - the dreaded electromagnetic pulses which have the same sort of effect as a geomagnetic storm. A large nuclear bomb detonated high in the atmosphere above a developed country could potentially kill every mobile phone, computer, car and power station in the area. A carefully targeted EMP attack could bring a developed country to its knees.
Tech that might survive: The wind-up radio. Unfortunately as transmitters are powered by electricity of which we now have none, there's nothing to listen to except the sounds of the cosmos, natch.
6. Heat death of the universe
This is some way off, but it's worth mentioning because there is a fundamental law of physics - the second law of thermodynamics - that says that eventually, every gadget and piece of technology, along with every living organism and every celestial object in the entire universe, will one day disintegrate and die.
The only way to escape this cold fate would be to either travel back in time or escape to another dimension. As the universe expands it will reach a state of thermodynamic equilibrium, or maximum entropy, a state of zero thermodynamic free energy. So there would be no stars, no planets, no people and no iPhone 4,569,000's. Even individual atoms will decay into sub-atomic particles.
Of course, for this death to be sealed, every black hole in the universe would have to evaporate through Hawking Radiation which would take about a googol (10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) years. So you've still just about got time to charge your Galaxy Tab before we all head over to Milliways, the restaurant at the end of the universe (this is, of course, impossible).
Tech that might survive: Everything is dead, remember?
Illustrations by Jane Wan