Techsploitation: Information dystopia

Pub date February 6, 2008

TECHSPLOITATION I was raised on the idea that the information age would usher in a democratic, communication-based utopia, but recently I was offered at least two object lessons in why that particular dream is a lie.

First, a dead surveillance satellite, one roughly the size of a bus, fell out of orbit and into a collision course with Earth. It will likely do no damage, so don’t worry about being crushed to death by flying chunks of the National Security Agency budget. The important part is that nobody knew when the satellite died. Maybe a year ago? Maybe a few days? A rep from the National Security Council would only say, "Appropriate government agencies are monitoring the situation."

Is this our info utopia, wherein we literally lose track of bus-size shit flying through space over our heads? I mean, how many surveillance satellites do we have? It’s not like I love the techno-surveillance state, but it is a little shocking that the SIGINT nerds who run it are so out of touch that they can’t even keep track of their orbiting spy gear. Still, it’s hard to be too upset when Big Brother isn’t watching.

But that satellite could just as easily have been a forgotten communications satellite dive-bombing our atmosphere. And that would have sucked, especially since last week’s mega Internet outage across huge parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia didn’t bring down the global economy largely because people had satellite access to the Internet. This Internet outage, which took millions of people (and a few countries) off-line, happened when two 17,000-mile underwater fiber-optic cables running between Japan and Europe were accidentally cut. No one is quite sure how they were severed, but it was most likely due to human error — an anchor was probably dropped in the wrong place.

And so big chunks of Dubai went dark, as did many Southeast Asian countries. Businesses couldn’t operate; people couldn’t communicate. The people and businesses that were able to keep running were by and large the ones that didn’t depend on cheap Internet services that use only one or two cables to route their traffic. It’s cheaper to rent time on one cable, but if that cable is cut, you lose everything. Most customers don’t research how their Internet service providers route Internet traffic across the Asian continent — or across the Pacific Ocean — so they don’t realize their communications could be disrupted, possibly for weeks, if some drunken sailor drops anchor in the wrong spot.

In fact, few of us anywhere in the world consider the fact that our info utopia is a fragile thing based on networks that are both material and vulnerable. We think of the Internet as a world of ideas, a place "out there," unburdened by physical constraints. Even if you wanted to research which physical cables your ISP uses to route your traffic, it would be very difficult to do without a strong technical background and the help of the North American Network Operators’ Group list, an e-mail list for high-level network administrators.

So why do a crashing spy satellite and a partly dark Internet mean we’ve entered the age of information dystopia? Quite simply, they are signs that our brave new infrastructure is failing around us even as we claim that it offers a shining path to the future. It’s as if the future is breaking down before we get a chance to realize its potential.

But the information age doesn’t have to end this way, in a world where
can-and-string-network jokes aren’t so funny anymore. There are a few simple things we could do. We could help consumers better understand what happens when they buy Internet access by showing them what routes their traffic might take and giving them realistic statistics about possible outages. People could then make better choices about what services to buy. And so could telcos and nations.

Why shouldn’t we have solid research on which ISPs are most likely to suffer the kind of network outages we just witnessed from the severing of those two cables? Consumer groups could undertake this research. Or, since developed nations suffer more, perhaps the United Nations might want to conduct the investigation as a matter of Internet governance. We know where car traffic and sea traffic go. Why don’t we know where Internet traffic goes?

Another thing we could do to stop the information dystopia is to cut down on spy satellites, but that, as they say, is another column.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is investing in semaphore communication networks.