Has the Internet Doomed Us?

In the April 5th, 2008 issue of New Scientist, they had an article asking if a pandemic would destroy civilization.[1] I'll spare you much of the detail, but basically the author, Debora MacKenzie asserts the following:

  1. All past societies have eventually fallen as their technology failed to keep up with societal complexity.
  2. Our technology is failing to keep up with societal complexity.

I'm sure you can see she's going with this. She offers some explanation for the former and evidence for the latter, but at the end of the day, it's only a small magazine article and not the sort of defense of her thesis that would compel people to action. Nonetheless, it's worth considering.

MacKenzie focused specifically on would happen if a serious pandemic hit society and asked if society would be able to handle one. I keep thinking about this and I fear that the answer may be "no" and that the Internet may have contributed to the problem.

What If The 1918 Spanish Flu Happened Again?

The Spanish Flu pandemic which swept the world in 1918 is estimated to have killed between 2.5 and 5% of the world's population. Think about that. Anywhere between 2 to 5% of the world's population died and the estimates I've found of the total number infected seem to vary between 20 to 50%. In short, roughly one in ten people who took ill died[2].

So what would happen if it came back? Right off the bat, the biggest difference is how much more frequently people travel today than in 1918. This would likely mean diseases would be spread much more rapidly now than in the past. With many diseases today turning out to be resistant to traditional drugs, the consequences could be severe. Even if we think this unlikely, but don't forget that both the 1918 and the lesser known (and milder but still deadly) 1957 pandemics were believed to be flu variants. Influenza is not exactly an uncommon disease.

So if such a pandemic were to spread today, I'd be very keen on working from home. I'd probably not be the only one. I'd want to rush out and stock on water and food. Probably a lot of people would be feeling exactly the same way. That's where the Internet becomes a problem.

The Strength and Weakness of "Just In Time" Inventories

During the Internet boom of the 1990s, many new businesses and business models were created. However, much of the greatest success came from improving the efficiency of existing business models. In particular, the increased adoption of Just In Time (JIT) inventory systems in the Internet age has led to dramatic improvements for many companies. Rather than keep spare inventory on hand (which must be tracked, warehoused, moved about more, etc.) and drive up costs, many companies have leveraged the use of the Web to ensure that they only have the supplies they immediately need. As a result, their costs drop dramatically. Reading the Wikipedia article on JIT, which focuses heavily on Toyata's adoption of JIT, makes it clear how powerful this is.

So the upside of JIT is that we don't have excess inventory. The downside of JIT is that we don't have excess inventory. The New Scientist article asserts that the average city only has a three day supply of food [3] and talks about how this and similar issues combined with the UK trucker's strike in 2000:

When a strike blocked petrol deliveries from the UK’s oil refineries for 10 days in 2000, nearly a third of motorists ran out of fuel, some train and bus services were cancelled, shops began to run out of food, hospitals were reduced to running minimal services, hazardous waste piled up, and bodies went unburied. Afterwards, a study by Alan McKinnon of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK, predicted huge economic losses and a rapid deterioration in living conditions if all road haulage in the UK shut down for just a week.

You can read a slightly more detailed report of its impact at IWS, an Information Warfare site.

The people I've spoken to in the UK about the impact of the truckers strike make it clear that its limited duration helped minimize the impact. However, the next pandemic (they've occurred repeatedly throughout history and will happen again) will likely spread faster and face a more thoroughly interconnected world wholly dependent on supply chains for necessities rather than stockpiles. If it's serious, the economic and political chaos could be terrifying. Gas will disappear quickly. Food will run out. Hospitals will run out of beds and supplies. People will stop showing up for work. Right now, people complain about civil right. Once you start threatening Maslow's hierarchy, things could get much, much worse.

All of this makes me think that converting to Mormonism might not be a bad idea. The devout are required to keep a year's supplies of food and other necessities available at all times. Even if you don't want to be Mormon, stockpiling food and supplies really isn't that bad of an idea.

1. You can only read it on their site if you have a subscription, but two sites have reprinted it (with credit), though I'm unsure if they had the legal right to do so.

[2] The apparent correlation of 2/5, 20/50 is likely an accident and the "one in ten" number is possibly very inaccurate.

[3] If anyone can find independent verification of the "3-day food supply" claim, I'd be grateful.

This sounds extraordinarily like something James Burke would present.
We read that article. It is truly thought-provoking. Someone once wrote that we are only three square meals away from anarchy. If Ian reads this, I'm sure he can furnish us with the source of that one.

The whole 'working from home' idea falls down very quickly once you start removing essential personnel from the equation:

a) the people who staff the buildings where the servers are maintained (I'm assuming thay are staffed and aren't just running by themselves!)

b) the people who staff the telephone exchange who keep the phonelines operational to keep your broad band connection open

c) the people who staff the electricity generating station to provide the power to keep your computer, and the telephone exchange, and the servers all pumping away (Yes, I know you can run a laptop from a solar-powered 12-volt battery, but that ain't going to keep the phone exchange running!)

D) the pizza-delivery company to provide you with pizza and coca-cola while you ignore the collapse of civilisation as we know it by playing WoW! (See b and c above).
Even a year's supply of food won't help, unless you can defend it, of course -- but that way lies Survivalism, which is even less palatable than Mormonism.

Though, you know -- Ireland, semi-self-sufficiency on one's own farm, a small enough population that the country can be self-sufficient for food too, easy enough access to guns... and the prospect of working from home UNTIL the pizza runs out, during which pre-pizza time one can be paying for food to stockpile.
Ever read Atlas Shrugged? (I wouldn't be surprised if you haven't—doesn't seem like your fare.) Rand asserted in 1957 that the northeastern cities in the US—particularly New York—only had a three day supply of food if the Mississippi railroad links were cut. I don't know if she did research and actually figured it out, but even if she didn't, it apparently seemed like a quite reasonable number in the 1950s. So the easy starvation of cities is nothing especially new.
I read part of it, but her writing was so poor and her "holier than thou" attitude combined with her complete ignorance of economics made me put the book down in disgust.

Or you can just read Bob the Angry Flower's take on it.

Bob the Angry Flower's interpretation of Atlas Shrugged
It always amuses me that the group that helped her edit the book included a young Alan Greenspan.
Atlas Shrugged
If you couldn't even finish the book, you are not qualified to comment. She was a fine and profound writer (although a bit waordy at times). She was a great thinker and you dare to comment on a book you couldnt read?

PS. Angry Bob should be called "Angry Boob".
Re: Atlas Shrugged

Of course I'm qualified to comment. Anyone can read anything and have opinions. The question isn't whether or not I can have an opinion, it's whether or not my opinion is correct (and this is where I suspect we disagree.

The book fails because:

  • As literature, it's awful. The characters are little more than one-dimensional expositionary shills and it makes for painful reading. Few authors can pull this off (Heinlein being a notable example, but even then his otherwise brilliant writing was often strained). If a book is too poorly written, there's nothing wrong with putting it down and stating the obvious.
  • Rand's objectivist epistemology is an admittedly brilliant philosophy which I have a lot of respect for, but her forays into economics are simplistic and ignore externalities and the attendent market failures.

As a result, having a poorly written work preaching the virtues of a misunderstanding of economics hardly makes this Atlas Shrugged the great book that some people think it is. Unfortunately, the so called "Randroids", as some folks derisively refer to her adherents, rather than addressing these issues, often take the time to attack those who disagree with them. Leonard Peikoff has not helped the situation by essentially promoting Rand's work as "holy writ" which must not be questioned.

Cities have a three day supply of food? Nah. *Shops* might have only three days' supply, but that's not all that's available. City-dwellers don't normally do their shopping every three days. Most people do it once a week, or once every two weeks. Even those who shop weekly will normally have some staples in their cupboards that they use very slowly and so rarely buy, so I'm quite sure that most people could easily go ten days without having to buy food.

I generally shop once a month (hooray for chemical-drenched irradiated veggies that just don't go off!), and even at the end of a month when I'm about to re-stock, I'm could easily go for another month of short rations and boring meals. Longer if the electricity supply (and hence my freezer) stays up.

this chart indicates that Spanish Flu was at its worst in a city for a period of about two months. Assuming that the next pandemic looks similar, I'm certainly gonna be OK for my food supply (cos I'd stock up at the first hint of the shit hitting the fan) because it'll be easy for me to have *three* months of rations stored. As for becoming a Moron, I don't have room to store a year of food anyway.