By Annalee Newitz
I WAS RAISED on the idea that the information age would usher in a democratic, communication-based utopia, but last week offered at least two object lessons in why that particular dream was a lie. First, a dead surveillance satellite, roughly the size of a bus, fell out of orbit and began a collision course with Earth. Likely, it will do no damage, so don't worry about being crushed to death by flying chunks of the NSA budget.
The important part is that nobody knew when the satellite had died. Maybe a year ago? Maybe a few days? A rep from the National Security Council would say only, "Appropriate government agencies are monitoring the situation." Is this our info-utopia, where 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 might just as easily have been a forgotten communications satellite about to dive-bomb our atmosphere. And that would suck, 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) offline, was caused when two 17,000-mile underwater fiber-optic cables running between Japan and Europe were accidentally cut. No one is quite sure how they got cut, but it was most likely human error—probably an anchor being 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 who were able to keep running were by and large ones that didn't depend on cheap Internet services that use only one or two cables to route their Internet traffic.
It's cheaper to rent time on one cable, but when that cable is cut you lose everything. Most customers don't research where 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 cut off for possibly weeks if some drunk 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 without a strong technical background and the help of the NANOG list, an email 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 it offers a shining path to the future. It's as if the future is breaking down before we even 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 really so funny anymore. There are a few simple things we could do. We could help consumers understand better what happens when they buy Internet access, showing them what routes their traffic might take and giving them some realistic statistics about outage possibilities. People could then make better choices about what services to buy. And so could telcos and nations.p> Why shouldn't we have some solid research going into which ISPs are most likely to suffer the kind of network outages we've just witnessed from these two cables being severed? Consumer groups could undertake this research. Or, since developed nations are suffering more in this equation, perhaps the United Nations might want to investigate it as a matter of Internet governance. We know where car traffic and sea traffic go. Why shouldn'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.
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