The Surprising Fragility Of Our Digital World

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

You’re reading this on your phone, tablet or laptop perhaps? Maybe via email or maybe at work? It arrived on your device, you opened it. No thought about it. That’s pretty cool, considering just over a decade ago, you wouldn’t have had the smartphone you have today. Or the tablet. Even WiFi was spotty in most public places. Fast data on a Blackberry was slow and colourless. We take for granted just how easy and ubiquitous access is.

We mostly live in two worlds today, fused together. The physical and the digital. Phygital. But it’s far more fragile than we might think. Why and how do we create more resilience and why that’s important?

Just a few weeks ago, Canada had a wake up call so significant that the federal government hauled the senior executives of the national company responsible, Rogers Communications, on the carpet with pointed questions. The company suffered a nation-wide data and cellular network outage. For over a day. Banks couldn’t process internet-data transactions. In many places, 911 service was down. Government and corporate networks were dead. The cause? Apparently due to a network upgrade. Some code. Needless to say, the CTO was gone in short order.

This is but one example of the fragility of our digital world. A human error, in deployment and perhaps, whoever wrote the original code. But there are more significant aspects of this fragility.

Energy Infrastructure

Energy. Our digital world consumes a lot of energy. Without electricity, there is no digital world. None at all. This is becoming a bigger challenge than we realize with profound societal implications and means hundreds of billions of dollars and human lives, are at risk. All the technology companies, from data warehouses to social media giants and Apple, Amazon, Google, they have impressive power back-ups. Planning for energy loss is very high on their list of risk management.

The challenge ahead however, is the risk of rolling power outages that may become less predictable and place strain even on back up systems. Data centres, for example, require huge amounts of cool air. They get hot. Fast. Knock out the AC beyond the backup systems capacity and meltdown follows quickly. As climate change speeds up, so do periods of intense heat. It’s why many data centres operate near significant water sources. They use the water to cool the centres. But you need energy to operate the pumps.

Power grids are quite strong and have redundancy, but they are weaker in new climate shifts. They aren’t designed to deal with these sudden and increasingly faster, shifts. They also rely on a mix of energy inputs; coal, oil, nuclear, solar, hydro, wind, thermal.

We are in a transition phase out of fossil energy sources to renewable. But what will be even more crucial is energy storage. Once we truly figure out reliable, strong, energy storage, our digital world will become more resilient.

The Fragility of Data Storage

I’ve written on this before with regard to NFTs and well, just storing our own digital lives. Right now, printed books will last longer than today’s current storage mediums. This includes how future technology could even read today’s storage mediums. This issue is not lost on the technology industry. There are numerous projects underway to solve for these problems, from using DNA to other mediums. The issue may be the ability to transfer data from one to the other and what might be lost in such translations.

We are at greater risk of losing today’s data today than we will be in the future. Data loss remains as fragile as our energy infrastructure.

We can be forgiven for not really thinking about this as a society. Our brains find it hard to comprehend this degree of complexity. It is an area where Artificial Intelligence, quantum and supercomputing come into play. As storage mediums evolve, so will our energy infrastructure. We will need to store energy much better just as we will data. There is enough financial / economic incentive to do this. But until then, our digital world is more fragile than we may realize. Solving for these problems is part of how humanity must adapt in the Cognitive Age.



Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.