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No, the world is not heading for a tech-fuelled apocalypse, Sir Oliver Letwin, unless we keep wallowing in apocalyptic scenarios

Norman Lewis
Norman Lewis

is a writer, speaker and consultant on innovation and technology, was most recently a Director at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he set up and led their crowdsourced innovation service. Follow him on Twitter @Norm_Lewis

is a writer, speaker and consultant on innovation and technology, was most recently a Director at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where he set up and led their crowdsourced innovation service. Follow him on Twitter @Norm_Lewis

No, the world is not heading for a tech-fuelled apocalypse, Sir Oliver Letwin, unless we keep wallowing in apocalyptic scenarios
As the world reacts to the coronavirus, the publication of Sir Oliver Letwin’s novel Apocalypse How? which predicts a tech meltdown in 2037, reveals that doomsday fairy tales can come true if we allow fear to overcome rationality.

Former Conservative Party MP Sir Oliver Letwin has joined the ranks of Hollywood’s disaster movie writers. His novel, set in 2037, imagines what would happen if a technology-dependent national infrastructure network collapsed due to an unforeseen crisis or technology attack. It is a work of fiction, and not a very good one. 

But what is worse is that it is being regarded as a timely warning about the future.

Apocalypse How?: Technology and the Threat of Disaster is a novel, a work of “pure fiction,” as Letwin puts it. But true to our culture of fear zeitgeist, he quickly asks if the events in it are “just fiction? Or could they happen?” His answer is unequivocal despite the contradiction: this is “not just fiction. In fact, there is every reason to expect that, if we don’t take appropriate action, they, or something very much alike them, will happen in the not too distant future.” 

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Let’s try to get this straight. The fictional apocalypse is “not a prediction.” Neither is it a “fairy tale.” OK, that’s clear. Its make-believe. Right? Well, not so fast, because a few sentences further we are told the novel is in fact an “illustration, an indication of what might be. Its purpose is not to entertain or amuse. Its purpose is to sound a wake-up call.” Clear yet? 

So, a fictional, make-believe scenario, is a wake-up call, a reality check? But surely this can only be true if this make-believe scenario which might happen is actually going to happen?

This sounds eerily familiar. And it is. This is precisely what is happening with the present reaction to the coronavirus crisis. Worse-case scenario planning, which we would expect from government and health agencies, is now being regarded as inevitable, and action is now being based upon this rather than reality. The impact is worse than the virus itself.

It is easy to dismiss Letwin’s novel as a piece of bad fiction. But his warning that his fictional predictions raise a serious question, the ‘not if, but when’ scenario, is very much in line with contemporary society’s culture of fear.

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He projects present-day networked technologies into the future, as if between now and then, things will remain as they are – perhaps there will be a few more self-driving cars by then. Apart from the real lack of imagination or ambition in his doomsday scenarios, his assertion of society simply blindly and unwittingly sleepwalking into disaster because of slavish obedience to the technologies it has created, presents mankind as the object of its own creation, the vulnerable victim of uncontrollable forces. 

Yet, even this fictional networked technological apocalypse scenario has already been disproven in reality. 

Remember the panic over the millennium ‘bug’ and the predicted collapse of the banking system and all computerised civilisation? After lining geeks’ pockets with $300bn to ensure the survival of the world as we know it, a few card machines failed to work for a few days in millennial Britain, while 150 slot machines conked out in Delaware.

Letwin’s novel is an expression of a limited imagination frozen by a self-inflicted over-exaggeration of human vulnerability. The idea that we need to take stock and plan for the worst is the exact opposite of what we need. To protect society and make it more robust in order to deal with whatever challenges it may face in the future, we need more imagination, more risk taking, more innovation and a deepening of the networks that could bring mankind’s problem-solving capacities to even greater effect. 

The global race to find a vaccine which is currently involving thousands of scientists across the world in open and unprecedented collaboration, is a great example of how, in reality, apocalyptic predictions are just that, pure fantasy.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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