Planning for Global Meltdown (or how to keep the Cyber Pirates at bay)

As well as being a complete information junkie, I am also, I must confess, a compulsive planner of crisis management strategies, even when they are not mine to plan. So when I read of the cyber pirates’ attack on Estonia and continued my on-going fascination with World Without Oil, all sorts of possibilities and scenarios sprang to mind.

I’ve debated long and hard with many groups of people on the topic ‘what do we do when the electricity gets turned off’, particularly as it relates to interconnectivity, the conversations we are conducting on line (like this), and the potential for fear, panic and new syndromes within the population at large – cyber-isolation is my invented syndrome, where those who have been dependent on virtual communities for too long suffer virtual breakdowns and have to look at moving walls resembling screensavers as part of their recovery therapy, but I digress…

Most people say ‘it won’t get switched off’.  I disagree.  Eventually, the way we are communicating *at this moment* will change, stop, alter and/or disappear.  That may be because we’ll have switched permanently to the phone and be able to access multiple intersections of technology or it might just be because someone has pulled the plug.  And, given my crisis management compulsion (which I do hope to have some help for at some point) I couldn’t help but think how will we overcome that little challenge?

Then suddenly, we have an example. Last week’s Estonian experience hit the country hard, according to reports. As an extremely e-savvy community, with paperless government and web-banking among other dependencies, it was vulnerable to this type of takedown. And why is it believed to have happened?  Because someone moved a war memorial from the city centre. Oops. Missed that emerging activist public then.  The next development? Blame begins to be apportioned, with some blaming the Russian government, while others suggest the culprits might be that global uber-scourge of our time, the spotty youth installed in his bedroom with nothing better to do on a Friday night than hack away at an international server or two. 

My other observation that links to the Estonian experience is the hacking in February of three of the Internet’s key servers (think of them as the web’s virtual backbone – crack these vertebrae and you are paralysed) which were subject to a prolonged Denial of Service attack, described  at the time by one security consultant as “like fourteen fat men trying to get into an elevator – nothing can move”.

Now if I was given to spending Friday nights locked away in my bedroom plotting global domination, having had a go at the backbone – testing the water so to speak – what better way to conduct a dress rehearsal in the art of global ‘plug-pulling’ than messing with a small country? Is the plan for something bigger (once of course, said youth has done enough chores around the house to earn the money to buy more widgets to upload providing the rest of us with a window of planning time). Or is this live formative research for some other purpose?  

Which brings me to World Without Oil.  Check it out and observe who is supporting it. But if you don’t want to explore it just yet, a quick summary. World Without Oil is a non-linear storytelling and gaming project run with a purpose – it is rehearsing global scenarios that might occur if oil runs out.  Clock started ticking (or virtual oil ran out) on April 30 this year and since then, participants have essentially taken on the role of crisis management planners using scenario exploration and non-linear storytelling techniques to see what might happen. It is described as:

  the first alternate reality game to enlist the Internet’s vast collective intelligence and imagination to confront and attempt to solve a real-world problem: what happens when a great economy built entirely on cheap oil begins to run short?”

How exciting. Just up my street. A global crisis management game – much more fun than Second Life. And of course, these things are never going to happen are they? After all, who could possibly imagine cyber pirates would hack a country’s communications network and disrupt internal intelligence over a misplaced statue?

The implications for us? I’d say some thoughtful self-examination about how well we know our audiences (particularly the small ones who don’t like their statues moved). We could ask ourselves what we have to learn from games that utilise the ‘vast collective intelligence’ busily organising its own alternative crisis plan and, while we are at it, dream up possible alternatives to communication processes that are dependent on a breakable spine. Or work out how to build bigger lifts.

Hands up everyone out there who has recently developed a  fantastic, ‘let’s use this fab technology’ crisis communications plan that is weighted heavily towards mixed platform dissemination and feedback (web, sms, aim, voip)  in order to ‘get messages out fast’?  Pass me that bicycle and those semaphore flags…

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