Rumblings of anxiety:
Since 2006, I have been harbouring a low hum of pandemic anxiety, or more accurately, post-pandemic anxiety. However, it is an anxiety of my own making: that year, I completed the first draft of a near-future novel set in a post-pandemic, post-digital world.
Early in the lockdown, I had a fourteen-day self-isolation period with plenty of time to examine anxiety and its variations. Adhering to HSE directions, I was confined to my bedroom while my adult son, in restricting his movements for the period, had the run of the house. Plenty of time for me to catch up on my library studies but I struggled to concentrate. Life was so wildly at odds with last year’s study days. I indulged any distraction and flicked through a sheaf of notes on the last draft of the novel, made by a trusted reader-friend.
‘Hello World’ begins with an influenza pandemic that decimates Ireland. The adult population is hardest hit; children and the elderly are virtually immune. In the absence of the technological expertise of working adults, the island powers down, catapulting the characters into a post-digital world.
The story picks up a decade later; nature has flourished, reclaiming swathes of urban and rural land. The island is a largely rural analogue world embedded with crude digital hacks. Less steampunk, more steamthresher-punk.
Three short chapters describe the main character’s life during and immediately after Hello World’s pandemic, referred to in the book as Durkada (from dorchadas, the Irish word for darkness). The story then leapfrogs into the post-pandemic period because what I was most interested in exploring was life after complete digital collapse.
Analogue to Digital :
Toronto, 1990. While working in feature film editing, I was invited on a tour of a swanky post-production company. Its Vice-President demonstrated the innovative computerised editing system, recently purchased from a LucasFilm subsidiary. The EditDroid looked exactly as you would expect a George Lucas-inspired edit suite to look: matte black workstation and playback screens, and an elegant console with a touchpad controller cleverly based on its analogue counterpart – the film editing bench.
The EditDroid’s storage was based on LaserDiscs (imagine a CD the size of a vinyl album). At the time, hard drives were too expensive and lacked sufficient capacity to be considered a viable storage option.
Within a decade, computer-based editing was firmly established in the film industry, albeit with digital and analogue systems running in parallel during the early years.
I never saw a bank of LaserDisc players again, not just because only twenty-four EditDroids were ever made. It takes guts – and a big budget – to be an early adopter of a new technology.
Dublin, 2001. While I was chatting with a software developer about digital SLR cameras and the transition from analogue to digital, he explained that the acronym ‘JPEG’ stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group; a technical group that agrees standards for digital photography.
‘Say they didn’t agree, or another file format took over?’ I asked, ‘how would people access their digital photographs?’
‘They couldn’t, if the new format was not backwards-compatible,’ he said. Revelling in my disbelief, he added, ‘welcome to the Digital Dark Age.’
He was referring to digital obsolescence, which was especially relevant with the rapid development of web and mobile technologies in 2001, the height of the Dot Com boom.
‘How likely is it to happen, this Digital Dark Age?’ I asked.
‘We’re in it now,’ he replied.
During those heady Dot Com days, Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened a European hub in Dublin, to much fanfare. MIT’s Media Lab Europe research projects were informative and exciting to read, if you had a nascent interest in computing and in fiction writing. I surmised that commercial application of MLE’s research would arrive at some unspecified time in the future, and somewhere else in the world, because I was quite sure that Irish people would not embrace some of these innovations, e.g. location-tracking code on phones that allowed users to see the location of someone in their personal network.
“That might work in America but Irish people value their privacy,” I thought. “and who wants everyone to know where they are at all times?” Most of us, it transpired. Mobile phone sales surged and we signed up wholesale for ‘free’ programs and applications.
I felt my scepticism was vindicated when location–tracking applications and unsecured WiFi networks were used to target empty houses for burglaries – privacy, see! – but ashamed of that response when I learned that texting had replaced faxing for young people boarding at the Deaf School in Cabra. Imagining the spontaneity of text conversations with family, compared to faxes, it was hard to be cynical about the application of new technologies.
By mid-2001, my career aspirations as a futurologist were a bust, along with the Dot Com boom. On occasion I checked into marketing trend-spotter Faith Popcorn’s website (she coined the term ‘cocooning’ in 1981). The phrase ‘Digital Dark Age’ had sparked my imagination and soon I was funnelling my failed real-world predictions into fiction. I toyed with scenarios in which I contrasted digital obsolescence with the longevity of analogue artefacts. The ramifications of a rupture in social and cultural history were intriguing, as I speculated on a future where everything digital is lost.
I worked at re-drafting the novel while studying for a degree in Software Development. The title Hello World is a reference to the first output displayed on screen, when a novice is learning programming syntax. I named some of the characters after computing innovators: Ada (the 19th century innovator Ada Lovelace is regarded as the first software programmer); Hopper (Grace Hopper, another computing pioneer, introduced word commands rather than symbols to create more user-friendly programming languages), and included a cameo from a Larry (Lawrence Lessig, Creative Commons founder, who had spoken about ‘fair use’ copyright at Dublin’s Darklight Festival in 2004).
The demise of VHS tape proved useful to illustrate the story’s Digital Dark Age premise to potential readers of the manuscript. I could ask, ‘how will your future children or grandchildren view family weddings recorded on VHS tape?’ By the mid-2000s VHS players were being replaced by DVD players. Fast-forward another six years and VHS was effectively obsolete.
People began to have home-recorded VHS tapes, and subsequent handycam formats, transferred to DVD, and later to digital files. This mitigated the obsolescence problem for a time but then ‘bit rot’ appeared on the horizon. Digital data degrades over time; the image becomes more pixelated and broken up as digital bits decay.
At a family event, relatives compared notes on cloud computing services for saving photographs. A decade of precious photographs stored – high-resolution of course – and never printed because ‘there are thousands! I can get them online any time and they’re backed up to my external drive.’
After a decade of research that spanned digital preservation, peak oil, archiving standards, survivalist forums, micro–renewables, folk cures, archaeology, pandemics, food security, cultural memes, jugaad–hacks, metadata; all in service of a fictional digital collapse, I could reasonably point out that hard drives fail, and that file formats, operating systems and software change over time. And that backing up is not the same as preservation.
I believe that there will be a chasm in our social history from the 1970s onwards. But we have experienced these chasms before. The material culture of the Great Famine all but disappeared.
Sometimes I worried that ‘Hello World’ was putting me into perpetual ‘fight or flight’ mode for what the preppers or survivalists called WTSHTF (when the proverbial hits the fan). On the other hand, a motivating factor in writing the novel was to explore how fragile cultural and societal knowledge is in the context of a digital collapse, and to weave this exploration into a rollicking hero journey story.
In 2006 it seemed reasonable to question how long energy and communications networks could function without the expertise of the adult working population. We rely on increasingly complex systems that incorporate more and more parts – often third-party technologies that are black boxes within systems. The 1918 ‘flu pandemic suggested a fictional means to flatline networks in a short period of time: take the technological expertise out of the equation and systems are vulnerable to collapse, I posited. Digital collapse is a preferable fictional device to decades-long digital obsolescence.
As the years passed, I noted how the novel’s themes were becoming more mainstream. The software developers of the Dot Com boom were in their forties and fifties now.
While epidemiologists had been warning for decades of a 21st century pandemic, the 2011 film Contagion demonstrated how global travel could facilitate swift transmission of a deadly virus.
In 2015 Vint Cerf, co-creator of TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Internet, warned the “future generations will have little or no record of the 21st century…as we enter a digital Dark Age.”
In 2017, MySpace, the most popular social network of the noughties, lost twelve years of data, in a mass migration. Millions of photo, audio and video files were deleted. There were no back-ups.
A year later, the centenary of the 1918 pandemic again raised the spectre of another global pandemic.
It is one thing to fictionalise a ‘not-if-but-when’ pandemic for plot purposes but in the real-world malicious threats or climate events were more likely to bring about the collapse of energy and communications networks. A global pandemic seemed an outlier. A black swan.
Through January and February I was calm and interested in the emerging news of corona virus. By March the calm was evaporating. It was as if a creepy urban myth had manifested; comfortingly familiar in the trajectory of its narrative until you recall that it is in fact a horror story.
When writing scene-setting chapters I had imagined this situation, that is to say, I had had thoughts about a global pandemic, speculated on how it might evolve. (“Nothing gets on the island, nothing gets off.”) But I had not experienced the dread of it in my body: the physical sensation of waking up, momentarily experiencing life unchanged before awareness of what has been lost crystallises. The hollowed-out gut feeling. The sudden plunging of mood – from gratitude for a glimpse of blue sky to the ache for someone far away. Will we ever meet again?
It felt akin to a stage of grieving when my mother died twenty-five years ago. For months after she passed away, I would sometimes forget that she was gone and in remembering, physically experience the pain of the loss all over again.
‘Hello World’ is at heart a story about loss: personal loss experienced by the main character, Ada, when separated from her family during the pandemic; and societal loss, in which people manage communal grief and the collapse of norms, as best they can, and with the innate resilience of people the world over, they rebuild.
Writing the novel was also a wish-fulfilment of sorts, through a personally challenging period of redundancy, divorce, re-training and parenting alone. It was a way of learning to write but also of telling myself that ‘no matter how bad things get, everything is going to be alright.’
When reflecting during this self-isolation period, I reasoned that digital collapse is unlikely to materialise after this pandemic. Given that I do not work in ICT and have a lousy record as a futurologist I am not a useful source for any such speculation. Disaster planning is likely to be well in hand in the ICT sector. Admittedly, a red flag popped up for me when Netflix reduced its video quality in Europe to cope with increasing demand. And again, when ComReg increased radio spectrum for mobile networks to meet user demand for mobile and data services, which is expected to rise again in coming weeks.
But a different kind of digital crisis has been illuminated during this pandemic Despite the seemingly smooth transition to remote schooling, working, online shopping, entertainment and dissemination of information, some households are experiencing not so much a digital dark age, as a digital divide. Several factors influence this: lack of access to computers and webcams, or to reliable Internet with sufficient bandwidth; and/ or a lack of digital skills.
Mobile phone internet access is ideal for social interaction and entertainment but not so suitable for remote educational or work activities. The CSO Household 2019 figures show that mobile internet access only is most common in households in the two lower deprivation quintiles: very disadvantaged, and disadvantaged. Unequal access to the Internet is in danger of becoming unequal access to education, and to opportunity, for the households least-resourced to offset such inequality.
In 2018 Age Action estimated that over 488,000 older people have never been online; that is, almost 70% of the total population over 65. Many of this cohort are now cocooning in rural isolation, without access to online communication and entertainment.
It is obvious to me now that the leap into a post-digital world I envisioned in Hello World was the simplest kind, turning the world off and back on again. A reboot to level the playing field, so to speak, where after great trauma people work together, finding new ways and adapting old ones, in order to carry out the most essential task – of creating sustainable communities.
Some of the greatest influences on my explorations of community, sustainability and resilience are friends, and people in my community, who are now leading, supporting, inspiring others, and responding in creative and practical ways to this crisis. And questioning how we might change things for the better. For everyone. They are already thinking of life ‘After’.
Notwithstanding the events we have yet to experience, and the demands that will be made of us before we get there, it is heartening to know that it is in our nature to envision life ‘After’.
Nuala Roche is a writer based in Kilkenny. She has published a poetry chapbook, written and produced ‘Bridie’, a one-woman play. Her first novel, Hello World, is a near future story set in Ireland.