Crowdsourcing disaster defense

to home page
This page last updated Tue Aug 21 20:29:17 US/Pacific 2012


[Essay draft 0.1]

The Disaster Stack

(c) 2012 by Vernor Vinge
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

It's a truism that technological progress increases the possibilities for disaster and makes it easier for disasters to grow into catastrophes. At the same time, there are aspects of technology that could help us deal with threats. This essay is about using hobbyists, charity, clever business practices, and government cooperation to create a "Disaster Stack" of machines, knowledge, and people to respond to disasters:


The Disaster Stack is itself a contingent plan. An EMP attack would force drastic changes in the nature of Layer 1. At a different extreme, if the network clouds remain available during a disaster, they would be enormously useful. Disaster Stack planners should aim for heterogeneity. For example, distributing logic and data in hobbyists' smart phones should be a concurrent project alongside schemes for using clouds. Such variety and flexibility is only possible if the individual preparation measures are very inexpensive and there are lots of hobbyists at plan time.

The dual use nature of technology is one of the most dread facts of our time. Civilization seems to be in a race between tech that could empower and protect us, and tech that would give anybody having a "bad hair day" the ability to blow up civilization. The Breakers of the world have a great advantage, since it is so much easier to break things than it is to make things. The Breakers may yet win -- we don't know just what can be invented. But I think the rest of the world, the Makers, have a chance. The Makers include the great and famous, but they also include people who simply have their own families, their own interests -- including millions of different kinds of specialized expertise. Over the last ten years, the rise of cellphones and smartphones and social media and services such as Wikipedia have convinced me that the Makers of the world have their own
advantage. There are billions of Makers, and information technology has transformed those billions into an intellectual institution that trumps all human institutions of the past. That intelligence and vigilence and good will has the potential to outmatch the destructive power of technology arising from accidents and small numbers of Breakers.

It's not surprising that many of the plan time activities for the Disaster Stack look like the research behavior of Bad Guys. This fact creates an awful temptation for otherwise reasonable governments to smother disaster planning/recovery hobbyists. Considering the fact that the Makers are our best hope against the Breakers, I hope that the temptation to suppress can be resisted and that governments come to value and collaborate with the Makers.

This Disaster Stack essay is an expansion of notes I used for a presentation at Sci Foo 12. Sci Foo turned out to be an ideal place to loft this sort of notion:

(Thanks to Mike Gannis for his post-Sci Foo critique of this essay.)