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Stephen Fry warns of ‘extinction-level event’ facing global data

Andrew Hamilton


Stephen Fry Vulcan Salute

Stephen Fry, the famous actor, writer, performer and noted digital technology enthusiast, gave the warning while speaking at the Hay Festival.

While delivering one of the festival’s keynote lectures, Fry prophesied Pandora 4.0, a number of seismic changes the rapidly evolving information age could produce. Fry warned that mankind’s heavy reliance on digital systems could prompt a number of cataclysmic events, and could even culminate in a ‘digital winter for humankind’ if online systems were to fail. He claimed that the disruption surrounding British Airways over the weekend was symptomatic of this reliance.

Fry said: “It [online technology] has embedded itself in our lives with enormous speed. If you are not at the very least anxious about that, then perhaps you have not quite understood how dependent we are in every aspect of our lives – personal, professional, health, wealth, transport, nutrition, prosperity, mind, body and spirit.”

Pandora 4.0

Comparing the pervasiveness of social media, online entertainment and remote services to the mythical Pandora’s Box, Fry referred to the current ‘information age’ as Pandora 4.0. Because of the web’s monopoly, Fry claimed that vulnerabilities are everywhere, exacerbated by latest development – the Internet of Things. The IoT compounds the weaknesses of the web in a mass of interconnected ‘smart’ devices and exploitable weaknesses such as voice activation for locks and computers. Fry also made reference to the development of AI, which he claims at the very least threatens to displace much of the world’s workforce, noting a clerical company in Japan which has already let 60 workers go and replaced them with a single machine.

He said: “While it’s hard to calculate the cascade upon cascade of new developments and their positive effects, we already know the dire consequences and frightening scenarios that threaten to engulf us”.

Even more dramatic was Fry’s ‘Big One’ scenario – a cataclysmic event that promises disruption and destruction of online services worldwide (either deliberate or not). He termed it as: “An extinction-level event which will obliterate our title deeds, eliminate our personal records, annul our bank accounts and life savings, delete all the archives and accumulated data of our existences and create a kind of digital winter for humankind.”

Snipers Not Nukes

However Theo Priestley, Global Evangelist for SAP, dismissed Fry’s comments as overzealous, “At this point in time, an ‘extinction level event’ as Fry describes is unlikely due to the highly fragmented and unconnected systems we have. Stephen sees WannaCry as a prelude to Digital Armageddon and it’s pointless to compare the two.

“There would not be a cascading effect that would knock everything out at once, or delete everyone’s critical data leaving us in a digital winter. Having your debt wiped out for example is another Die Hard Hollywood script, [it’s] not reality for now.

“That’s not to say in the future it couldn’t happen if we build a hyper-connected society where data is shared responsibly between parties to create better services, but again, most attacks are like snipers, not nukes.”

Personal Responsibility & Privacy

“The normally sage and unruffled Fry may have been swallowing the panic pills, or watching too many blockbuster disaster films, to be talking about ‘extinction-level events’ so casually, said Peter Burnett, Internet activist, author and founder of the E-VR Virtual Reality incubator. “First, the more decentralised the Internet becomes, the less chance there is of a single attack or point of failure having a significant effect. Of course, the opposite is true, and ‘forcing’ companies ‘into new legal responsibilities’ will mean more government control of the Internet, which will mean that data will be less distributed, and we’ll be heading towards the kind of ‘closed’ Internet that Theresa May is seeking.

“Further it’s common practise among the kind of ideologues who would think nothing of handing supreme control to the first state body for censorship that pops up, to conflate ‘fake news’ with hate speech and sexually explicit videos. Fake news is something very different from hate speech, but the two magically converge when people don’t like what they read. Hate speech, like sexually explicit video, is easily defined and identified, while ‘fake news’ is an alluring pejorative for whole swathes of interested parties, from advertisers to political campaigners.

“We hear and read fake news on all our services, including the BBC, which is just as guilty as hitting us with advertorials as any other channel. News stories can be tendentious (fake!) or biased towards one party or viewpoint (fake!) or they can be paid to be there (fake!), or they can be simply made up for any number of reasons – which of course certainly makes them fake. The governments which Stephen Fry is looking to for help have also been known to seed fake news.

“In fact I’d warn Stephen Fry of putting any trust in government at all. In the case of WannaCry, Edward Snowden confirmed that the NSA had known about this virus for a while and instead of sharing the information had used it to develop their own malware. So hackers, NHS admins and others take the blame for something that could have been stopped, had the NSA sought to do so.

“WannaCry was not a one-off, but it caused far more damage than it should have. WannaCry targeted out-of-date Windows software (the many billions of Linux devices in the world were safe!) and although systems are never going to be 100% secure, outwith Hollywood there is nothing at present that could take down the Internet in the manner described.

Stephen Fry is correct about the abuse of our data that is currently and unstoppably underway. However this is a responsibility for parents, citizens and interested hackers and others who want to see this situation reversed. You can’t simply leave this to the government and the corporations, because it is because of them and our compliance, that we have already foregone our privacy – and that without any complaint

“As for Fry’s grandstanding declaration that Facebook should be classified as a publisher, this might be exciting for desktop disciplinarians, legislators and others who simultaneously sense a quick buck and hard clampdown, but this is the Internet age not the 1930s. Facebook and YouTube are websites, and we are publishers upon them, and it is unrealistic to expect these companies, despite the prodigious capabilities they have in screening for harmful content, to take responsibility for the presence of any illegal materials. These companies already have mechanisms to take down copyrighted and harmful or illegal material, and in fact the law already requires them to do so. News websites have similar problems with their comments pages, but is not widely held that anything published on these comment threads, is published by the news service in question.

“The more interesting questions for me, concern this responsibility. Asking big technology groups take responsibility, or to make it a job of the government, only lessens personal and collective responsibility. Doing anything else is to give in to that minority who want to spoil things for others. A centralised and ‘closed’ Internet will be much more vulnerable, much less private, and obviously be prone to increasing amounts of censorship.”

The Future Is Coming On…

Fry noted that human attitude could minimise these seismic changes if ‘technophobes’ adopted more modern outlooks to online technology. He suggested that politicians should start preparing their nations to embrace innovation such as AI and robotics now, rather than try to ignore the rapid evolution of technology, or worse, legislate to try and artificially slow it’s pace.

He added, “Mankind was facing, “the greatest change to our way of living since we moved from hunting and gathering to settling down in farms, villages and sea ports and started to trade and form civilisations”. But he warned that technophobic attitudes were not keeping up with this transformation. Fry said, “Whether it will alter the behaviour, cognition and identity of the individual in the same way that it is certain to alter the behaviour, cognition and identity of the group, is a hard question to answer.

“But believe me when I say that it is happening. To be frank, it has happened.”

Fry concluded by highlighting that it was mankind’s responsibility to address these issues. He said, “Whether it is winter that is coming, or a new spring, it is entirely in our hands so long as we prepare”.

The full text of Fry’s presentation can be found on

Andrew Hamilton

Andrew Hamilton

PR & Content Executive at Hutchinson Networks

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