Bruce Sterling on Tue, 9 Oct 2001 09:23:23 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Thanks for that Robust Speculation, Brad...

*E-Commerce: Your New Economy Solution to
A Planet Quarantined by Anthrax Attacks  -- bruces

Date: Sun, 7 Oct 2001 23:33:09 -0700
From: Brad Templeton <
Subject: Could the failed e-commerce plans be the end of epidemics?

Could the failed dot-com infrastructure be the answer to a
biowarfare epidemic?

Even before the threat of bio-terrorism, people worried about what
our mobile world might mean to the next serious epidemic.  The
influenza pandemic of 1918 killed as many as 40,000,000 people, and
some blamed its quick spread to the unprecedented global movement
caused by the end of WW1.  In our modern world of air travel,
epidemiologists have made dire predictions of how fast a truly
infectious disease might spread.

Now we also fear it being spread deliberately.  Smallpox somehow
dispersed in the air at O'Hare airport would spread all over the
world, though it would not be known until after the 10 day incubation
period.  Fortunately patients are not very infectious during that

But it came to me in thinking about this that just as travel technology
might aid the spread of an infectious agent, for the first time in
history, we have the ability to shut down travel and public gathering
for a short period without entirely shutting down our economy.

Oh, it would be sorely hit, particularly the factories and physical
plants with large workforces, which would have to shut down in such
circumstances, allowing workers to return only after they have been
cleared or vaccinated.

But a lot of the rest of the economy could actually still take
place.  The internet, fax machine and telephone could allow many
businesses to operate, just as many of the companies in the WTC
got restored backups, loaner computers and other facilities to get
back on the air quickly.

In order to build the e-commerce economy that we thought was coming,
billions was invested and lost in building up a delivery based economy,
with dead companies like webvan set to take online grocery orders and
deliver them.   Even with malls and stores closed, the software designed
for this, modified slightly to fax orders to the existing stores where
they could be packaged and left out for delivery, could keep up a lot
of the shopping infrastructure.   There's very little for which people
didn't build tools designed to make it easy to remotely order by internet or
phone and efficiently schedule delivery.  The fools, thinking they would
take over the retail world in a few years, overbuilt to make sure they
could scale up.   An epidemic might give them their scaling problem in
an ironic way.

The delivery folks would drop the stuff at the door -- no need to sign and
have physical contact.  Billing by credit card, or to be done later for
those without cards in the emergency.

Many companies have tech in place for telecommuting employees.  Modern
class 5 switches are all able to transfer calls outside company PBXs if
people have the software for it.  Picking up the old slow computers
we now throw away, there are more than enough computers in the USA to
equip every worker with one, if simply to do E-mail and web shopping.
We aren't ready to do this now, but we could be if we wanted it.

In the epidemics they closed the movie houses and theatres.  We would have
to do that too, but we might not notice, with our bewildering array of
TV channels and home cinemas.   Yes, we would miss the sporting events
and the parties.

Of course hospitals would be swamped, and dangerous places to boot, but
there's no easy solution to that yet.  Perhaps in the future medical
telepresence and automated sample taking and analysis could help that
profession practice without exposure in high risk circumstances.

But for how long would we need to shut down the factories?
  Today we have DNA sequencers and the ability to build
tests for diseases before symptoms appear.  We would work feverishly
to test and/or vaccinate people to clear them to work in essential
functions, including utilities, delivery, and of course food production
and distribution.  Those things might be staffed again in very short order.

After that the disease, whatever it is, would be isolated, and barring
violations of quarantine and further enemy attack, wiped out.  The factories
that closed would go on double shifts to make up production and only
some few thousands, sad as it would be, would have died.

In 1918, sending everybody home meant they could do no work at all,
see or hear no news (radios had been banned during the war!), do little
but read and live in fear.  Food delivery could have been arranged, but
logistics would have been difficult without having people interact with
one another heavily, and thus spreading disease.

Today we might barely notice being shut in our homes.  I work at home, and
as such often find days may go by where I don't leave it.  Today we even
have the dawn of decent videoconferencing.

Of course, this is not true for the non-developed world, or indeed even
for some developed countries that are not highly networked, and did not
build up for e-commerce dreams that evaporated.  There they might face
the horns of a true dilemma, between a ruined economy and a high death

Of course, none of this is an issue if the attack is something
non-infectious, like Anthrax.  But with all the musing on biowar
epidemics on TV today, I had these contrarian thoughts and wondered
what others felt.

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