The digital day of doom

David Bullard on what will happen to our internet dependent lives when connectivity gets cut


A couple of weeks ago we had a connectivity problem where I live. Someone had decided to do some digging in front of their house to lay irrigation pipes and had accidentally sliced through the Vumatel fibre connection for half the estate.

This didn’t go down terribly well with the hundred or so households who were affected and could no longer connect to the internet. Fortunately, the problem was attended to promptly but it still took two whole days before normal services were resumed.

This caused all sorts of first world problems experienced by only a tiny percentage of ‘privileged’ South Africans. The largest of these was that our digital nomads and others who now work from home for part of the week post COVID were helpless. They couldn’t participate in ZOOM meetings, read or answer e.mails or search Google for the answers to all sorts of questions. They couldn’t order groceries online from Checkers or Woolworths which seems to be a big thing among my neighbours judging by the number of motorcycles on the estate.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Personally, I prefer to visit a shopping centre and squeeze my own avos but each to his or her own. They couldn’t access their online banking or pay any bills and the kids couldn’t log on to play online games but, horror of horrors, they also couldn’t binge watch a series on Netflix.

A few days without fibre connectivity is just about doable if you can relocate with your laptop to a shopping centre with free wi-fi or use up some cellphone data. But what would happen if the whole system goes down as well it might if any hostile power were to decide to teach South Africa a lesson for supporting the wrong type of people? It’s not an impossibility and it’s something that Western nations are deeply troubled by.

Currently there is a fear in the UK that Chinese built electric vehicles (which are substantially cheaper than the competition) could all be turned off in Beijing at the flick of a master switch thus causing gridlocked chaos and panic across European cities.

Another quite plausible conspiracy theory about Chinese built electric cars is that they are fitted with tracking and listening devices to feed back information to the Chinese Communist Party just in case you may be expressing sympathy for the Uyghurs stuck in concentration camps (oops sorry Xi…I meant re-education facilities). In which case you should expect a hit team to be dispatched to your luxury residence in Notting Hill to silence you on a permanent basis.

Of course the great thing about Chinese cars (and I’m thinking of buying one) is that they are so packed with features and much cheaper than their German competitors that it’s almost worth the risk of CCP eavesdropping. Exactly what we thought about the Apple smart phone when it came out and look where that has got us with teen suicide rates at an alltime high.

There is much talk of a cashless society at the moment and it scares the hell out of me. I watch people gleefully pointing their phones at QR codes in shops and paying for stuff and the only thought that goes through my head is what happens when your phone gets stolen. I’m still at the credit card tapping stage but even that spooks me because if my wallet and phone both get stolen then the thief can tap away for all sorts of purchases below R500 without having to enter a PIN code and, since I won’t have a phone, I’ll have no clue what is being spent. Is it any wonder I wake at three in the morning with cold sweats?

A couple of months ago I went off to do the weekly shop at Woolies and when I approached the till I was informed that the system was down and they could only accept cash. Most of my disgruntled fellow shoppers abandoned their loaded trollies and left the shop in disgust but I happened to be carrying a decent amount of cash at the time and went on to the till to pay.

Since then I always carry cash although there are now stores that forbid you to pay with legal tender. If the system went down for weeks on end I wonder how long that pledge would last.

While it’s very nice to carry a piece of plastic and wave it like a magic wand whenever you want to pay for something it’s rather frightening when it doesn’t work. I recently had the Nigel Farage experience of being temporarily ‘de-banked’.

I had booked three nights at a guest house and paid the chunky full amount a month in advance. Just before I was due to arrive I received a reminder from the guest house that my deposit was overdue and they would have to cancel the booking if they didn’t get the deposit. I couldn’t get hold of anyone at the guesthouse so I panicked and phoned my bank’s fraud line and told them the story.

They immediately blocked my card without me realising it so when I went to pay for something at the local mall the card was declined. I tried somewhere else and the card was declined again. Since I couldn’t risk a third attempt and a lost card at the ATM and I wasn’t carrying very much cash that day I phoned my bank, explained the situation and they very promptly reactivated my card. That’s what you get with private banking and, as my darling wife points out, she wouldn’t have been so lucky. It turns out that Bookings.com likes to hang on to deposits for as long as possible before paying their users.

What this brought home to me most forcefully is that my access to credit and to my own money can be cut off immediately. At the moment this is only likely to happen if you have reported a fraud or if you have upset the Asset Forfeiture Unit for some reason.

But just suppose, post May 29th, that a party comes to power that wishes to control troublesome members of society that may be critical of their new rulers. You only have to go back to COVID to see how much power crazed politicians like to restrict and control the lives of their citizens. South Africa had one of the most illogical and restrictive lockdowns in the world (possibly beaten only by our BRICS buddies China) back then.

Once the banks have been nationalised and the government has complete and unfettered control over the banking industry what is to stop them from adopting the Chinese system of ‘social credits’ and imposing a maximum spending amount on your credit card or current account every month?

An amount that would allow you to feed yourself at home but would rule out any long distance travel or meals at upmarket restaurants. And what would stop them freezing your savings entirely and deducting fines for anti-social behaviour or hate speech? Obviously you would have the right of appeal after the fine is imposed but sadly that might take a few years due to the backlog of appeals.

The advocates of a cashless society seem to be those who are mesmerised by technology and are often the very same people who think artificial intelligence poses no threat to civilised society. But the reality is very different as we are beginning to find out because it concentrates the power to control the lives of large numbers of people in the hands of the few. That’s fine if the ‘few’ are scrupulous and trustworthy but the evidence thus far suggests that they are anything but. Oh grave new world that has such people in it.