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Hacktreks Travel

Hacktreks 2

First Chapters


James Skinner

was a matter of days after the blackout in the northwest of America when London suffered a similar fate and half the city was suddenly thrown into darkness. (Caused by a 1000amp fuse being installed instread of a 5000amp- it turns out.) About the same time a young computer hack introduced a blaster worm in Microsoft’s operating system that created havoc amongst many computer networks throughout the world causing shutdowns and other strange effects to it’s users. Is there a connection? Are catastrophic mishaps of this nature turning into part of our daily life? Is modern technology getting out of hand to such extent that man has lost control of his most valued inventions? Has Hal finally taken over? It reminded me of something that happened some thirty years ago on the Cayman Islands.

‘Hello? Mr. Skinner? This is the night operator. I have an alarm on the switchboard coming from the telephone cable terminal. We’ve lost all our international circuits’. I looked at my watch. It was four-thirty in the morning. I knew something was seriously wrong. On arrival, not only did I find that there had been a power cut but that we were also completely ‘off the air’. The emergency power supply had not only failed but smoke was pouring out of one of the control panels. The system had only been in operation a few months and was considered to be fool proof and of the latest seventies technology. Yet it had literally blown up!

Although computer controlled systems were not yet around, transistor circuits were and my West Indian Hal had done a bonkers and just shut itself down. You may think, so what. All kinds of mishaps of this nature have been occurring for years ever since the Industrial Revolution. The difference in this particular case was that none of the boffin design engineers had allowed for a by-pass fall back to bring the cable back into service in case of control panel failure. In layman’s terms, there was no way of taking the output from the public power supply to the input of the cable system without going through Hal.

The solution was obvious. With the help of a couple of local technicians, a big pair of wire cutters and some half-inch power cable we joined the two together.

The reason this old episode came to mind was because it was the first time that I appreciated how vulnerable we humans are to technical failure and at the same time tend to take for granted everyday modern gizmos without thinking of their infallibility. The bloody cable’s backup power system was not meant to fail. The trouble is that it has become progressively worse to the extent that today’s generations are beginning to forget about the basics and why the modern world functions at all.

How many of you out there remember the first ever video game with that funny little ‘cookie’ that chomped it’s way through a sort of Hampton Court maze eating whatever it found in its path? Or was it the other simpler version in the form of a cybernetic ping-pong game developed for use with your lounge TV set? It wasn’t all that long ago was it? Nearly (30 years actually)

Well, we’ve come a long way from those earlier computer games. Today’s kids of all ages can buy or rent or download all sorts of visual enjoyment that is now incorporated in super-multi-mega-memory gadgetry ranging from mobile phones to arcade cubicles simulating the real thing. In a way, it is just another sector of the modern IT technology industry that has invaded our consumer world. It is, however changing the minds and mentality of our present and future young generations. Children, particularly in the developed world are perhaps losing their ability to think for themselves. Their brains are turning, literally into computer hardware and are functioning according to whatever software is portrayed on the screen. ‘The question why’, as Malcolm Muggeridge used to say implying inquisitiveness has been erased, possibly forever.

It may be part of the old fart syndrome of reminiscing of days gone by but years ago, children of my generation spent their time taking things apart to see what was inside them. How many of you can remember that the most important toy we possessed was a four inch screwdriver! A pair of pliers and a hammer were added goodies. I asked the son of a friend of mine the other day, as he was seated with his Gameboy shooting away at aliens or smashing a car along a Formula I racetrack if he knew how the damn thing worked. He ignored me. ‘Do you know what makes those little men on the screen move around?’ I asked. ‘Sure. I just twirl this button. Watch,’ he answered. ‘No. I mean what’s inside that little toy you have and what makes it all come alive?’ He paused for a second and then said, ‘batteries’. He ignored me and went on about his business. I was thinking mainly about the science of electronics, electrical and mechanical power that went into the design and subsequent manufacturing process of this fiendish plaything. I guess I was expecting too much.

The point is that as we move into the XXI century we are becoming more and more reliant on computer technology and at the same time slowly are moving away from understanding or acquiring the basic knowledge of how things work. It may sound simplistic but it is nevertheless the apparent trend that modern society is adopting, as it takes for granted the very essence of our new way of life. Not only that, but as equipment breaks down, be it a computer, a refrigerator or mobile phone, our consumer world has turned us into a junk yard provider and rather than play a ‘have-a-go-Joe’ repair man, we chuck the dodo away and buy a new one. Does it really matter? Of course it does. As we move further into the future it becomes imperative that the next generations do not forget what makes everything tick and why things go wrong. We must demand that our educators return to the blackboard and teach children to think and take an interest in the reason for man’s superiority over machine. Teach them not to take Earth for granted and that computers are small fry compared to nature and it’s conservation. But what about the developing world?

There are millions of children who have no idea what a Play Station or Pokemon is. Their parents are too busy scraping the land for a living whilst their governments are probably involved in civil strife or couldn’t care less. Show them a Nokia phone as it sounds off ‘Greensleeves’ during an incoming call and they’ll most likely run like hell and hide under their mother’s skirts. At the same time, these same kids couldn’t care less about London’s blackout or my cable going phut. They are far too preoccupied with their next bowl of soup, or rice or whatever comes their way just to keep them alive. Yet one thing is certain. Given time and full bellies, these same kids if educated correctly could very well rectify this horrendous trend that our consumer world has set and return humanity back to evaluating humanity. Teach them to teach the modern kid that knowing how land is cultivated or rainwater contained is far more important than the number of points you gain in shooting down midgets from out of space. The rich world is saturated and bored whilst the poor are hungry for food and knowledge, especially sound knowledge.

© James Skinner. September 2003.

Note: One of the fastest growing areas for mobile phone technology is the 'Third' world where it is cheaper to install cell technology than lay cables. It is likely that those kids will come out from behind their mother's skirts James and beat the kids scores on any of these games. In the future none of us will know how things work and everyone will be equal. Ed.)

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