In The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson (Century 2018, Arrow Books 2019), a malignant external agency plots to cripple the United States of America through a cyber-attack. A computer virus will disable everything that is connected to the Internet. The code word for this Armageddon is Dark Ages. President Jon Duncan paints a grim picture of how a new Dark Age will unfold. Everything with a power switch will be affected – washing machines, coffee makers, DVRs, digital cameras, thermostats, machine components, jet engines, elevators, grocery-store scanners, train and bus passes, televisions, phones, radios, traffic lights, credit card scanners, home alarm systems, laptops, heating systems, refrigeration, the water supply, the electricity grid, hospitals, planes, trains, cars, banks, law enforcement, currency… This is the nightmare; the dystopia of connectivity.
Although this attack is levelled specifically against the USA, President Duncan realises it is going to affect the whole world. So he asks for the help of the whole world to defeat the assailants, whoever they may be. He arranges a summit meeting. He invites the German Chancellor and the Israeli Prime Minister. He even invites the Russians. But not the Brits. So much for the Special Relationship. In fact, I don’t think the United Kingdom even has a cameo role in this thriller. And remember it was an Oxford Rhodes Scholar, President Clinton, who wrote it.
Is it any good? It has 128 chapters. It is not so much a novel as a treatment for a movie that is two hours and eight minutes long. (The manuals on how to write a screenplay remind you that a page of dialogue is a minute of screen time.) The President is Missing is certainly cinematographic. It has filmic clichés such as car chases and shoot-outs, the idea of an inner cabal containing a mole, and a race to find a computer password as a clock runs down. A thriller can be a novel. But this is not a novel, in the way that, say, Thunderball is a novel. A novel needs to subvert its own clichés. I wanted to know what President Duncan thought of the cyber world he was trying to protect.
I think it was around 3 pm Saturday (Eastern Standard Time, chapter 70 in the book) that I answered my phone and the recorded voice said, “Your bank account details have been compromised and £600 is about to be transferred to a foreign location. For more details, press 1.” I hung up and went back to chapter 70. Scam phone calls and emails have become so commonplace that they no longer disturb my affect. But Dark Ages are already with us. We are ushering in a new Dark Age, as Winston might have said, in psalmody:
Made more sinister
And perhaps more protracted
By the lights
But you never hear a politician, in this or any other country, challenging the way in which cyber technology is taking over every aspect of our lives. The juggernaut of an inevitable “progress” is not to be avoided. And when the gremlins start to infiltrate the systems, what do you do? You make the systems ever more sophisticated. Thus you embark upon a cyber arms race.
But would it not be better for us to retain our primitive analogue skills? In aviation, when the radio systems fail, you navigate by mental dead reckoning. When the Direction Indictor fails, you learn to do compass turns, and build in the necessary lag time. When the gyroscopes topple, you instrument-fly on a reduced panel. If an engine fails, you feather the prop and fly on one engine. If the other engine fails, you pick a paddock and carry out a forced landing. You practise, over and over again. You learn to land at night with the instrument panel shut down and the cockpit in darkness. Yet, not once but twice, the poor pilots of the Boeing 737 Max were unable to override the computer systems and fly by the seat of their pants. Neil Armstrong overrode the lunar module’s computer and flew visually. I wonder if the United States would be able to put a man on the moon now.
In medicine, it’s easier. Of course technology has transformed the diagnostic suite and the operating room. But the consulting room really has very little use for digital technology. Yet the purveyors of perverted science have infiltrated that sacred domain and continue to do so.
Alexa, what is chickenpox?
Gimme a break.