When I stop to think about how connected the world is, how dependent we are on things that need charging, I can feel my blood pressure rise. A slight panic sets in and I need to think of something completely different to avoid working myself into a lather and succumbing to this twenty-first-century nightmare. Think about it. The battery goes dead on your phone and you don’t have a charging pack or a charger or you have the pack but it’s not charged or you have the charger but there’s no socket to plug in to. It’s as if you’re cut off from the world. That nobody calls you anyway is neither here nor there. It’s that feeling of connectivity, that sense of security, that’s what goes dead with the battery.
How often do you use cash these days? Are you a tap person? Do you pay using your phone? How much actual cash to you have access to …. without going to the bank or using the ATM? Keeping wads of cash at home is quite risky. Look at rural Ireland and the spate of attacks on elderly people living alone – that’s all about the money they might have under the mattress or in the tea caddy. Carrying wads of cash around is riskier still. So electronic access seems the best option. And 99.9% of the time, I’m grand with that. But every now and then I get to thinking – what would happen if someone pulled the plug, if all the servers went down, if someone hacked the banks and wiped out my account. What then?
Usually, I talk myself out of this spiralling sense of helplessness and dread, but reading The Back Door Man by Dave Buscshi recently scared me witless.
The Gold Standard was long gone. Paper money was almost obsolete. The majority of purchases today were done using debit or credit cards. Wealth was digitized; warehoused in database servers. Servers were the modern-day vaults for people’s cash.
I read yesterday the horrendous news that Chennai is running out of water. This is our reality. It’s not a book. It’s not a work of fiction. It’s a reality. Curious to know what might have inspired Buschi to write this book, I did some digging.
For THE BACK DOOR MAN, my big idea happened during the 2-week gas crisis in Georgia. A big storm hit the Gulf and had a ripple effect where refineries were affected, deliveries were put on pause, and suddenly gas stations were running out of gas in the entire Southeast. It was a minor blip in the scope of things, but it was crazy for those two weeks. There was a run on every gas station. Once people heard that gas supplies were getting low everybody suddenly had to go top off their tanks. Lines piled up at gas stations. People became crazy. My wife, while waiting in line in her car for a pump to get open, saw two people almost come to blows because one of them thought the other cut in line. It didn’t take much. Just eighteen hours into the gas shortage and this one guy was willing to kill this other guy because he thought the man cut in front of him. I saw similar craziness. Horns blaring. People on edge wondering if they were going to be able to get gas before the tanks went dry. And dry they went everywhere. Every gas station, including the one at Costco near me, went dry by the end of the day. The next day there were cars lined up at Costco at 8:00 a.m. just hoping that a gas delivery was going to happen. Four hours later some of those same cars were still there waiting.
It was that second day into the Great Gas Crisis, as coworkers of mine were wondering if they should join the car line at the Costco across the street, when I got my big idea. Not gas, though. My big idea was this: What if credit cards suddenly stopped working everywhere? I don’t know about you, but for me I’d be in trouble. I never carry cash in my wallet. Even when I do, it usually isn’t much. Definitely not enough to pay for a tank of gas or groceries. I figured I wouldn’t be the only one either. We live in a digital age. We expect those credit cards to work. What if they didn’t, though, just for a day? I could only imagine the panic that would ensue.
And indeed, panic ensued, just as it would, if it happened in real life.
This techno-thriller is a compelling read. Heart-in-mouth stuff. It falls into what’s a new genre for me – hard science fiction – ‘a category of science fiction characterized by concern for scientific accuracy and logic’. The protagonist, James Kolinsky, is all too human. As he comes into his own, I had hope for myself that I, too, might cope were my world to go tits up. The perfect beach read, if you’re into cybersecurity and all things techy. Best avoided in bed though – it really is a twenty-first-century nightmare guaranteed to keep you awake at night.