Review of The Edge of Madness

In What would happen in a national cyber attack? 23 suggestions for tackling this issue in the classroom I looked at ways in which teachers wishing to explore the idea of cyber-warfare, ie the possibility of one country waging war on another by attacking its computer infrastructure, might go about doing so. A terrifying thought, if you think about it, and possibly something that has already happened to Estonia.

Interestingly enough, The Economist ran a story about this subject, and the outlook is not good. The biggest threat comes from small groups or individuals, much like the terrorists threat with which we're already familiar. In such a scenario, there would be no clear target to attack, even if one could, so the best option is to beef up the defence against such an occurrence.

Frankly, the UK's record of even such a simple thing as looking after people's data when it's in a digital form (see Dealing With Data Loss: A Look at the Problem and a Possible Solution for a summary of the problem) is so appalling that I can't imagine there are enough people in the corridors of power who would even to begin to have a sufficient grasp of the issues. The problem isn't necessarily with the people at the top, but the administrators. As I said in a talk I gave at the Westminster Forum:

[There needs to be] ... An insistence that all teachers become computer literate to some extent. Why is it acceptable for people to remain ignorant about technology basics in this day and age?

This is getting to be a hot topic. Information Age ran an article on Gary McKinnon, a hacker fighting extradition to the USA because of his activities. In it he said:

We do need to be prepared for cyber-economic warfare: I know that sounds futuristic and alarmist, but it is coming. There will be attacks on financial centres.

The Edge of Madness is author Michael Dobbs' attempt to explore the cyber-warfare scenario through fiction. Now, I'm not a techie when it comes to what's possible or not in this area, so whilst reading the book I was constantly wondering about that. My worst fears were not much alleviated by the author informing us, after the end of the book, that the stuff in the book was only slightly exaggerated. He states that:

I have taken dramatic licence with much of what they [two experts] have told me, although in truth it seems difficult to exaggerate the potential for cyber skulduggery.

Dobbs has a facility for touching a nerve. Everyone in Britain remembers his House of Cards even if they don't even realise it. The expression "You may say so, but I couldn't possibly comment" has entered the language as the verbal equivalent of the nudge and wink in the world of realpolitik.

This his latest book is no disappointment in that regard. The title might just as well have been "Edge of your seat", because there are two terrifying scenarios unfolding at once. On the one hand, China is in the process of wreaking havoc without sending a single soldier or missile anywhere. On the other hand, the leaders of Russia, the USA and the UK are attempting to devise a solution to the problem when they can't even be in each other's company for five minutes without trying to score points off each other.

In a sense, that's the real worry. When you watch films like Independence Day, you're invited to believe that in the face of a terrible external threat erstwhile mortal enemies would put their differences aside and fight the common foe. Hmm, well, we can but hope.

I think a particularly skilful characteristic of the book is the way Dobbs weaves in real life events, like Chernobyl. So all the time you can't help wondering: does the author know something I don't?

I would definitely recommend this book. Buy it for yourself, and order it for your school library (if there still is one!). If you do decide to explore the possibility of cyber warfare as part of your approach to considering the effects of technology on society, it will be good to make this one of the reference sources. You can order it via this website.

And if the film of the book ever appears, order your students to go see it!