So, what if our machines suddenly broke down? Not just your TV set or your car -- but everything? It wouldnít exactly kill us on the spot, but we can agree on one thing: it would be pretty apocalyptic. Weirdest of all, the Machine Apocalypse could happen for real.

Surprise, surprise. Suddenly, you see a sharp, blue flash shooting across the sky. And the next moment -- everything is dead.

Well, not everything. You are still alive and doing fine, and so are all other people, as well as all animals and plants. But your machines, theyíre all dead. Dead as a doornail.

If youíre by car, train, subway, ship or airplane -- it grinds to a halt (which is of course rather inconvenient if you happen to be sitting in that airplane). If youíre listening music, it stops. If youíre gaming: game over. Computer screens go black, lights pop out, factories stop. An eerie silence falls upon the civilized world.

And itís permanent. Television sets that arenít even turned on, give off an eerie glow, then go dark forever. Computers loose their data and get roasted from the inside. MP3-players and cell phones heat up, then die. Telephone lines melt, power stations give off a fountain of sparkles and then fall silent forever. And you donít want to be wearing a pacemaker: all of that stops, too.

Now isn't that lovely. There you are, in your civilized world. Suddenly, youíre stumbling about in the dark. The only way to go some place, is on foot. Basic stuff like clocks, fridges, boilers, washing machines and lights will never work again. Pretty soon, your tap will stop delivering water, your money will run out, and the shops will be empty. The economy grinds to a halt, throwing you back into the Middle Ages. And no way youíre gonna dial 911 or e-mail your Congressman. Better use a homing-pigeon, from now on.

What youíve witnessed is whatís known as an Ďelectromagnetic pulseí, or EMP. Perhaps some wicked genius detonated an EMP-weapon high up in the atmosphere. Or perhaps some star violently exploded nearby. 

Whatever the cause, the effect is the same: the atmosphere is flooded with exceptionally highly charged light particles, called photons. The photons smash into the atoms that make up the atmosphere, and knock out their electrons. Thatís the flash of light you see: suddenly, a HUGE cloud of electrons comes surging down, much like a ridiculously large bolt of lightning. The electrons demolish everything electric. Everything with circuitry or wiring in it, turns into a foul-reeking porridge of molten plastic and short-circuited wires.

Poor Man's Doomsday Weapon? - There is some concern terrorists may disrupt the West, using a very large electromagnetic pulse bomb. Indeed, EMP weapons are cheap to make. But don't get paranoid: you'd have to be one goofy whiz kid terrorist to achieve it. Oh, and what they don't tell you, is that the only country that has used e-bombs in combat already, is the US. During the war in Iraq, the US Army dropped several small e-bombs on power stations and television stations. That worked.

Indeed, EMPís can be that nasty. The calculations show that a large enough EMP going off high in the atmosphere should be able to knock out every machine in Europe or the US. If a large stellar explosion flooded the atmosphere with super-charged photons, it could even get worse. The dreaded machine-killer may even affect half of the globe -- and all of mankind.

Itís difficult to tell what will happen next. With luck, some machines will survive. Devices running on batteries or machines that were turned off during the blast, have a far better chance of survival. 

And of course, diesel engines and steam-powered machines won't be affected -- although you may be unable to operate them, without the electrical circuitry thatís usually needed to run them. For transport, you may want to use a horse or a bicycle (with no light). And you may be relieved to find that your hammer, screwdriver and other basic working tools are still in tip-top condition. At least, you can try to build up society again by hand.

So in the end, we should survive -- but not without a terrible crisis. Just read how one of our readers cozily puts it:

"We will have no food. We will have no clothing. We will have no access to the information needed to make that food and that clothing. The ending will be sudden and complete. If air systems are needed, the deaths will come in minutes. If water is needed, deaths will come in agonizing days. If food is needed, death will pay a visit only after several excruciating weeks. People escaping the clutches of the Machine will not be able to cope with an environment that doesn't pamper them anymore. They will die clutching the remotes that used to make the Machine do what they wanted and needed. They will die hungry, thirsty, filthy and cold."

Bomb or bug?

We don't really know how big the danger is. We've only had electric wiring for a mere 150 years - a tiny fraction of the planet's history. No one knows how many times the Earth has been hit by immense EMP's from outer space already.

And come to think of it, it gets worse. A large EMP isnít the only thing that is capable of shutting down our machines. Perhaps, a simple technical failure can do the trick, too. Thatís less silly than it sounds. We live in an ever more connected world, with ever more connected machines. This makes us vulnerable to power failures, computer bugs, system malfunctions -- stuff like that. 

Walk of Shame: Without machines, we would find ourselves in the Middle Ages. For instance, we'd have to walk  -- just like these New Yorkers during the 2003 blackout.

Take the infamous Northeast Blackout of 2003. No less than 50 million people in the US and Canada found themselves without electricity. And the cause? For crying out loud, it was a humble tree that gently touched some power lines in Canada! Now thatís encouraging. If something as simple as a tree can put 50 million people in the dark...

Or consider the Millennium Bug. No one will ever know what would have happened if computer experts hadnít taken precautions. But the forecasts were bad: on 1/1/2000, computer systems would go berserk. Bank accounts would empty themselves, data bases be lost, power stations would fail, nuclear missiles would decide to launch themselves. Gladly, all of this didnít happen. But what if someone released a computer virus which, say, told our computers itís the year 3000?

As our reader puts it: "That automation is coming, and coming fast. Home automation is here already (albeit pricey and unreliable for now) and will improve by leaps and bounds quickly. Internet-connected everythings are being sold everywhere. We're even taking baby steps into fully-automated factories and fully-automated transportation systems. (You really don't want to know how planes are guided these days.) And sometime within the next century the turning point will come. We will become so dependent upon the Machine that its absence will kill us."




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