Interview: Sir Oliver Letwin discusses his latest book
The former government minister is set to present Apocalypse How?: Technology and the Threat of Disaster at the Cambridge Literary Festival next month.
A long-standing Member of Parliament and Conservative government minister who held various high-ranking positions throughout his career, including shadow chancellor of the exchequer and shadow home secretary, Sir Oliver Letwin walked away from politics last year and is enjoying his new-found freedom, describing it as “totally wonderful.”
When asked what he has been up to of late, the former MP for West Dorset’s response was “writing books” and his latest, Apocalypse How?: Technology and the Threat of Disaster, looks into the not-too-distant future (2037, to be exact) to imagine a United Kingdom in which the national grid has collapsed – as well as a future where the complexity and interdependence of our technology mean that as well as the national grid, GPS, electric cars and law and order itself also become vulnerable to disruption and collapse.
In conversation with George Eaton, assistant editor of the New Statesman, on April 17 at the Cambridge Union as part of the Cambridge Literary Festival, Sir Oliver will argue that the future is closer than we might think and explains how we should face up to it.
“The book is an argument about something that I think needs doing,” explains Sir Oliver, “which I don’t think is sufficiently on the agenda.”
He continues: “Where it starts is with a fact, which everybody actually knows but which is sometimes forgotten, which is that over the course of the last 30 or 40 years – and I think even more over the next 10 or 20, 30 years – all sorts of separate networks that used to exist in isolation from one another, or more or less so, have been converging and creating effectively one network of networks – and that’s enormously powerful.
“Nowadays, enormously increasingly – and I think almost completely by 20 years from now – there’s really only one great big mish-mash of networks because all of them, in one way or another, are centred on two things: electricity and the internet.
“This is incredibly powerful, and it’s a fact – although somebody might try and deny it, but I think it’s pretty well evident – that nobody is going to be able to reverse this.
“Even if you wanted to, however hard you tried, disassembling all of this and going back decades to a world where we have separate networks is most unlikely to occur because it’s fantastically advantageously powerful and liberating and enlightening, this network of networks. It brings us together with everyone in the world.”
The downside of this, notes Sir Oliver, a University of Cambridge alumnus (he was an undergraduate at Trinity and a research fellow at Darwin – “I spent seven or eight very happy years of my life in Cambridge and I have a very considerable attachment to the place”), is that if everything is controlled by one big “network of networks,” then “there’s only really one thing to go wrong, and if it goes wrong then everything goes wrong.”
He adds: “It’s not because anyone’s made a terrible error, it’s because it’s an inevitable consequence of bringing everything together, that you end up with a fragile situation where if that one thing was brought down, you’re left with nothing much. All the things we get used to depending on just aren’t there.”
The downside of everything coming together is that, in a way, it does make us more vulnerable. Sir Oliver says: “There are lots of ways in which this network of networks can be attacked, either by people or by nature. I picture in the book nature doing it, but it could be a state that does it, or it could be a terrorist that does it, or it could just be anyone anywhere – there are billions of people connected to this net.
“So it’s incredibly difficult to construct fool-proof defences against attack that damages the network – and that’s another feature of its being so fantastic and so wide-ranging.”
Sir Oliver, 63, believes it’s very important to spend lots of money and time on trying to protect networks, but that it’s naive to think that this will result in them being safe and risk-free.
“So the final part of the argument, which is I guess the controversial bit of it – because I think everything else I’ve said is something which most people who know about these things would accept – is actually what we ought to have, alongside all the defences, is something quite different and very low-tech – which is analogue fallback options that enable us to make do and mend under circumstances where, despite the defences, this network of networks stops working.
“It would probably only be for a short period because one of the characteristics of this network of networks that exists, and which is coming more and more into existence, is that it’s incredibly clever at self healing and putting itself right – but it takes time.”
Sir Oliver concludes: “I’m not imagining some brilliant new scheme that requires to be dreamt up, I’m saying if you think about it and you look at the various things that used to exist – and that roughly worked – if you build enough of them as a sort of fallback, rather than getting rid of them all, which is what we have been doing, we will be able, if this all goes wrong, to fall back on something which is perfectly tolerable for a little period.
“And what I picture in the book is the consequences of not doing that.”
I couldn’t let Sir Oliver go without mentioning Brexit. One of the ‘rebel MPs’, he, of course, lent his name to the ‘Letwin amendment’, which meant that the Brexit deal required the Prime Minister to request an extension as an ‘insurance policy’ in case the necessary legislation to enact the deal had not been passed by October 31.
What are his thoughts on the whole thing now we’ve finally left the EU? “It’s happened in an orderly way, which was my main concern – to prevent a disorderly exit,” says Sir Oliver, “which I’m delighted hasn’t happened – and I’m cautiously optimistic that the government and the EU will manage to agree some workable way of carrying on our economic relations with the EU in years to come.”
Sir Oliver Letwin will be appearing at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in conversation with George Eaton, on Friday, April 17 at 5.30-6.30pm on the TTP Stage at the Cambridge Union.
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