An oil tanker ploughs into a tourist beach. Planes fall from the sky. Driverless cars run amok. The internet fails and the mobile network dies. Feral instincts take over as people fight for food, water and medicine amid the ruins of civilisation.
That is the nightmare vision depicted in Leave The World Behind, Netflix‘s recent hit film starring Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke as a couple battling societal breakdown when the technology that underpins civilisation collapses.
It’s fictional, but it touches on deep-seated, real-life fears.
The film is produced by Michelle and Barack Obama‘s company, Higher Ground. The ex-president was closely involved in shaping the plot, which dramatises many of the cyber-security issues on which he was briefed during his eight years in the White House.
For our 21st-century lives are almost entirely dependent on complex technologies that many do not understand — and that can so easily be exploited by our enemies.
Maintaining a car, for example, was previously a job for any competent motorist and their local mechanic. Now our vehicles are computers on wheels, their inner workings a mystery.
We used to navigate with paper maps and landmarks. But with his car’s satnav out of action, Ethan Hawke’s character Clay Sandford is unable even to find his way to the nearby town.
Our telephone system used to run on sturdy copper wires, with handsets you could fix with a screwdriver. Now it is a branch of cyberspace.
So, too, is finance. Remember when a credit card’s embossed number left an imprint on a paper slip? Not any more. Our payment system depends wholly on electronic encryption.
What use is cash in the modern world? In the film, with the internet gone, it becomes a prized asset.
If the technologies we rely on break down, many of us will be as helpless as Hawke’s Clay Sandford. ‘I am a useless man,’ he howls, as the crutch of technology is kicked from underneath him.
A media studies professor, Clay is perhaps the epitome of modern professional cluelessness, bereft of the hands-on skills needed in a post-apocalyptic world where only the fittest can survive. A world in which oil, gas and electricity supplies have ceased, in which the taps have run dry, where supermarkets are empty, looted shells.
In this wasteland, communication is only face-to-face, the fastest form of transport is a push-bike and modern healthcare is a distant memory. Our electronic devices, once indispensable, are no more useful than paperweights.
So could it really happen? The harsh truth is that modern life is perilously fragile.
We are just one weekly shop, one tank of petrol, away from helplessness, starvation and death. How did we become so vulnerable?