Apocalypse Postponed15 March 2018
Picture yourself in Hawaii.
(I’ll let you enjoy that for a moment.)
It’s a Saturday morning, 8am, 13 January 2018. Throwing off your sheets and the early traces of a hangover, you take note of the weather: a perfect 24 degrees celsius, clear and fine. Waves rumble on the foreshore while the scent of palms wafts through your open window. Perfection.
You hit the pillow again, determined to sleep out that headache, when your phone beeps.
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER.
THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
You take a look around your beachfront bungalow. Paper-thin walls and generous windows admit the soothing breath of the ocean. The public library is made of brick, but it’s half an hour away.
Pro: you’re going to beat a hangover for the first (and last) time in your life.
Con: you’re going to die.
You crack open a coconut, sit back in your deck chair overlooking the sea, and ponder eternity.
This is a true story, but it has a happy ending—one that doesn’t see Hawaii transformed into a glowing heap of radioactive glass.
In the two hours after the alert was sent, thousands of citizens (those perky enough to be awake at 8am on a Saturday) responded in every conceivable way to the news that they were probably about to die. Some sought shelter, some were paralysed by fear, some fled for the hills. A whole lot of people—about 5,000 within moments of the alert— instinctively dialed the emergency number. One guy had a heart attack and almost died on the spot.
While dad was busy shoving pops under the floorboard, the millennial generation quietly started asking questions. Why were there no sirens? No police swarming the streets? Why wasn’t the governor tweeting it, the police chief Facebooking it—the gals and guys in missile command goddamn Snapchatting it?
Is this a thing, they asked? Where’s the friggin’ buzz?
In the end it was a 17-year-old who called it first, five minutes after the alert—in a tweet, naturally. But it was 15 minutes before the governor confirmed it, and 38 minutes before the false alarm message was dispatched. The fallout (pardon the pun) left the public incensed, the international press aroused, and the economists, sociologists and psychologists of the world positively salivating.
Unlike particles in physics labs, humans have rights. As interesting as it would be to spook one and a half million people and see what happens, no ethics board would ever allow such an invasive and dangerous experiment. Even if they did, social, political and pragmatic constraints would intercede to erode the experimental design. It would be conditioned— biased, even. Useless to science.
Instead, social scientists often rely on natural experiments. The first one ever cited was a cholera outbreak in London in the 19th century. It was the dawn of municipal water. Two rival companies were set up, drawing on different sources: one was near exposed sewage, the other wasn’t. It was an experiment on the causes of cholera, rendered on a grand scale, which ultimately led to health policies that have likely saved millions of lives.
There have been many examples since. Local smoking bans, tornado strikes, and even austerity policies have been used as natural experiments, often delivering surprising and significant results.
But what about the Hawaii incident? PhDs will be written, conferences convened, passionate arguments waged in the literature for years to come. The best findings will probably feature in a BuzzFeed listicle in 2029. But there are some surprising takeaways in the immediate aftermath.
Firstly, contrary to what you may expect, law and order did not break down. There was no looting. Even road users were surprisingly well-behaved given the circumstances.
No-one died (as far as we know). Apart from that one heart attack victim, there were no major injuries. There were no terror-motivated murder-suicides or anything of that ilk.
Despite a lot of public-safety campaigning, most Hawaiians are still unsure how to survive a nuclear weapon attack. Many assume, wrongly, that there is nothing to be done. As a matter of fact, atomic bomb attacks are probably a lot more survivable than your average Syrian barrel-bomb drop or US drone strike.
Also, when you put a bunch of alerts in a drop-down menu, sprinkle them with acronyms, and fail to include a confirmation dialogue or a cancel-alert message, interns will fuck it up periodically. (Gratifyingly, the dude responsible has been quietly re-assigned but not fired. Managers take note.)
There’s no telling what fascinating and important lessons this huge natural experiment could teach us. Watch this space, keep an eye on your Twitter account, and enjoy that pina colada—you’ve earned it.