What If All Computer Data Was Destroyed?

VOICE OVER: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
We live in the computer age. Digital data, media, connections and relationships are vital to life in the twenty-first century. But, what if all of it was destroyed? What if the internet, the network, all types of computer data stored in the cloud and on servers all around the world suddenly disappeared? For this video, we ponder whether we'd even be able to function...

What If All Computer Data Was Destroyed?

In the age of information, the footprints we leave online are often enough to demonstrate, or even recreate, our entire lives and personalities. And, it can feel as though almost every detail about us is saved onto a computer somewhere, with personal privacy becoming almost non-existent. In the wake of high-profile hacking attacks and data breaches, the idea of just erasing all of the information from every device in the world can often seem an appealing one. But, what kind of an impact would the destruction of this data really have? We’re talking not just the details of individuals, but also companies, businesses, and entire governments. If all the data on the planet was suddenly wiped out, what kind of world would we find ourselves living in?

Well, it’d probably be pretty hellish to begin with, mostly because of the immediate horror and destruction that’d definitely have to unfold to make it happen… To delete all electronic data, all electronic devices would have to be destroyed. The internet isn’t simply saved onto a machine somewhere ready to be wiped, but is shared throughout every computer, router, server and device in the world… So taking out all data means taking out the entire network – which is an almost impossible feat. That said, there are some incredibly dire situations wherein it could feasibly be done, like an asteroid crashing into the Earth, an intense natural disaster unlike anything else in human history, a planet-wide EMP attack, or some kind of ultra-advanced computer virus coupled with the strategic destruction of company HQs and server farms.

But what about backups? Most people probably have at least some of their details safely stored somewhere else, be that on their computer’s hard drive or an external hard drive – or anywhere you can access it without having to be online. And many large companies have physical backups on servers as well, though this is becoming increasingly rare. Today, most organisations will externally store things on the cloud – but even the cloud is ultimately rooted in physical hardware. Cloud services work by sharing physical data resources, like servers, computers, and phones. So, physically destroying servers and hardware would wipe out the cloud and everything saved onto it. But again, there’s no getting rid of it without untold real-world damage.

But, say the digital data actually was wiped a lot more easily – at the flick of a switch. Or, say we’d just recovered from the probable warzones required to destroy it manually. What then?

The wider implications would be much graver than simply individuals losing their banking information and passwords. Even personal medical records would be small fry compared to what happens if gigantic tech companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft or Amazon lose their data. According to the American government, 93% of companies who suffer an enormous data loss for ten days or more file for bankruptcy within a year, and 50% are forced to file straight away – and if the big businesses go under then the small ones would quickly follow, as global stock markets crash.

All money except for actual, physical cash would disappear, leading to inevitable attacks on banks and ATMs – and massive financial instability and mistrust. Even with notes and coins, a global food shortage and economic crisis would take immediate effect, making it almost impossible to actually buy anything. Supermarkets wouldn’t be able to restock their shelves because they’d have no way to organise with suppliers, and suppliers would have no way to organise with farmers and manufacturers. Nobody would be able to pay their bills as the companies they’re supposed to be paying will’ve ceased to exist. Even the seemingly basic infrastructure of public transport wouldn’t be able to function, given that it’s so dependent on technology and computer data. Most countries in the developed world would be flung back into a pre-Victorian era (and eventually extreme poverty), with business-orientated city centres becoming wastelands and slums. You wouldn’t even have a record of your education outside of any physical certificates, trophies or diplomas; students would be erased from school systems as well as all their grades and achievements.

Everyday communications are also heavily reliant on computer data. Any phoneline which uses a satellite or WIFI connection would be rendered completely useless, even to call the emergency services. Social media and text messaging wouldn’t work either, meaning the best way to transmit information would be either in person or through letters – though any modern postal service will’ve also shut down due to data loss. Even wired telephone lines would soon stop working. Yes, these lines would still exist and be functional at first – as telephones existed long before computers and the internet – but the companies who manage, maintain and operate the lines would, again, go bust very quickly. Television stations may retain some broadcasting capabilities, but only if they aren’t relying on satellites (and most of them are). So, the radio would stage an emergency comeback, although the transmission of up-to-date, real-time news – the like of which we’re so used to on social media – would no longer be possible, with reports relying on ‘word of mouth’ journalism.

Finally, and perhaps most fatally, the complete destruction of all computer data and devices would also result in a loss of military defences. All countries would be left vulnerable to attack with their computers offline, although exactly how an opposing army could organise and launch an attack without computer data is anyone’s guess. You’d hope that mounting an offensive wouldn’t be at the top of any nation’s list of priorities, given the domestic devastation that the data destruction would cause, but the modern world would suddenly see its many security measures stripped away.

Clearly the immediate effects of a worldwide data outage amount to chaos, but it may not be entirely doom and gloom. Today, people are becoming increasingly worried about how the internet, social media, and computers are shaping society. Our culture of instant gratification, never being truly alone, and always being connected is something a lot of people would like to escape from. In this way, when and if the planet starts to recover, it might actually feel liberating not to have to constantly change passwords, check emails, or post online. We’d have an opportunity to rebuild our internet and digital infrastructure, and perhaps learn from past mistakes.

And finally, that process of rebuilding itself would probably take less than a decade. Unlike how we’ve implemented current technology in the past, if it were to be taken away today then we’d already know how to rebuild it. We wouldn’t be making new discoveries or creating fresh inventions, we’d simply be following past instructions and applying past knowledge. So, if all computer data was destroyed, before long we’d more than likely have new data to take its place, and a new infrastructure specifically designed to avoid such destruction again. Once the data dust settles, the world might actually be all the better for it – suggesting that even the cloud has a silver lining.