Bill Ralston: Apocalypse any day now

by Bill Ralston / 19 November, 2012
Pigeons could be the perfect low-flying answer to hi-tech disaster.
Barbeque cartoon by Steve Bolton

Strike a blow against the ominously omnipresent technology that now enslaves us and buy a pigeon. I’ll explain that avian escape route shortly but, first, consider how trapped we are by all those gadgets we’ve so gleefully bought over the past few decades. Lose your smartphone and you’re not simply cut off from communicating with the world outside your home; the bigger worry is that your email, photos, music, Twitter feed and Facebook information has probably fallen into someone else’s hands.

If your computer melts down, unless you’ve had the wisdom and forethought to use a backup drive or a handy cloud for storage, large and extremely important chunks of your life have been erased. Recently, the hardworking band of men from Chorus laying ultra-fast broadband fibre down our street seemed to have cut us off from the national grid just before dinner time. A wail went up in our house – the internet (its router powered, of course, by electricity) was off. The landline wasn’t working. Everyone’s smartphone was out, or nearly out, of juice.

We stared at the blank television for a while and discussed what to do. The electric oven was off but the gas hob still worked. We could eat but we were out of touch with the rest of the planet. Food felt less important. It wasn’t just me feeling an enormous sense of social dislocation. I walked out onto the footpath and discovered a small trail of refugees from our powerless street heading for Ponsonby Rd where they could find food and face-to-face interaction in lieu of the electronic sort. What would happen if a terrorist group, evil foreign government or Goldfinger-type arch-criminal detonated massive nuclear weapons in the upper atmosphere, generating a giant electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that reduced my smartphone to iJunk and frazzled all forms of electronic communication on Earth?

The answer is to buy a small flock of pigeons. A friend of mine recently became obsessed with becoming a pigeon fancier and is now browsing Trade Me looking for a dovecot and birds. His plan is to get them acclimatised and homed in on his place, then to distribute them to his family around the country. From time to time, family members could tie a message to their pigeon’s leg and send it home. Yes, it’s a little odd, I know, but it sounds like fun, and in a post-EMP world we could all be doing this. It was stirring to read recent stories from Britain about the bones of a dead World War II carrier pigeon and its attached coded message being found down a chimney in Surrey. It’s speculated it came from France some time after D Day with a secret message for the nearby Bomber Command HQ.

The pigeon was named 40TW194, which is a shame for the reporters covering the story who, no doubt, would have preferred it to have a more anthropomorphic name, such as Mavis or Bruce. The coded message has been passed to British intelligence experts at GCHQ who hope to find out what it says. It’s probably something like, “Send a bottle of Scotch in the next airdrop. Only French plonk available here.” But it would still be interesting to find out what poor 40TW194 died for.

If GCHQ can’t decode it I’d suggest they send it to our lads at the GCSB who don’t seem to have much of use to do these days. The interesting thing I discovered was that pigeons can fly as far as 1100km at speeds of up to 120km/h, which means post-EMP pigeon-powered communications would not necessarily be as slow as you think. We could call the system Flitter. Be prepared for the digital apocalypse and buy your analogue pigeons now.
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