Die Hard 0.0

Last night I ventured out to a cinema1 to see Die Hard 4.0 (AKA Live Free or Die Hard). I've long been a fan of the Die Hard movies, and I thought this one was pretty good, though nowhere near the brilliance of the first one. But here I just want to briefly discuss the premise of the film, which is a bit spoilerish, so if you care about such things don't read on.

As the silly "4.0" suggests (so when is 4.1 coming out?), the terrorist threat this time is something cybery. Specifically the bad guys are attempting to carry out a "fire sale" attack against the United States, a term which seems to have been invented for the movie. (It's not used in the 1997 Wired article which inspired it.) It's probably rather implausible but that's not my concern here. This is the Wikipedia definition of a fire sale (emphasis added):

The term "fire sale" is used in the 2007 movie Live Free or Die Hard (Die Hard 4.0 in EU) to describe a hypothetical attack by computer hackers on vital networks of the United States government, infrastructure, and economy. Use of the term is explained with a reference to a typical fire sale: "everything must go." Any computer-operated system will be a target for such an attack, although the movie focused on four primary objectives: disrupting transportation, stealing and destroying financial records, disabling all public utilities, and creating fear with a PSYOP media campaign. This theoretical process drives the plot of the movie, threatening to bring the United States of America to its knees through widespread chaos and fear.

Transportation, economy, public utilities, panic. These could almost be headings from my thesis! So just as Threads, for example, updated the knock-out blow for the nuclear age, Die Hard 4.0 updates it for the internet era. A fire sale targets the same features of modern civilisation as the knock-out blow, but uses a very different mode of attack. The one major difference -- aside from the obvious lack of cities being blanketed with poison gas, etc -- was, as Mac Guy2 explains, that these major systems are actually pretty resilient, partly due to their interdependent nature, which is why they all have to be taken out simultaneously. In the typical knock-out blow scenario, they were held to be fragile and easy to disrupt, and their interdependencies a source of weakness. So taking them all out at once adds to the chaos, but generally isn't required to bring Britain to its knees.

When will the knock-out blow and its descendants cease to be a threat? When the Singularity comes, perhaps ... not before, it would seem.


  1. In Australia I would have paid $12.50 to see this, or about £5.40. Last night I paid nearly £8, even with a student discount. I'm just sayin'. 

  2. Though I'm given to understand that he's not Mac Guy here in the UK. 

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4 thoughts on “Die Hard 0.0

  1. Jakob

    Which bits of the singularity (so to speak)? If the rapture of the nerds comes and we're all uploaded, surely this kind of attack on electronic infrastructure becomes more serious? Maybe there's a paper in there... TRON and the knock-out blow: Post-singularity deterrence?

  2. I'm currently reading up on the Great Chain of Being for a paper I'm writing, and this "singularity" seems suspiciously similar to the idea of "plenitude" in medieval theology, but with the infinite goodness of technology standing in for the infinite goodness of god.

    Is the fear that AI might wipe out humans similar to the fear of technology in knockout blow mythology?

  3. Roger Todd

    Hmmmm... This is all I have to say about the dreaded Fire Sale:

    (1) disrupting transportation - how would anyone be able to tell in the UK?

    (2) stealing and destroying financial records - I wish someone would destroy MY financial records!

    (3) disabling all public utilities - see (1)...

    (4) creating fear with a PSYOP media campaign - too abstract to scare me, that one, so I'm not in a position to judge.

  4. Post author

    Jakob:

    Well ... I can't claim to have thought very deeply about it, it was just a throwaway line to end the post :) But I guess I would say that the consequences of a successful fire sale would indeed be much more serious, but the probability of one actually being successful would be much lower, because everything would, in effect, be distributed and there'd be no single points of failure when we're all uploaded into sonofusion-powered robot frames with nanite subsystems (or alternatively, completely virtual math nerds a la Greg Egan). And we won't just be dependent on the systems the fire sale is trying to take down, we'd be the systems, and could collectively resist and reroute. And, as Charlie Stross reminds us, 'there'll be jam for tea every day' :)

    Gavin:

    Interesting comparison. There's definitely an almost religious feel to singularitarianism (as Jakob notes, the Singularity is sometimes referred to as the rapture of the nerds) and it is basically because of the post-scarcity future it promises ... live forever, do and be whoever you want (even if only virtual), never have to want for anything. I doubt there's any direct connection between plenitude and the Singularity, though, as the computer geeks and technological optimists who dreamed it up don't seem the sort to be interested in medieval theology. Convergent evolution perhaps?

    About AI and KOB: my first answer was "no, not really" because they don't really strike fear in the same way and if I don't stick to specific comparisons then I really will be claiming that every apocalyptic fear is exactly the same as the KOB :) But on the level of a generic fear of technology and the evil uses it can be put to, then yes there's a similarity there. It's something that does seem to keep cropping up, at least since Alfred Nobel and dynamite, but you could probably argue for a much earlier date. (Frankenstein, I suppose.)

    Roger:

    About a decade ago we had a gas crisis in Victoria (as in, no natural gas for domestic heating, water or cooking for 2 or 3 weeks), and we've had a developing water crisis (as in, increasing lack of) over the past few years and into the future, which is getting to the point where it may affect electricity supplies as well. So I'm not about to criticise the UK's public utilities!

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