Written in Vancouver on a cool autumn day and dispatched via a free wi-fi service in my hotel with lots of bandwidth.

Analogue diseases crossed the animal-human divide long ago, but digital infections have only recently started hopping across platforms. Is there now a breakdown in the man-machine analogue-digital barrier, too?

Fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, contaminated water and food, skin contact and the air we breathe have all been conduits for the migration and mutation of animal-based diseases, infecting mankind over millennia. On the other side of the analogue-digital divide we now see growing levels of digital contamination by malware spreading through our machines.

I think we can safely assume that we all harbour some form of disease, and that every PC is infected with one nasty or another: there is just no avoiding it. With a sneeze, splash, touch or breath, that network connection, email, memory stick, or website, how could we escape?

So this raises the question: could the fragile membrane between digital and analogue break down, and might we see cross-infection between the two worlds?

Of course, I think we already have. At an obvious level, the bacteria-rich dust, debris and smears of grease from the human body that reside in and on every keyboard, trackpad and mouse are common examples, but I think there are many more.

Digital deaths in healthcare are now a significant cause of people shuffling off this mortal coil. Anything from misreading an instrument, a typing or file error, applying the wrong body mass or dose correction, to getting a diagnosis or name wrong – it just happens.

If a politician, manager, statistician or trader is off-colour and hits the wrong key or misreads screen data and infers the wrong condition, the resulting effects may be felt across the planet, sometimes with an immediate impact. Conversely, corrupted data presented to the same people can be equally disastrous.

Looking at the networked world we have built, you might conclude that it is something of a miracle that we are still all here, but all rapidly-evolving ecologies are inherently tolerant of most change, until an extreme is reached.

Consider for a moment the economic system of this planet, which is governed by people and machines.

Politicians, bankers, regulators businesses, consumers, markets, traders, supply-and-demand, and automated sensors with trading systems all largely operate invisibly and without any form of policing or supervision. Of course, so do those on the periphery – criminals, big and small.

Looking at the economic patterns over the past 200 years, we see cycles of repeated success and failure. It is also clear that the cycles speed up as technology advances, and the peaks and troughs appear to become more extreme with time.

US price cycles correlated against conflicts

US price cycles correlated against conflicts in the past 200 years
(Image credit: Peter Cochrane)

There is more than a hint of correlated rise and fall in fortunes. The US is often described as blindly treading an almost identical path towards stagnation to that taken by Japan 20 years ago. The same condition of course was, relatively speaking, also achieved by a number of EU economies well ahead of Japan. The graphic below illustrates the potential problems brewing in this one case.

Cycles of success and failure in the economic patterns of the past 30 years

Repeated cycles of success and failure are evident in the economic patterns of the past 30 years
(Image credit: Peter Cochrane)

Why, you might ask, do economies insist on aping failed models? Probably for the same reason all the EU nations systematically lost their empires: was it just the evolution of societies and liberty, political blindness, hubris, or diseased decisions? Probably.

Looking through the vast amount of data generated by the markets, analysts and pundits, it is easy to identify…

…two key mechanisms at work. The mechanisms of markets appear to be machine-dominated and changes that occur within them are characteristically digital – fast and without warning – while production is predominantly tied to human consumption and is therefore characteristically analogue – slow and smooth with early precursors (see below).

The world trade and production volume index

The world trade and production volume index plotted over the past few years
(Image credit: Peter Cochrane)

The big difficulty is the smoothing caused by the aggregation of the changes occurring across all sectors – because these changes occur at different rates and with some degree of independence. Certainly, this is another arena where we need the help of our machines to model and untangle what is really happening.

And now for the real thing. Today people with, say, pacemakers, respiratory stimulators and Alzheimer’s correctors are mostly offline, but future advances will make them more networked than not. And then there are those with cyber-prosthetics directly connected to their nervous system, plus other electronic implants that will eventually be subject to the same networked phenomenon.

More dramatic still, researchers using digital equipment and modelling in genomic research, with the modifications they create introduced into living humans, will also be subject to the same phenomenon. I’m sure you get the picture.

This is the realm where we will see new effects resulting from the full breakdown of the membrane of isolation and mutations passing in both directions – analogue to digital and vice versa. Today we are just at the beginning, but I can see the possibility for creating chimeras in both worlds. The big question is, as always, whether the benefits will outweigh the risks. So far they have.