It's a truism that technological progress increases the possibilities for disaster and makes it easier for disasters to grow into catastrophes. At the same time, there are aspects of technology that could help us deal with threats. This essay is about using hobbyists, charity, clever business practices, and government cooperation to create a "Disaster Stack" of machines, knowledge, and people to respond to disasters:
• Layer 1: The communication network.
The two most obvious disaster threats to communications are:
o Loss of electrical power. The power needed to run smartphones is orders of magnitude less than the needs of civilization as a whole. With a little bit of forethought and regulatory sympathy, car batteries could power such devices for some hours, and existing green sources could provide longer support. Base stations and backhaul technology have more concentrated power needs, but one interesting trend of the last few years has been use of smaller and smaller stations. Emergency backhaul may have its own power supply surprises.
o Congestion arising from the disaster-related demand surge. Falling back to lower bitrates and datagram-oriented transport can help with surge problems. Again, there are tech trends that may make this problem more easily solvable: In principle, wireless comms can maintain high-quality peer-to-peer contact at very great station densities.
• Layer 2: The knowledge and program base that runs atop Layer 1.
A cliche of catastrophe science fiction is the notion of a cache of reference books that explain technology from before the "fall of civilization". The cache might be as simple as an engineering manual or a survivalist's recipe list. Old-time science-fiction fans debated which 20 pounds of reference books would have the greatest payoff. Of course, nowadays we can do much better: our smartphones have enough storage to hold entire libraries. Besides storing knowledge, we can store plans and programs, customized for each of...