Why we can’t afford to lose the internet

If the world lost internet for 7 days, what would happen? Well, I started out writing this post as a pseudo sci-fi fiction hypothetical disaster piece, but as I really started to dig into a world without internet, i found something better. A big idea:

The internet connected world is one massive, finely-tuned machine with a very specific weakness: it doesn’t have an off button.

Without an off button. Thats the key. Now what do I mean by that? Well, there is a common line of thinking expressed especially by older people that goes something like this:

“What would the world look like without internet?”

“I don’t know but we didn’t have Netflix in the 70’s and everything was just fine!”

True. Kinda. People in the 70’s really were just fine. But there is a more nuanced point here that this response misses. One main thing separates the world today from the world in 1970: forty-six years in time. It took us forty-six years to get to the hyper-connected world we live in today from 1970, and we can’t just change back overnight. Sure it may (or may not) be easier to go backwards than forwards, but what I have realized whilst thinking about this post is that its not the technology thats so slow to change – its the people who use it. And since 1970 these people (us, people of earth!) have changed dramatically. Almost everything we do has been changed by the internet. Our work tools, our communications, the way we make and execute decisions – all completely changed. The point is, if the world lost internet for a week, we couldn’t just “roll back the lifestyle clock” and live like it was 1970. Rather, our delicate, global, interconnected world – built on the internet – would unravel. The effects would be devastating. 

We will start with a few obvious consequences and them piece them together to get at our big idea. Things that are more than likely to happen…

– Social panic. In the developed world, the internet is how we communicate. Its  Period. Our collective consciousness as a society lives on the internet. Pulling the plug, cold turkey, on every citizen on earth is going to cause anxiety at best and social chaos at worst.

– The workforce shuts down. Unless you are responsible for a critical service (law enforcement, medicine, infrastructure), you are staying home. Period. Your communications are down. Your work tools are unavailable. There are no suppliers to buy from and no customers to sell to. Business lives on the internet.

– Finance shuts down. No one can access their money. Banks are closed. The stock market is closed. The majority of financial records – exclusive to the internet – are unavailable. This one hurts because unless you have cash in your wallet, you have no means of purchasing the things you need like food, fuel, or medicine.

  Transportation shuts down. No drivers, no pilots, and no conductors showing up to work means no public transportation. If you are lucky enough to own a car AND have gas in your tank (you cant withdraw money for new gas), then you can trudge through an endless traffic jam caused by the disabling of internet connected traffic lights, not to mention the wrecked vehicles abandoned all over the road without emergency services to assist them.

In other words, the world goes on hold. Which brings us back to our big idea, which is that global society is not really designed to go on hold. Sure we can deal with hurricanes and earthquakes now and again, but we get to deal with them one a time, and we’ve had good practice. Losing the internet is a completely different story because of a phenomenon called complex systems failure. The gist of complex systems failure is that in a complex system, if one or more subsystem goes down, they can potentially cause a chain reaction that leads to the failure of an entire system. A good example of this is in an airplane. Modern planes can survive engine loss, or electrical faults, or pilot error, or a loss of cabin pressure, but when many of these systems fail at the same time, the airplane as a whole tends to fail. And because an airplane is not designed to simply “switch off” at 32,000 feet, airplane failures are catastrophic.

Global society, like an airplane, is also a complex system. Except instead of transporting passengers through the air, the purpose of the global society system is to service the needs of over six billion people. Like an airplane, this system cannot all-of-a-sudden switch off without catastrophic consequences. So what would catastrophic systems failure look like today? Well, we outlined a few of the subsystem failures earlier in the post: social communication, business/industry/workforce, finance, and transport.  Collectively, these subsystems are critical to support the delivery of basic human needs including….

Food – There are a few degrees of failure here. The first and most obvious is distribution failure. No truckers to deliver food. No internet systems to organize and communicate delivery across the supply chain. Then you add in the fact that no business or person has access to financial services to finance their operations. Moving to the second degree of failure, production yields will be impacted. In 2016, our staggering agricultural efficiency as a species is made possible by internet services. Without the internet, we literally can’t make as much food.

Medicine – The entire pharmaceutical business lives online. Patient records are online. Prescriptions are filed online. Payment and records are online. Add looting and social chaos to the mix, and this gets really bad really fast. For the people who need drugs right away, losing the internet is a potentially fatal disaster.

Water – Many of the worlds major cities have no more than five days supply of water treatment chemicals. If the global supply chain is crippled, many of these cities will not get the water treatment they need. In areas where water is drawn from far-away lands through irrigation, and where people absolutely depend on city water, municipal water failure would be absolutely devastating.

Now we can see the naivety of the senior citizen teasing about how “back in his day they didn’t have Netflix and they were just fine.” Losing internet is not a matter of seven days without Netflix. Its a matter of massive systems failure and a tragic unraveling of our internet-connected world. Millions of people would die and society shaken to its core. To be clear, I don’t think is something that is necessarily likely to happen. But I do think that this hypothetical provides an excellent space for considering big ideas about connected society and the global internet. So, think it over, and comment below if you have any crazyfuckingideas of your own. I can’t wait to hear them.

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