What If the Internet Went Down...and Didn't Come Back Up?

Yes, we know we all rely on the Internet. But how much?

Imagine, if you will, a world with no Internet. No e-mail. No e-commerce. And no BlackBerrys. E-mail would be supplanted by snail mail; cell phones by land lines. Now imagine what the future would look like. Futurists say virtual business services of all sorts, accounting, payroll and even sales would come to a halt, as would many companies.

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This immediately made me think of E.M. Forster's disturbing tale "The Machine Stops". Written in 1909, it describes the downfall of a civilization that had wrapped itself in the cocoon of an automated life-support system. But people began to think of the Machine as an infallible deity, and lived in their individual mechanical wombs, communicating and doing business only through the Machine. They worshipped it in their fashion until, in the words of the author:

There came a day when, without the slightest warning, without any previous hint of feebleness, the entire communication system broke down, all over the world, and the world, as they understood it, ended.

If the Internet were to cease functioning today, the effect would be similar for many people. They grew up with ubiquitous communication, information at their fingertips and shopping at the click of a mouse. They'd be lost without e-mail and social networking sites (though I'm told instant messaging is so last week). And many of their businesses, online like their lives, would also come to a crashing halt. Customer lists consisting solely of e-mail addresses are singularly useless without e-mail, and online brochures and catalogs are simply computer wallpaper without the wherewithal to allow potential customers to browse them. And for software developers and others who rely on customer downloads and online credit card payments, the business world would come to an end until they completely rebuilt their business model.

For the non-Web-centric business, the loss of the Internet likely would likely be, at the very least, a major inconvenience as well. Corporate LANs might still function (we're not decreeing the end of TCP/IP, after all), but many wide area networks, now run through secure tunnels over the Internet, would cease to function. It would cost a bundle to rebuild them over proprietary data networks—if said networks still existed and had the capacity to accommodate the demand (doubtful—those still in business have scaled back over the years as much of their market fled to the Net). Without electronic mail, we'd have to rely on postal services that have also revamped in response to decreasing letter volume. "Snail mail" would probably buckle under the load, decreasing speed to that of glaciation. Phone companies would experience a similar pain in the infrastructure, as their voice over IP services suddenly stopped working and the POTS (plain old telephone service) network had to take up the slack. Cell phones would probably still function as voice devices, but their data capabilities would be inhibited or killed. And weep for your beloved CrackBerrys.

Yes, the corporate landscape would certainly have a very different look, and a lot of businesses would definitely not be able to adjust. Amazon.com? Forget it. E-Bay—gone. E-Trade—bye-bye. In fact, any online shopping would be toast, unless it was conducted through a proprietary service using its dedicated lines (at considerably higher cost). So would payment systems that depend on Internet connections, payroll services, online banking, and Web-based backup services and customer support. And a lot of media outlets that have moved most of their operations online (such as the publishers of this site) would scramble madly to resurrect hard copy and its associated advertising revenues.

And don't even think about the blind panic of last-minute Christmas shopping without all those e-tailers promising next-day delivery!

On the plus side, we'd be forever rid of those infernal "male member enhancement" e-mail messages and the kind offers of millions of dollars from strangers on foreign shores that clutter up our inboxes.

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