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

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

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Of course, almost since the first webpage was posted, pundits have gleefully predicted doom and gloom for the Internet (but then, doom and gloom seems to make them happy). A search for "end of the Internet" brought up hundreds of hits (including a gag page claiming to be the very last page on the World Wide Web and telling visitors to get a life), giving all sorts of excellent reasons why the Internet would collapse.

Five Things We Wouldn't Miss if the Internet Died

  1. Spam, spim and other unsolicited and often offensive e-mails that litter our inboxes and steal our bandwidth and mailbox quotas. Yes, it is theft.
  2. "In your face" ads that interfere with browsing. Advertising revenue may be necessary to support the sites, but it's getting more aggressive than panhandlers on the street, and it's just as irritating.
  3. Drive-by installs of programs we definitely do not want on our computers.
  4. The assumption by employers that you're always online, so your "workday" expands to 24/7.
  5. Porn sites that take advantage of small typos in entry of legitimate URLs and pop up at the most embarrassing moments.

For example, in a 2000 article on the BBC, censorship was the issue. In 2004, it was that the Web was such a cesspool that private networks would have to replace it to restore decency and security. And a few weeks ago, the problem was the need for billions of dollars of investment to grow the infrastructure to keep up with bandwidth requirements.

Trembling at these dire predictions, we consulted several futurists, who are usually delighted to look on the darker side (it sells books—our society's fascination with catastrophe is downright unhealthy sometimes), and they shared their thoughts on the subject.

Tim Mack is president of the World Future Society, and editor of Futures Research Quarterly. He has spent his working life analyzing trends, and is currently writing a book on the social and economic impacts of the Internet on modern society and the global economy.

Six Things We Would Miss if the Internet Died

  1. Seamless automatic software updates. Done properly, they keep users' computers secure with zero effort from the user.
  2. Online banking and bill payments. It sure beats trying to work around banker's hours!
  3. Amazon.com
  4. Seamless e-mail. Remember when you had to be an AOL member to get e-mail from an AOL member?
  5. Online mapping services such as MapQuest. It's kept us from getting lost many times.
  6. Online study—why sit in a classroom when you can partake in a lecture from a comfy chair?

His take on the possibility of permanent Internet shutdown is straightforward: It ain't gonna happen. He explains, "The loss of the Internet for days, weeks or permanently would mean more than just an end to annoying spam and being cut off from the ideal way to settle bar arguments. The ongoing explosion of virtual business services of all sorts, accounting, payroll and even sales would come to a halt, and so would many companies. Customer service could still be handled by phone, except where the phone system was Internet-based. Much more severely affected would be complex project management between companies, especially those projects based on shared CAD (computer-assisted design) files or even shared PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) files. On the other side of the discussion, however, only about 20 percent of respondents to an Internet poll on potential failures thought that loss of Internet corporate communications and collaboration would be catastrophic and 10 percent thought it would have no effect at all."

However, he noted, while the Internet has certainly influenced many of the changes in society, it's not the only driver.

"Of course, there are lots of jokes to be made about the loss of Internet, like "People would read books again...or talk to their family," says Mack. "But the changes we have seen in Western culture are the result of wide-ranging forces, and no single technology."

That said, he believes that the Internet has become so indispensable to business, government and individuals that its permanent loss is merely a fantasy, barring some other global catastrophe.

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