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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"New forms of e-government, critical research and modeling (for example, climate change data) and an incredible social and enterprise network is evolving that is changing the nature of the globe and perhaps even the future of the nation state. To paraphrase Tom Friedman, it has brought us all together in ways we still don't fully understand, but will change the way that humans learn and create worldwide. It is not likely the human race would be willing to go back to those earlier times," he says.

Futurist Thornton May has made a career out of bringing the best ideas from a variety of disciplines to bear on the problems at hand. He is a serial entrepreneur/in-the-field anthropologist/Nobel-trained cognitive scientist/journalist/author/scholar/business school professor—and an out-of-the-box thinker who cheerfully played our mind game. He said, "Fascinating question. I am sure most colleagues that you talk to will immediately pile on and focus on the 'downside' of the end-of-Net scenario you examine. As a futurist I like to use a different perspective—let's identify good things associated with an end-of-total-connectivity apocalypse and work our way toward a middle ground."

"One of the things which would disappear with the Internet would be machine-made fame. Modern mass communications have created centripetal attention structures that bottle celebrity, and celebrities, for sale," says May. "Our adoration of princesses, movie stars, and basketball players would come to an end. This is not necessarily a bad thing."

I'd debate that statement; he's obviously forgotten the plethora of magazines about celebrities that existed prior to the advent of online manias. However, May is closer to the mark with his thoughts on social interactions. He said, "Much has been said about how the Net has made us more social. This is not totally true. While we have automated 'acquaintanceship' and created tool sets for real-time self-invention (who audits Facebook or MySpace profiles for accuracy?), our capacity for intimacy, for true human interaction, has atrophied. We will have to learn once again how to create social cooperation from the bottom up—a person at a time."

How could we accomplish this? May suggests, "We might redeem and rediscover the 'rhetoric' in daily life. Think what we might do with all the time 'released' from the Internet Dividend. We might resolve the paradox between what we say as a society and do as individuals. In repeated Gallup polls, when respondents are asked to choose what is really important—family life, betterment of society, strict morals, and the like—'having nice things' comes in dead last. However, on the way to Walden Pond, we pack the utility vehicle with all manner of material possessions."

An interesting question indeed!

Peter de Jager describes himself as a speaker, writer and consultant on the issues relating to the Rational Assimilation of the Future, which he presents with common sense and a large dose of humor. He's also the guy who awakened the IT industry to the amount of work we needed to do before the calendar flipped over to January 1, 2000.

De Jager doesn't believe for a minute that the Internet could completely go away—barring, of course, an asteroid 20 miles in diameter smashing into Earth, in which case e-mail is low on the list of priorities. But he decided to play with the notion anyhow and even extended it to the loss of telecom in his scenario. "Putting the tidal waves, killer bees with laser augmented stingers, and global thermonuclear war to the side for the moment, what would happen if we lost the Internet/telecom for an extended period of time? The most immediate effect would be about 5.5 million BlackBerry addicts falling into permanent catatonia. We'd then notice about 15 million wireless cell phone users awaking from their decade-long zombie state, as the voices in their heads go silent and the little blue Borg lights in their ears start to dim, forcing them to start paying attention to the world around them."

That sounds dire enough, but the worst is yet to come. He added, "A longer term fallout would occur over a six month time frame. We would experience a large, worldwide spike in divorce filings. Spouses would come to the conclusion that their marital relationships were actually much better when their better halves were playing World of Warcraft into the wee hours."

Scary stuff!

And could we really go back to the pre-Internet days over time? Neither De Jager nor May thinks we would even try. Says de Jager, "We wouldn't do that. We'd recreate the Internet."

Added May, "Would Net2 that would be erected to replace Net1 be better? And how long would it take to get Net2 up?"

And then how long would it take us to catch up with our e-mail?

Lynn Greiner is a vice president of IT for a multinational corporation and an award-winning technology writer.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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