Cartoon by Jack Ziegler in the New Yorker. You can buy his stuff here.
What are you going to do when the Internet’s gone? That is the question that no one dares ask. I’m not talking about Net Neutrality and the takeover of the web by corporate interests. I’m talking about its simple disappearance, as infrastructure that’s simply unaffordable and unsustainable in a world of economic, energy and ecological collapse, stops working and falls apart.
The technophiles, the “bright greens” will tolerate no such talk, of course. They believe with a religious passion that technology will solve all the world’s problems (and let us live forever to enjoy the resultant eternal bliss of allknowingness). But the “dark greens” — the post-civs who see our society collapsing (“all civilizations do”) probably in this century — want to believe too. They want the Internet to help them organize resistance to the corporatists and globalists who are exacerbating the crises driving us off the edge of the cliff, if not in time to stop it, at least enough to be able to piece together some alternative models of how to live sustainably that the survivors (our grandchildren) will be able to use.
So asking this question generally raises a lot of scowls from all sides. Even the corporatists have become utterly dependent on it for the information and communication systems of their dysfunctional and plundering empires. A world without the Internet is simply…unthinkable.
Until you think about it. Consider that:
- The Internet is a huge user of electricity and related electrical and telecommunication infrastructure. That infrastructure, as invisible as it is, requires massive amounts of continuous maintenance.
- During the Great Depression of the 1930s, one of the first things to go was reliable phone and electrical service. The utilities went bankrupt like everyone else, because their customers couldn’t afford to pay the bills, so the utilities as a result couldn’t afford to pay repair, maintenance and service people to keep these services operating. (When farmers abandoned their unsustainable, monoculture farms, they left notes on their doors inviting other migrants to stay and take care of their homes to ward off poachers, and left the doors unlocked. No power, no phones.)
- The Internet requires, for most of its value, a huge number of ‘volunteers’ working mostly at the ‘edges’ providing millions of hours of free labour to write the software to keep it running and to keep its content current. Most of these volunteers are people who have a source of income (other than the Internet) that allows them to volunteer this effort in their ‘spare’ time. No full-time jobs, no time for volunteer work.
- The hardware that allows us to use the Internet is utterly dependent on large-scale, inexpensive global trade in metals, minerals and materials, some of them rare and scarce. You can’t build computers, servers and telecom lines from materials you can find locally. When global trade grinds to a halt, made worse by the end of cheap, affordable oil, where are we going to get these things? And what happens when supply of these materials simply runs out and there’s no money to research and develop alternatives?
Just as in the last Great Depression, the collapse of essential information and communication infrastructure won’t happen all it once. It will be a gradual decline. The first signs, I think, will be the loss of the generosity economy features that have made the Internet so ubiquitous — the free software and free services that advertisers and ‘free-mium’ service buyers and enthused volunteer labour funded. There are already some disturbing signs of this happening: Gaia.com, a large blog platform, has folded; Friendfeed has been bought out by Facebook (which, despite its immense popularity and reach, has surprisingly small revenues and must be operating on razor-thin margins); Yahoo has been closing many of its services and is rumoured to be in difficulty. And all the wonderful stuff we have from Google comes thanks to advertising revenues, even though there is almost no evidence that such advertising is effective.
So what you’ll see, I think, is a lot of consolidation, disappearance of free services (Ning recently announced it is abandoning all its ‘free’ services, and their customers) and an annoying increase in fees (the giant global right-wing news empire News Corp is again planning to start charging for its content). “The end of free” will drive millions of Internet readers (and writers) away. Advertisers will then flee. What will be left will be tons of people using ‘free’ bandwidth to try to download huge amounts of ‘free’ music and video, and ISPs will then find relatively little resistance to them bringing in huge increases in bandwidth fees (and the end of fixed rates). If you’ve ever dealt with the outrage of ‘roaming’ charges for data, imagine such charges for all use.
The next wave of the Internet’s decline will be when the next long Depression begins, probably in a decade or two. When communication and electrical service becomes intermittent as utilities cut back, Internet service, having been marginalized by the events described above, will be considered a non-essential service, and regularly shut down in favour of more critical uses of these services. And then, as PCs become less ubiquitous and people get used to finding alternative ways to get their information and entertainment, and as the availability of components and materials falls and their cost increases, computers will start to become community resources rather than personal ones, and you’ll have to go to the library or the neighbourhood school to find one in working order. And eventually even these will break down, and people will, as they always do, find workarounds.
I’m sure most readers of this article are shaking their heads, saying this will never happen. And I’m sure that most readers who are also students of history are probably nodding their heads, saying they can imagine this, and perhaps it wouldn’t be so terrible. True innovation blossoms when there is a real human need that is not being met, and the need for information and communication and entertainment is eternal. How to evolve and adapt to the end of the Internet? Maybe like this:
- Instead of downloading music and film, create your own music and theatre, in live performance
- Instead of taking photos, draw, paint, sculpt
- Instead of blogging, write a journal, and meet in your community and share stories and ideas, cook together, rant, organize, build something together
- Instead of playing online games, organize a real-space scavenger hunt, eco-walk, or bicycle rallye
- Instead of taking online courses, unschool yourself in your own community, and learn about your place… or show/teach others what you know (including, most importantly, teaching children how to think and learn for themselves)
- Instead of organizing online petitions and complaining online about the state of the world, go visit your local politician, get involved in community activities that make a difference (disrupt, show your outrage, satirize, or create something better)
- Instead of looking for health information online, set up a local self-help health co-op, offering preventive care, self-diagnostic and holistic self-treatment information
- Instead of porn… well, use your imagination
How well will you be prepared to adapt to the end of the Internet? Are you dependent on it, now, for critical information you need, for connection with those you love and those you seek to love, to work with, to partner with, and for what brings you joy or blessed escape? The biggest uses of the Internet today are music, porn, health information, games, and amateur photo/video sharing. To the extent you use the Internet for any of these things, do you have a way of doing them, with no or low technology, when the Internet’s gone?
And in the meantime, don’t take the Internet and all its ‘free’ offerings for granted. It’s a rare window of incredible opportunity, and it won’t last forever. Like everything else in our overwrought civilization, it’s unsustainable.
So blog like hell while you can.