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.
Amazing post, excellent critical examination of this topic. Thank you for coming forth to say what few others would dare suggest. Of course, the irony of actually reading this on Internet makes me wonder how else we might come across these ideas. All of this technology, and your wonderful blog, are things that only come about once per kalpa.
Those of us who were using computers back in the 1980s remember the onset of e-mail, Internet, archaic programming languages, etc. as a passing fad that could very likely be potentially harmful to society along the way. Yet it is still here, and in much more advanced forms, a quarter-century later — and we have to examine the extents to which this technology has genuinely improved our lives versus how much it has negatively affected the world and all those who inhabit it.
Regarding your first set of bulleted points, I wonder about the possibility of a post-decline/collapse infrastructure of well-used computers and related equipment wired together, maybe somewhat similar to how the rogue network is suggested the first Matrix film (minus the alternate realities, gunfights, cool shades, etc., of course) (?) More like people using the plethora of what already exists to hook up and try to make these things work together in some fashion, a primitive form of a network, perhaps.
Just a couple of thoughts for you this early morning. In any case, I want to say thank you for taking the time to write and maintain “How to Save the World”. I’ve only started reading your work recently, and this is the first I’ve written to you. It is truly extraordinary. Please keep it up!
I *love* this post, especially the “alternative” (a.k.a. being in the real world) activities. Gotta repost this…
“Of course, the irony of actually reading this on Internet makes me wonder how else we might come across these ideas.”
We already *have* come across these ideas, if you mean the ideas in this post: we’ve just read them! :P
I would suggest that without these virtually infinite sets of data sitting in data centres around the world, we’ll end up spending a lot less time trawling around for ideas that we never quite get around to actioning or teaching – what in WhereAreYourKeys terms might be the called “trophy-hunting” of ideas. Going and getting started on any of Dave’s bullet point ideas, having conversations, sleeping on them, playing…plenty of ideas will arise.
Dave, great post, thank you for articulating this. @johnniemoore pointed some time ago to a poll indicating that a majority of people in several countries saw access to the internet as a fundamental right – because it gave them FREEDOM. As someone who’s been through a Marxist phase , I straight away smelled IDEOLOGY! These people have given up on freedom in the real world, I thought.
Since then I’ve come to appreciate that the internet has given great opportunities to practice and build shared vocabulary around some great values – ‘Web 2.0’ values, open-source, gift economy, invitation, individuals as creators rather than mere consumers of ‘content’, developing individual voice… those values urgently now need to become embodied and spread in the offline world. I’ve been aware this for some time now and have been looking for a vehicle.
What’s after the internet? Perhaps it’s the web of the ‘fluency revolution’:
“Fluency, in the “Learning How to Learn” paradigm, means you don’t learn, you teach; either you teach yourself, or you teach others. In doing so, you achieve a major animist milestone: all your skills and knowledge “come alive”, because they can readily jump from you into others. As living skills, they can spread throughout the people in your extended Family and Village. And your fluency in one skill signifies a fluency in self-teaching. With any new skill, you know just where to start, and where to go after that.
As fluent self-teacher mixes in a growing culture of other fluent self-teachers, the exponential increase of the relationship network (two people have one relationship between them; five people have far more than just five relationships, because they each relate to each other, you’ve increased to ten individual relationships, and so on) accelerates the learning of the group to presently unimaginable levels. Each fluent teacher teaching everyone else, and receiving teaching from everyone else.”
Oh, and Tom, if you’re still reading, hi! Sorry to have pulled one sentence out of your first comment to hit on for the sake of making a point, I hope you heard the tongue in cheek.
Yeah, Dave’s blog is a great find, it was my one sane place on the internet for many years…and it’s getting better and better recently.
Thank you Dave!
Just thing of all the electronic music that will not be made as all the DJ’s who can’t play an instrument stop making music. Could be a good or bad thing – I’m glad I have my acoustic guitars – now all I need is to stock up on strings ….
Just as a note, I know a few guys (in electronics) who are working around this with solar cells (& other generating equipment), battery systems, Ham Radio equipment & computers that can transmit video, text as well as audio over the Radio carrier. All to hi-tech for me but very interesting stuff. With or without the net & other systems – the Geeks are still out there. Some of then can play guitar & cook to ….
Great article – looking forward to more – free of course …
I don’t agree that it would go away. I challenge you to consider what you would give up before you gave up what you spend on internet connections and equipment. I would give up any money I spend on newspapers, magazines, books, cars, eating at restaurants, etc before I would sacrifice the spending on the internet.
very much enjoyed your post. Although I am dependent on internet (IT person). When the internet is there, In don’t wanna miss it. If it is one, i would not miss it.
These people in the sixties were very happy too (that’s what they keep telling me).
Peace & Love.
I don’t think it will disappear as definitively as all that. If nothing else, there will be local meshworks based on last-mile networks, and the possibility of using local fiber optic infrastructure to link computers into small modem-to-modem networks. Long-distance linkages and server networks may become more sporadic and ad hoc, but I doubt they’ll actually disappear.
The need for this sort of thing will be reinforced by the fact that our post-mass production industrial economies will be based on local garage microfactories linked together in peer networks sharing CAD files.
Part of the problem, I think, is that saying this “civilization” will end is so ambiguous. I don’t doubt that the present globalized economy and the present model of corporate capitalism will disappear, or that most states will become hollowed out and devolve their functions (sometimes messily) to localities.
That may qualify as a civilization ending, but it doesn’t necessarily imply a total collapse of all infrastructures.
Dave, and what will we do when the climate goes wild and seasons exist no more and the environments required for plants to grow and seed for reproduction… are hard to find….I fear this more than loosing the internet…. shall we all built our own greenhouses…?
Kevin has already said what I might have said – although I would agree the current infrastructure is unsustainable, it is quite possible to cobble together more localised networks with any spare network gear that people can find. It might be low bandwidth but still able to communicate useful information. Even text-based bulletin boards have some use.
That said, I don’t really know whether you are being over-pessimistic or not. Like Kevin I don’t really hold to one particular definition of “civilisation” – one form can die so another can take its place. I don’t think anyone really knows what it’s going to look like, we can only make reasonably educated guesses.
I think you find the return to face to face, local communities attractive, but I can still see plenty of space for the remains of the internet to keep going in some fashion, just not in the flashy, high-bandwith video streaming entity we expect at the moment.
I had to laugh at “Instead of downloading music and film, create your own music and theatre” as, just yesterday, I picked up my old classical guitar for the first time in a decade and a half to relearn… :-D
I think that the vast positive potential of / for the Internet has already been lost, mainly to commercial ‘pollution’, and I think most aspects of its slide into mundanity have analogues in most other areas of human activity where great promise has been dulled and then beaten into shape by the prevailing mental models and societal-control mechanisms.
I think there will still be astounding uses we can and will discover, but few if any will ever scale or remain unimpeded to the point where that can / do create real and sustainable positive change for large numbers of people.
When I can no longer have a job (Internet based), nor spend time online discovering amazing stuff…
I will move away somewhere I can have a small house and big garden, then I’ll stay home pregnant, breasfeeding, washing cloth diappers, growing fruit/veggies, raising poultry, etc…
No more time for philosophy, sociology, biology, and ‘what-not-logy’, merely DOING.
I have always assumed that this was too good to last, and have been blogging accordingly as if my life depended on it. My post-internet plan is to build an anagama, find a good local source of clay, and switch to publishing poems on pottery tablets like the Sumerians.
With the collapse of big there’s going to be a lot of small.
My internet in the world of small is self-powered, uses recycled parts, and connects peer-to-peer as part of a mesh.
“Instead of playing online games, organize a real-space scavenger hunt, eco-walk, or bicycle rallye.”
Or play board games, of course:
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See Cory Doctorow’s “When sysadmins ruled the earth”
What am I going to do when the Internet is gone?
Even though I consider myself as a regular, and thankful, bright green Internet user…. my first reaction to this excellent question was:
(aufatmen) … in the sense of get some oxygen in the real world out there and slow-down.
Being a mother of 2 young kids and one in the making, one does have the advantage of still being attached to the real world. But even I get drawn to and drowned by the sheer superfluency and attraction of this information medium. For my studies, it is (most of the time) an opportunity of having access to a global library (where even then, loads of information stay hidden). But is does complicate and slow up the research, in fact.
So yeah, on one side, I would be happy to see Internet disappear …. on the other hand, I wouldn’t have had this reflection triggered by somebody out there in the virtual who posted “a” question, which was quoted by a newsletter brought to me by…. use your imagination ;-)
It’s worth noting that the Internet can easily *downgrade* to a much smaller resource base. Text is much cheaper than images, which in turn are much cheaper than audio and video. E-mail and USENET (yes, it’s still around) are still primarily text-based, and they don’t depend on continuous connections. Even the Web can be browsed in text-only mode. Also, you speak of “when our civilization collapses” — but it’s *America’s* civilization that’s most precarious and least sustainable! I think Europe will be a lot more resilient, while parts of Asia are likely to have their own advantages. (Africa may lose the yoke of the West, but I’m afraid global warming is likely to hurt them worst of all.)
Interesting post. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts.
Here’s my POV. Over a period of time computing have become more of a utility and so has internet. As with any other utility, the cost of this service have come down. The internet as a service is dependent on many other industries like energy, telecom etc. So more than the death of the internet, we are probably talking about the ability of mankind to produce energy resources or transmit communications effectively and cheaply. So, for eg: if there is no reliable and affordable source of energy available then most of the world will anyway come to a standstill. Then we might not be worrying about internet.
Coming back to the internet, what we will see is the decline is free resources as you mentioned. As we have seen with cable, news is becoming less and opinions are more seen and heard. So also with internet most of the ‘free to browse’ things will be opinions, while the news outlets will put a fence around what they spend money to produce. That will be a big loss, indeed.