Cartoon by Jack Ziegler in the New Yorker. You can buy his stuff here.
Last year, my article What Are You Going to Do When the Internet’s Gone stirred up lots of discussion and surprisingly little pushback from the technophiles (perhaps because they’ve stopped reading this blog). I thought it might be worthwhile thinking a bit about what life will be like as a combination of economic and energy crises slowly transform the Internet from a ubiquitous tool (at least in affluent nations) to a hobbyist toy for die-hard techies and uber-geeks (kinda like amateur/ham radios were a half-century ago).
The reasons I cited last year for believing the Internet is going to be impossible to maintain as we face the end of cheap energy, the end of stable climate and the end of the industrial “growth” economy) are as follows:
- 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.)
- Much of the infrastructure underpinning the Internet is owned and managed by heavy-spending good-times mega-corporations, which are not long for this world, and this infrastructure is mostly subsidized by advertising revenue which is going to shrink dramatically.
- 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?
In the same article I described what I think we will do with our time instead:
- Instead of downloading music and film, create our own music and theatre, in live performance
- Instead of taking photos, draw, paint, sculpt
- Instead of blogging, write a journal, and meet in our 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, or play board games
- Instead of taking online courses, unschool ourselves in our own communities, and learn about our place… or show/teach others what we 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 our local politicians, get involved in community activities that make a difference (disrupt, show our 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
For the last month or so I’ve been drawn into a couple of online forums that include some amazing minds — people who are aware of what’s going on in the world and want to work with others to make it better. But the vast majority are either technology salvationists (who believe that innovation and technology will come through and prevent collapse of our civilization indefinitely) or social salvationists (who believe that there is some kind of accelerating global social transformation of consciousness in progress, enabled by the Internet).
Both groups seem to think a future without the Internet is inconceivable, impossible. It’s a utility now, with everyone dependent on it, they argue (notwithstanding that in three fourths of the world the Internet is a luxury for a tiny rich elite, and that more people live in urban slums off the grid in our world than live in the wired or wireless powered one). I can only attribute their myopia and denial of reality to spending too much time in online and media-managed echo chambers, engaged in wishful, “magical” thinking. Tea Partiers, techno-geeks, neo-survivalists, or new age communitarians, we all want to believe that what we want and love will be here forever.
I thought it might be useful to try to describe how the Internet might stumble, try to adapt, and finally fall under a collapse scenario, and what that would mean for us as we make our way through the energy, ecological and economic crises ahead.
Big corporations were late to adopt the Internet as a modus operandi, because they were suspicious of its vulnerability and lack of centralized control. I can recall being in meetings in the 1980s where some of today’s leading business gurus spoke to that era’s industry titans about the need to create a parallel “Internet 2” that would be corporate-controlled and professionally managed. Because there was not and never could be sufficient concentration of power, wealth and control to bring this about, they finally, reluctantly embraced the existing, flourishing Internet, and most business executives I know are as oblivious to the fragility of the Internet as they (and the rest of us) are to the fragility of all industrial-economy infrastructure. Indeed, they have come to accept the now-popular thinking that because the Internet is “networked” and not “hierarchical” it is all but invulnerable to collapse of our society’s other systems — political, social, economic, educational, and technological.
The first challenge the Internet is going to face is the ghastly debt crisis which is now hitting full stride. As long as people are able to borrow more money, and are willing to spend it on things they think they can afford, we can continue to get deeper and deeper into debt, and the value of the investments on which loans depend (for collateral) and on which our pensions and currencies depend, will continue to rise (as they must, since their value depends on long-term future double-digit profit growth).
But like every Ponzi scheme, it must eventually collapse, as people realize that only a fool would value anything (a stock, a currency, a commodity, or a precious metal) higher than what it is worth in day-to-day use. Once these values start to contract (as their owners try to bail out before prices plummet to what the next guy to buy them is willing and able to pay) it becomes a race to the bottom, as the debts on which these assets are secured are called in (and, when found uncollectible, written off). Spending stops (the US Tea Party seems determined to accelerate this slide); businesses facing a collapse in demand stop producing, lay off their people, and finally close. Governments, facing a precipitous drop in tax revenues, desperately print more money until they lose credibility and their currency gets devalued, slash programs (laying off even more people and creating a crushing burden on the poor and the sick, which has monstrous costs too many to mention), and finally go bankrupt. Then, like the Soviet Union, they will just hand over the keys of government to their constituent states (many of which will, domino style, also go bankrupt and devolve power further to communities, or warlords, or tribal gangs, or whoever moves in to fill the power void).
This will not happen suddenly. The EU may give up the ghost sooner rather than later, and the world may well be plunged into the next Great Depression (read Pierre Berton’s book if you want to know what this will be like — economists and politicians promised “it could never happen again”, but the warning signs seen in 1929 are all around us).
So the first thing that will happen is we’ll downsize — smaller homes (and multiple families in existing homes), smaller cars and scooters, and smaller computers that leave everything in the cloud. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the advent, as chronic deflation and depression endures for a decade or more, of mini-houses and recycled cars that cost less than $1,000, and “free” stripped-down cellphone-computers (what you’ll pay is a monthly contract fee). That’s what deflation does to your economy. It is chilling to think what that will mean for our house, stock and bond investments, our pensions, wages, social security, medical and education budgets. They will all plunge.
While this is happening, we’ll start to get used to power blackouts (some related to energy rationing, others due to power utilities slashing staff to stave off bankruptcy), which will be intermittent at first and then chronic and longer. Likewise communication (voice and data) network downtime. At first we’ll respond with backup generators and older technology backups, but these will not be satisfactory experiences. Businesses and others will simply not be able to rely on electronic systems working, so they will develop manual systems, slash service accordingly, and eventually abandon the electronic systems entirely. At the same time we’ll all be forced to face our Internet (and/or TV) addiction, and wean ourselves off a steady diet of these. They will become luxury entertainments for special occasions, like going to the theatre or cinema used to be.
If you live in a remote area, you probably know what it’s like when the power goes off, and with it essential heating, refrigeration, air conditioning and even water. It’s scary, and the backup processes are challenging, high-maintenance and far from fail-safe. And that’s not considering the impact of skyrocketing food prices, water scarcity, pandemic diseases, global political instability, and an immigration/refugee crisis the likes of which the world has never seen, all of which we can expect to see as the end of cheap energy, and the effects of extreme climate change, hit us. The last thing we’ll be worried about is not being able to get online.
This will happen in bumps, not suddenly all at once, and we’ll get restoration of service and promises of better fixes at first. We’ll deregulate energy and spend money we cannot afford desperately trying to bring cheap energy online to keep our industrial economy fueled. The market will (as usual) fail miserably to cope with the combination of soaring Asian demand for and plummeting world supply of affordable raw material and energy. With wages tumbling, governments will have no choice but to intervene and ration energy supplies, temporarily at first and then, later, on a permanent and increasingly stringent basis.
So if you were able to get your computer or car before rationing made imports and transportation of these items unaffordable or simply unavailable, you won’t be able to get enough energy and connectivity to use them regularly or reliably anyway. Just as happened in Cuba when the Soviet Union collapsed (Cuba’s energy came principally from the Soviets and was heavily subsidized), we will, in the end, just walk away from technologies. That will include most green technologies (no parts and rare minerals for solar panels and wind turbines). There will be no money for financing for nukes. Airlines will fold, as will express trucking and delivery service. We will just use dirty energy while we can, and then, as it runs out too, we will finally learn to do without.
In a word, we are going to find ourselves, intermittently at first, and then more or less permanently, disconnected. At least in the way we have come to think of connection.
For many of us, the Internet and the mass media, funded by cheap energy and consumer-fueled advertising, are now our primary connection to the world beyond our homes, schools and workplaces. They are how we find and connect with people we care about, how we inform ourselves about what is going on in the world (some of us quite well, others, uh, not so well), and how we entertain ourselves. Our electronic connections occupy more than half of our non-working waking hours. What will it mean when they’re gone, and we need to find some other way to (a) inform ourselves, (b) entertain ourselves, (c) do many routine personal tasks (shopping, paying bills, personal finance, planning, organizing and scheduling, sending letters, sharing photos), and (d) find and connect with people we need, want and love in our lives?
I think we will re-learn to do those things manually (and, since it will be less efficient, it will take considerably longer), and locally. Our ‘circles’ of people will become much closer and smaller as the world gets very much larger and more remote. And in the process of reconnecting with people and places locally (locally as in walking and biking distance, since commuting to work and going to mega-malls will no longer be viable) these circles will become more accidental and less intentional, and include more people we wouldn’t ideally want to deal with (because the ideal will be too far away and moving away from people we don’t like will no longer be a tenable option).
So we’ll learn to get along, and learn how to achieve consensus and resolve conflicts equitably. We’ll learn to take our time and be patient. We’ll learn to pay attention to what’s here, now. We’ll learn how to take care of ourselves and each other, how to inform ourselves about local matters at a scale where we can really make a difference, and how to entertain ourselves and each other. We’ll learn not to worry or stress about things far away that we have no control over anyway. We’ll learn how to converse, face to face, about things that matter — to connect with each other as mature, reasonable, caring adults.
I’m concerned that most of us won’t be ready for that. Our civilization culture has infantilized us, made and kept us dependent and hence prevented us from becoming emotionally mature, self-managing adults. Most people I know have struggled with and suffered from social interactions as children and teenagers in desensitizing educational institutions, and then again in brutal, hierarchical, competitive workplaces, and in often-troubled relationships with their own spouses and children. A lot of us are still healing from the emotional and sometimes physical traumas that these ‘civilized’ social interactions caused us. Perhaps that’s why online relationships — more remote, antiseptic, filtered and seemingly-safe — have so much appeal to us, and why the prospect of their loss troubles us so much.
The real disconnection in our lives is not from online to offline, but the disconnection from our true selves and from each other that industrial civilization has systematically subjected us to, to keep us in line and obedient so that this terrible, dehumanizing culture can perpetuate itself with seven billion people for a few more ghastly years. And worst of all, we are ourselves both the victims and the perpetrators of this disconnection — we have forgotten that there is any other way to live, and now cling to this culture, and are complicit in making our children victims and perpetrators in turn, out of well-indoctrinated fear that the only alternative is anarchy, terror and death.
As our civilization continues to fall apart, we will be living a way of life that may seem harder and more stressful than the way we live today, but it probably won’t be, because the expectations we have of ourselves and of each other will fall as the technology that has enabled us to do more and more with less human effort will slowly fall into disuse. Today, we can afford to be indifferent or unpleasant or even unfair to people who are on the other end of a call centre phone line, or in a store or government office we will never visit again, or who are asking for a handout on the street, or who work for us in a huge anonymous organization. In the future re-localized world we will have to get along with everyone, because there will be nowhere to hide. That’s going to be hard because we’ve never had to do that, or learned how to do that. We are going to re-enter a world without anonymity or much privacy, where every social interaction has enduring consequences, where we can’t ignore anyone or anything happening in the place, the community to which we belong. A world without judgement or expectation; a world of acceptance and accommodation.
That’s hardly disconnected. On the contrary, it’s an intimacy of connection that many will find very discomfiting. But that’s the kind of connection that we’ve evolved for a million years to excel at. It’s the way we’re meant, at least for the current hundred millennia or so, to live, and love, and be.
If we want to imagine what it will be like in this re-localized re-connected future, we should not think of the people and struggles of the Great Depression or the Industrial Revolution or the Roman Empire or the Dark Ages, since these were all times plagued with the terrible disease of industrial civilization — violent, competitive, hierarchical, imbued with scarcity and suffering.
Instead, we should think of prehistoric humans, or of our intimate wild cousins the bonobos, and the way in which, according to the new understanding of anthropologists freed from the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” Hobbesian propagandists, they lived and live: responsibly, sustainably, joyfully, collaboratively, cooperatively, lovingly, and easily. That’s the kind of re-connection we should look forward to discovering and learning. That’s how we’re meant to be. And how, despite the terrible crises our civilization faces in its final decades, we will be again.