If you’re reading this, you have access to the Internet. But what would happen if the Internet suddenly went away? And what would it take to make that happen? This week’s episode peers into the dark fantasy of many of us who work for the Internet: a world without it.
This week’s episode is a little bit unusual. Normally, after our little trip to the future to setup our scenario, I talk to some experts and we work through what would happen next. What would the world look like without internet transfer protocol. How would our financial systems fare? Or our emergency management efforts or our international shipping industries?
This week, we did things a little bit differently. To figure out what would happen if the internet went down, I talked to two historians of digital culture at NYU. Laine Nooney studies the history of computers and video games. Finn Brunton studies how and why different technologies get adopted (or don’t). But in talking to them, it became clear that what’s most interesting about a future without the internet isn’t what happens next, but how it happens in the first place.
The internet is, by definition, really hard to “take down.” Yes, dictators and governments can regulate and black out regions, but to actually totally destroy the Internet (the set of machines communicating with one another using a specific set of protocols) would be extremely difficult.
So as you’ll hear in the episode, Brunton and Nooney came up with five different ways that the internet could go out—everything from a total apocalypse, to scenarios where society decides to give up on the Internet voluntarily. I won’t spoil the fun, you should listen to get the five different ways we lose the internet. This is a podcast, after all.
Since I skipped over the whole “what happens next” bit in this episode, here are some thoughts: Right now, losing the internet wouldn’t actually be all that catastrophic. We still have a lot of the technologies we would need to rely on for mass communication—radios, television systems, printing presses. And a lot of the people who know how to operate those technologies are still alive and here to help us. Plus, two-thirds of the world lives without the internet today. So it’s not really all that hard to imagine what the world would look like without the internet, because most parts of the world are actually in that situation.
And, in the grand scheme of things, should we lose the Internet, the things you most likely think of as being the Internet would be the bottom of the priority list. Losing Twitter, Facebook, and yes, even Gizmodo, would be of little concern, considering the impact it might have on things like our entire economy.
One of the biggest issues, should we lose the internet (assuming we’re not also in the midst of an apocalypse or nuclear war) would be our financial systems. More than most industries, financial transactions in many places are heavily reliant on Internet connections. And, more broadly, businesses that are some of the most powerful in the world, would be useless: Google and Amazon, for example, would find themselves nearly obsolete. In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that over half of all shipments from manufacturers were e-commerce shipments, totalling $3.0 trillion.
So life without the Internet is both hard to imagine, from a practical standpoint, and easy to imagine, since we have examples all around us. The chances that we lose the web are slim, too, but hey, futures with slim chances is kind of our thing.
This week’s scenario was suggested by Helen Rosner. If you have thoughts about futures we should explore on the podcast, leave us a note in the comments, on Twitter, or email us at email@example.com. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Soundcloud or via whatever RSS reading app you chose.
Illustration by Jim Cooke