What if the Internet went down...and didn't come back up?

Imagine, if you will, a world with no Internet. No e-mail. No e-commerce. And no BlackBerrys. E-mail would be supplanted by snail mail; cell phones by land lines. Now imagine what the future would look like. Futurists say virtual business services of all sorts, accounting, payroll and even sales would come to a halt, as would many companies.

This immediately made me think of E.M. Forster's disturbing tale " The Machine Stops". Written in 1909, it describes the downfall of a civilization that had wrapped itself in the cocoon of an automated life-support system. But people began to think of the Machine as an infallible deity, and lived in their individual mechanical wombs, communicating and doing business only through the Machine. They worshipped it in their fashion until, in the words of the author:

There came a day when, without the slightest warning, without any previous hint of feebleness, the entire communication system broke down, all over the world, and the world, as they understood it, ended.

If the Internet were to cease functioning today, the effect would be similar for many people. They grew up with ubiquitous communication, information at their fingertips and shopping at the click of a mouse. They'd be lost without e-mail and social networking sites (though I'm told instant messaging is so last week). And many of their businesses, online like their lives, would also come to a crashing halt. Customer lists consisting solely of e-mail addresses are singularly useless without e-mail, and online brochures and catalogs are simply computer wallpaper without the wherewithal to allow potential customers to browse them. And for software developers and others who rely on customer downloads and online credit card payments, the business world would come to an end until they completely rebuilt their business model.

For the non-Web-centric business, the loss of the Internet likely would likely be, at the very least, a major inconvenience as well. Corporate LANs might still function (we're not decreeing the end of TCP/IP, after all), but many wide area networks, now run through secure tunnels over the Internet, would cease to function. It would cost a bundle to rebuild them over proprietary data networks-if said networks still existed and had the capacity to accommodate the demand (doubtful-those still in business have scaled back over the years as much of their market fled to the Net). Without electronic mail, we'd have to rely on postal services that have also revamped in response to decreasing letter volume. "Snail mail" would probably buckle under the load, decreasing speed to that of glaciation. Phone companies would experience a similar pain in the infrastructure, as their voice over IP services suddenly stopped working and the POTS (plain old telephone service) network had to take up the slack. Cell phones would probably still function as voice devices, but their data capabilities would be inhibited or killed. And weep for your beloved CrackBerrys.

Yes, the corporate landscape would certainly have a very different look, and a lot of businesses would definitely not be able to adjust. Amazon.com? Forget it. E-Bay-gone. E-Trade-bye-bye. In fact, any online shopping would be toast, unless it was conducted through a proprietary service using its dedicated lines (at considerably higher cost). So would payment systems that depend on Internet connections, payroll services, online banking, and Web-based backup services and customer support. And a lot of media outlets that have moved most of their operations online (such as the publishers of this site) would scramble madly to resurrect hard copy and its associated advertising revenues.

And don't even think about the blind panic of last-minute Christmas shopping without all those e-tailers promising next-day delivery!

On the plus side, we'd be forever rid of those infernal "male member enhancement" e-mail messages and the kind offers of millions of dollars from strangers on foreign shores that clutter up our inboxes.

Of course, almost since the first webpage was posted, pundits have gleefully predicted doom and gloom for the Internet (but then, doom and gloom seems to make them happy). A search for "end of the Internet" brought up hundreds of hits (including a gag page claiming to be the very last page on the World Wide Web and telling visitors to get a life), giving all sorts of excellent reasons why the Internet would collapse.

Five Things We Wouldn't Miss if the Internet Died

For example, in a 2000 article on the BBC, censorship was the issue. In 2004, it was that the Web was such a cesspool that private networks would have to replace it to restore decency and security. And a few weeks ago, the problem was the need for billions of dollars of investment to grow the infrastructure to keep up with bandwidth requirements.

Trembling at these dire predictions, we consulted several futurists, who are usually delighted to look on the darker side (it sells books-our society's fascination with catastrophe is downright unhealthy sometimes), and they shared their thoughts on the subject.

Tim Mack is president of the World Future Society, and editor of Futures Research Quarterly. He has spent his working life analyzing trends, and is currently writing a book on the social and economic impacts of the Internet on modern society and the global economy.

Six Things We Would Miss if the Internet Died

His take on the possibility of permanent Internet shutdown is straightforward: It ain't gonna happen. He explains, "The loss of the Internet for days, weeks or permanently would mean more than just an end to annoying spam and being cut off from the ideal way to settle bar arguments. The ongoing explosion of virtual business services of all sorts, accounting, payroll and even sales would come to a halt, and so would many companies. Customer service could still be handled by phone, except where the phone system was Internet-based. Much more severely affected would be complex project management between companies, especially those projects based on shared CAD (computer-assisted design) files or even shared PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) files. On the other side of the discussion, however, only about 20 percent of respondents to an Internet poll on potential failures thought that loss of Internet corporate communications and collaboration would be catastrophic and 10 percent thought it would have no effect at all."

However, he noted, while the Internet has certainly influenced many of the changes in society, it's not the only driver.

"Of course, there are lots of jokes to be made about the loss of Internet, like "People would read books again...or talk to their family," says Mack. "But the changes we have seen in Western culture are the result of wide-ranging forces, and no single technology."

That said, he believes that the Internet has become so indispensable to business, government and individuals that its permanent loss is merely a fantasy, barring some other global catastrophe.

"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.

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This story, "What if the Internet went down...and didn't come back up?" was originally published by CIO .

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