The internet is so ubiquitous today, that we can’t imagine life without it. This is exactly what leads me to suspect, that we will have to go without it. If something is so self-evidently seen as the future, then there must be a twist. There are simple scenarios in which we lose access to the internet. The most brutal ones are the least interesting: We run out of fossil fuels, the electric grid goes down and the internet can no longer be sustained as a consequence.
This might happen, but what nobody ever seems to consider are scenarios where we become unable to utilize a modern technology while our overall society continues to function. As an example: Our civilization can perfectly continue to function, without ever again being able to travel to outer space, as a consequence of the Kessler syndrome, where space debris creates more space debris, in a positive feedback loop that leaves us stuck to the ground.
How could we lose the internet? There are a number of different problems we’re running into that we can consider.
- The internet wasn’t designed with cryptocurrency in mind. The invention of cryptocurrency, has led to all sorts of problems when it comes to using the internet. To start with, today 0.26% of electricity worldwide is used to mine Bitcoin, 0.08% to mine Ethereum. There is no measurable benefit to society, but this phenomenon comes into existence nonetheless. There are numerous other currencies out there that also exist solely on the internet and end up using vast amounts of electricity. Even scientists using supercomputers can’t be trusted not to use them to mine cryptocurrencies, how will you trust the average office dweeb not to waste his bosses electricity? The value of Bitcoin collapsed because of the 1MB block limit, which the protocol can function without. What would have happened if a Bitcoin ended up worth a million dollar?
- When cryptocurrency is invented, the internet is no longer the safe place it once was. When your data is leaked from some dating site like Ashley Madison, you start receiving physical letters in the mail, blackmailing you for bitcoin. When your government department or hospital doesn’t adequately protect its data, people send ransomware that forces them to pay in bitcoins or end up with their data destroyed. If your office doesn’t genuinely need access to the internet, eventually you will choose to set up computers that aren’t connected to the internet.
- The companies that run the internet are suffering a credibility crisis. Facebook was found selling data to a company that uses its users profiles to influence elections. The gay dating app Grindr goes a step further, sharing its users HIV status with other companies. For whatever reason, this doesn’t really enter the news. Smart people respond to this reality, by reducing their dependence on the Internet.
- Banking through the Internet, is not the terrific invention people imagined it to be. We now have people in call centers in India calling us on a daily basis, trying to get us to hand over access to our computers to let them steal our money. Many old people simply can’t be trusted with internet banking, as they will end up scammed in one form or another. To make matters worse, the rise of online gambling sites and cryptocurrency has made it difficult to reverse scams. You can often let a bank send money back to another account, but if the criminal has already spent the money on cryptocurrency or “lost” the money by playing poker with one of his buddies on a poker site, how will you get the money back?
- The internet causes mental health problems. Children who grow up from an early age, interacting with their friends through screens and playing games on screens, end up suffering social and cognitive deficits. The internet is designed to be addictive. Every button showing you that you got a message from someone, every stupid game that shows you a progress bar, every shitty broker that shows you price graphs for your gambling endeavors, isn’t just using your brain, it’s changing your brain in ways we don’t really study. These social problems are made worse by the fact that people no longer have a shared frame of reference. You no longer see the same movies, listen to the same music or read the same newspapers. How are you going to interact with your friends, colleagues or family?
- The internet is forever. Or at least, it’s designed to be forever. If you decide to lay on a nude beach somewhere, or someone decides to covertly film you in the sauna, the video will circulate online forever. It might be that people grow more comfortable with sex and nudity as the years go by. In some cultures, this seems unlikely to happen. Are Muslims and Christians comfortable with their son marrying a woman who can be seen on the internet, stripping for a former boyfriend? I’m afraid not. Are employers comfortable with your posts to a marijuana forum at age 15 that you lost the email and password to? I’m afraid not. The European Union made a smart decision, by implementing a right to be forgotten, but how effectively can it be enforced?
- We might learn to accept that our flaws and teenage embarrassments are immortalized on the internet, but people probably won’t grow more comfortable with pedophilia, torture, rape and mob lynchings. Those are immortalized on the internet too. By setting up the right kind of barriers, you’re able to create communities on the internet that operate far from our public consensus. There are communities on the internet, where you’re seen as a hero if you upload videos forcing children to lick a toilet brush if they don’t want their naked photos sent to their classmates. We have to accept the good with the bad, but how do you weigh the good against the bad? Certainly there are some cultures where people will form different opinions about this than in our culture. If those cultures end up better able to maintain the mental health of their children and to raise them to be stable happy adults, such cultures may replace ours.
- With the right kind of barriers, you can set up a community that operates far from our public consensus. But how does this impact our society? If 4chan glorifies pedophilia, does this leave us with more pedophiles? If people end up exposed only to news that fits their own opinions, news that might not even be correct, how are different groups going to arrive at an agreement? Every country today seems to struggle with parliaments filled with parties that are effectively isolated and unable to enter coalitions with other parties. Those parties are elected, because the electorate is completely fragmented. A politician who thinks global warming will cause billions of deaths before the end of this century can’t form a compromise with a politician who thinks global warming is a hoax invented to raise taxes specifically on angry middle-aged white males with boring office jobs.
- The internet causes health problems, even for people who don’t use it. Electromagnetic radiation is damaging to our health. “You’re confusing ionizing and non-ionizing radiation”. No, I’m not. “Non-ionizing radiation is harmless” is the 21st century’s equivalent of “heavier than air flying machines are impossible”. Non-ionizing radiation can still be damaging to our health, because the photons operate in the classical wave limit, not the single photon limit. And, as I’ve mentioned before, a review of 100 peer-reviewed studies on electromagnetic radiation, found that 93 of these studies discovered the radiation causes oxidative stress. Hint: If your theoretical models contradict our observations, your theoretical models might be flawed.The health problems of electromagnetic radiation are insufficiently appreciated. It’s perfectly possible to have an internet without significant microwave radiation exposure. We chose not to, because we want to be able to download movies on our cell phone while sitting in the train. As a consequence we’re now rolling out the 5G network, which will deliver us every urban hipster bugman’s grand hope for the future, the internet of things. Radiation exposure for everyone will increase dramatically once this is implemented. In exchange, your refrigerator will be able to send you a text message reminder while you’re in the supermarket that you ran out of eggs. For now, we might feel comfortable ignoring the fact that everyone is tired and depressed all the time while the trees in our cities suffer from mysterious damage, as all sorts of cancers are now dramatically more common with no clear explanation.
If the 5G network is rolled out, it might finally prove impossible to deny all of this radiation causes health problems. Once the consensus flips, it will flip hard and dramatic consequences may occur. Telecom companies may be sued into bankruptcy and children may be prohibited from using laptops and cell phones. Perhaps most importantly, we simply don’t know what all of this radiation does. If you have been exposed to it for twenty or thirty years, starting in the womb, do you get Alzheimer’s disease at age fifty, or do you enter menopause at age 35? We don’t know. What we do know is that hipster numales prefer to stick their heads in the sand.
The above are some of the problems the internet is running into. There are other, more obvious problems the internet is dealing with, but those tend to be problems that affect civilization as a whole, the above problems are unique to the internet. A solar flare would destroy the internet, an energy crisis would leave the internet in ruins. Keep in mind that the internet can’t deal very well with intermittency.
Here’s an example of what I mean: Imagine, you work for a tech company. You decide to work from home. You start up your laptop and use your own internet at home to connect to your office VPN, for added security. You now connect to owncloud, to retrieve your password file, with the passwords for your company’s main databases. You use those passwords to login to Facebook, where you talk to a customer who demands a refund of the product he purchased, which you proceed to make by logging into the company bank account and sending him the money.
Let’s count the number of points of failure you’re dealing with here:
-You might have no electricity at home due to a power shortage.
-You might have no internet at home due to a local issue with your local ISP (like a power shortage).
-Your office might have no internet and thus no VPN, due to a power shortage.
-Owncloud might be down, leaving you with no access to your passwords and thus unable to work.
-Facebook may be down, leaving you unable to communicate with the customer.
-The customer might have no electricity at home due to a power shortage.
-The customer might have no internet due to an issue with their local ISP.
-Your bank might have problems leaving you unable to log in and carry out the refund.
Those are eight points of failure, at minimum. I’m probably missing some points of failure. The problem to understand here is that the internet is a highly complex phenomenon. There are so many points of failure, that the system simply can’t function in a world with intermittent electricity. Our way of life requires everyone to have access to the internet, all the time, which requires everyone to have reliable access to electricity all the time. If you think about this carefully, you will also understand the stupidity of a system like the Lightning network in Bitcoin, which requires you to have an open and active connection to the network to receive a payment and requires you to actively watch the network to ensure you’re not getting scammed. What happens to the Lightning network when fifty million people in the United States go a week without electricity? The system falls apart.
The main problem with the internet in an era of resource shortages is that it increases interdependency. A system that works 99% of the time can be fine. A system that only works when eight subsystems work, each of which only works 99% of the time, is a system that is unreliable. In the years ahead, I expect we will begin to discover the Internet can not be relied upon forever.