Spare a moment to ponder life without the Web

opinion February 11, 2017 01:00

The experts say we could lose the Internet sometime, and the social impact will be immense

A recent study confirms that people now take the Internet for granted, like air and water. No matter how perturbing you might find that conclusion, it underlines the growing importance of our virtual parallel world. Students wouldn’t be able to finish their homework if they couldn’t go online. Your friends and relatives might be worried sick if they couldn’t contact you via the social media for a day or two. Financial communities would be in turmoil if the digital data flow were disrupted. A lot of professionals would be unable to do their jobs.

A recent BBC Online article suggested that, if the Internet were inaccessible for just one day, ordinary folks would be more affected than businesspeople. It said about 3.5 billion people – nearly half of the world’s population – now have online access, and 10 more people are joining their numbers every second. Consider that, in 1995, less than 1 per cent of humanity was online.

Is the Internet growing too fast, considering how many people, communities and national economies have come to depend on it? It’s an intriguing question. Most people take water and air for granted, yes, but then it’s unlikely they’ll ever face any severe shortages of those either. The same can’t be said about the Internet, even if we’re approaching total dependence, the BBC’s sources said.

It’s common knowledge that the Internet is not as secure as it needs to be. Hackers, terrorists, governments compelled by paranoia or threats to national defence, and accidents occurring naturally could bring online activity to a standstill. In fact a specific natural calamity poses the biggest threat of all, the BBC said – solar flares emanating from a severe storm on the Sun could take out satellites, power grids and computer networks. The Internet could be out of commission for a long time as a result, and what would life be like then? 

No, the world wouldn’t come to an end. In fact, it’s speculated, damage to the global economy might be little worse than the effect of everyone taking an extended holiday from work. Perhaps some people might even become more productive, turning to tasks they’ve put on hold due to online distractions. 

Socially, though, billions of people would likely share a sense of stressful isolation. Forced to return to the means by which humans stayed connected 20 years ago, a lot of otherwise stable folks might get a little crazy, particularly the younger generations who have no prior experience with this.

While big business takes an enforced pause, people who rely on the Net for their earnings would be without the means to access and share their work. The social impact would be much greater, though, certainly in a psychological context, as the unplugged masses share an unprecedented experience without the means to share their feelings about it. 

The global “social depression” would be every bit as devastating as a financial one, the experts warn – and they do expect it to happen.

No one is bracing for a sudden scarcity of air or water, and so it is with the possibility of an Internet blackout, which remains the stuff of science fiction. Unfortunately it is more than a possibility, even if the experts agree that it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. Also unfortunately, there is no way to prepare for that eventuality – we’ll just have to cope when it happens. 

If our forebears could manage without telephones, television and that handy little mouse, we can too. We’ll gradually get over the frustrations and anxieties. It will just be a longer wait for the mail to arrive.