The internet is the future we seldom imagined. It eluded generations of science fiction writers, only to suddenly appear, fully formed, some time in the mid-1990s, and from then on quickly become an essential part of how most people communicate, research, write and work. Our new present.
It is a common experience to ask oneself: how did I do this before? Except before is receding, a not-distant past pushed out of mind by a technological paradigm that is constantly changing the meaning of old, familiar words. Not just what it means to like something or to have friends, but the very act of being social; not just the word ‘memory’ – now reduced to what fits on a microchip, or on the glimmering surface of a hard drive, or in the cloud – but what it’s like to remember.
Within that difficulty to recall, or perhaps more accurately to imagine, what life was like before the internet lies the problem of how to conceive of a future without it. It may well be – to paraphrase Fredric Jameson – that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the internet. Conversely, what is routinely presented as ‘the end of the internet’ turns out to be anything but. Two years ago, the phrase was used to describe the effects of proposed copyright legislation. Nowadays, the spectre is raised about attempts to bring the internet outside of the exclusive control of the United States, the prospect that the principle of net neutrality might be abandoned, or even increased taxation of internet traffic. Anything that might alter the regulatory or technical landscape under which the internet as we know it operates is viewed as a catastrophe, the end.
In addition to this, knowing that the internet was originally conceived as a wartime communications network makes us liable to overstate its actual resilience. Neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of the book/app Why the Net Matters, has cited at least four ways the internet could go down. These included political interventions (some will recall Bashar al-Assad shutting down the network in Syria, but there have also been proposals to give American presidents authority over an ‘internet kill switch’); acts of cyber-warfare or sabotage; or the malicious or accidental cutting of deep-sea cables. The fourth reason – space weather – has recently come back into the news and is the most fascinating and chilling of all.
It seems that in 2012 we narrowly avoided being hit by a coronal mass ejection from our sun. As astronomer Phil Plait explained in a widely shared piece for Slate, a coronal mass ejection is the largest type of solar storm and causes the release of billions of tons of plasma into the solar system. When one of these storms hit the Earth in 1859, it wreaked havoc on the telegraph system – the effects on a more advanced society would (of course) be far greater. Plait predicted widespread, months-long blackouts if large transformers were hit, while Eagleman suggested that a major solar event ‘could theoretically melt down the whole internet’. University of Colorado astronomer Daniel Baker has put the chances of Earth being hit by an ejection of the same magnitude as the one that narrowly missed us in 2012 at 12 per cent over the next decade. ‘That’s a bit higher than makes me comfortable,’ noted Plait wryly.
If one sets to one side for a moment the staggering hardship that the sudden collapse of the world’s communications systems would cause, the threat has something of a poetic quality. Large solar storms are relatively frequent, and would have occurred many times since the beginnings of human civilisation. The only different is that now we can notice them; only now do they have the potential to suddenly halt and reverse our technological progress, if not history itself.
It is difficult to muster a human response to events that occur on a cosmic scale, but it may be useful nevertheless to reflect on that failure of our collective imagination, since a future without the internet may suddenly displace our present. It may come from the skies, or by executive order. But it could happen.
As I have noted in the past, the challenge, as I see it, is to abstract progress from technology. We need to think of our new forms of organisation not as the product of new communication tools, but as our response to them, so that we can teach ourselves to replicate those forms, those networks – which are predominantly social – even without the internet. We should do this not just because we might have to do so some day, but to build a redundancy and to make ourselves more resilient.
I also see great value in the recovery of that too-quickly-forgotten past of daily practices and long-term thinking: how we used to communicate, research, write and work. It wasn’t that long ago.