Crazy tweets, severed cables or malware attacks. The threat of the Internet breaking is discussed (jokingly or not) every day – but what if it actually happened?
For some 3.4 billion people around the world the Internet is as much a part of their daily lives as sleeping and eating. Modern existences increasingly rely on social media, messaging and email, online purchases, gaming and streaming media. Livelihoods also rely on the Internet in order to access data, organise production, manage workforces and so on.
Scott Borg, director of United States Cyber Consequences Unit, was asked to examine the consequences of such an event. He discovered that if the Internet was lost, even for as long as four days, the financial cost wasn’t anywhere near what had been suggested. “People carried out all the same activities they would have done had the Internet been up, but they just did it two or three days later,” said Borg. “The economy is set up to deal with what essentially amounts to a holiday weekend.”
In some cases – where staff could catch up on other forms of work – output actually increased. “We jokingly suggested that if every company turned off their computers for a few hours each month and made people do the tasks they postponed, there’d be an overall productivity benefit,” Borg said. “I see no reason why that wouldn’t also apply to basically the whole economy.”
However, if the Internet can’t be resurrected within a week, the impact starts to become more serious. People who are self-employed and small businesses would be the most adversely effected: unable to promote themselves or secure work, cash flow becomes a big problem very quickly.
The majority of companies now have some part of their operation online, whether it’s storing documents, communicating with its workforce and suppliers, or managing inventory. Without the materials or information to operate, a lot of companies would find it difficult to function.
Likewise, without the means to track supplies and order new stock, retailers quickly run out of things to sell. And in the case of online-only retailers like Amazon or ebay, which rely entirely on the Internet for new orders, business simply stops.
Traffic lights operate using the Internet, so if it went down, there would be chaos on city streets the world over. And while trains and aeroplanes don’t need the Internet to actually work, their scheduling and ticketing systems do. Public transport would very quickly grind to a halt.
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The world’s financial institutions would probably be most hard hit by losing the Internet. Stock markets would almost certainly have to close, while credit transactions and bank-to-bank transaction would immediately cease. Businesses couldn’t pay their suppliers or workforce, individuals couldn’t manage their personal finances, and the majority of ATMs would stop providing cash. And once the money stops flowing, the whole infrastructure of modern society starts to break down.
In 2009, Professor of Communication at Stanford University, Jeff Hancock, set his students a weekend assignment of staying off the Internet for 48 hours and then reporting back how this made them feel. It didn’t go down well.
“There was a class revolt,” he said. “The students emphatically said the assignment was impossible and unfair.” Hancock relented and never set the assignment again.
Clearly the loss if the Internet – especially for youngsters who have never known life without it – can be a stressful and traumatic experince. Speaking to T3.com, renowned media psychologist Dr Stuart Fischoff suggested that there would be a period of mourning people would have to endure before getting online again. “For many people it would take a lot of adapting as their life has been really encrusted around this technology,” he said. “It would be a really profound loss – a bit like what happens to a family when the mother dies. Everything gets disrupted and is suddenly up for grabs and people have to run around doing everything she did. If you take all of these rituals out of a person’s life, you’d really have to work hard to rebuild it.”
The good news is that, while such a situation is possible, the Internet wouldn’t be down for long. “There’s an army of people ready to put things right,” says Borg. “The internet service providers and the companies that make the routing equipment have plans and personnel in place for getting things up and running again if unexpected vulnerabilities are exploited.”
So while we’d suffer feelings of loneliness, anxiety and loss, it wouldn’t be too long before we could go online and tell all our friends about it.