The Internet: a golden cage?

text by Matthijs Pontier (1985, NL)
illustration by Lissa Zengerink (1989, NL)

If the Internet would collapse, would we end up in total chaos, or would we be released from a golden cage? Or both, perhaps? Matthijs Pontier has always been interested the impact of technology on society as a scientist. The documentary ‘Alice Cares‘ about the results of the SELEMCA-project he was involved in won the NWO-KNAW Eureka-award for science communication. As a prominent member of the Pirate Party, he continues the ethical debate about how we can lead the integration of technology, and the Internet especially, into society in a direction that promotes human well-being. In the scenario below, he explores the effect of Internet on our society, by imagining what would happen if the Internet would collapse.

image matthijs-gold

     It happened in July 2028. Basing themselves on the movie ‘Look Up’, the action group ‘Free us from the net’ had arisen. This action group thought that the net, which was once a tool to connect people, had now become a net that caught us all-in its embrace of death. Because of the internet, people did not truly connect with each other anymore. Important cables were cut and data centers were destroyed.
     Some had already left the action group because they imagined that the harmful consequences of destroying the Internet could be even worse than the evil they wanted to fight. And indeed, the consequences were terrifying. Not only websites, but also the entire mobile communications collapsed. Remote communication was almost impossible, because almost no one had a landline anymore. Even radio and TV went off the air. The power network was completely gone. People with medical implants that adapted their functioning based on online systems, were not working properly anymore. Shops were looted, because alarm systems failed. No one could call the police, the fire department or an ambulance because emergency services were unreachable. Total chaos!
     After a few weeks of chaos and looting, the economy completely collapsed. All Internet companies such as Google and Facebook obviously became obsolete overnight. The stock market stopped. Companies that were selling stuff over the internet could not find any customers anymore. Electronic payment became impossible, so payments could only be done in cash. And cash became scarce, since ATM’s also stopped functioning.
     Unemployment rised massively. People could no longer acquire the most basic goods necessary to survive. Huge protests emerged. People took to the streets en masse, for it was no longer possible to protest through online petitions and follow protests via live streams. It was a lot more difficult for the authorities to prevent these protests. Because activists no longer used the Internet to mobilize each other, predicting protests had become more difficult. Networks of surveillance camera’s were not working anymore. Let alone, systems for facial recognition or systems that automatically detected suspicious movements of groups.
     After the worst chaos was over, people started to rebuild society. The economy became much more local and barter was reintroduced. However, it became a lot harder for people to share things, because websites like peerby, blablacar and couchsurfing no longer existed. In recent years, this peer-to-peer economy had grown enormously. Therefore, a great shortage emerged of products such as tools and cars. Most self-driving cars did not function anymore, leading to an increased number of car accidents.
     Slowly people began to realize how Internet had influenced their lives. People found out that not only society had become dependent on the Internet. Also individuals found out how they actually used Internet services like an addict. People realized that they actually spent quite a lot of time on the Internet, and had more time to do other things, which was badly needed to rebuild the local economy. Also, people more often had a casual chat with each other in everyday life, and were not staring at their screen all the time anymore. In that sense, the action to ‘free us from the net’ succeeded. On the other hand, however, also a lot of social contact was lost. Especially people who found others who had the same rare disease via the Internet often became socially isolated. Additionally, people who found like-minded others, with whom they shared the same fetish or bizarre hobby, often had to accept that they could no longer share this fetish or hobby with others.
     After the local economy began to take form, more and more initiatives emerged in which local, small internets were created; sometimes using drones. Ultimately, these networks were combined to form a worldwide decentralized internet. Not only did we learn a lesson from the collapse of the Internet. Also, this Internet did not have a ‘kill switch’. It could never simply be turned offline by a government or an attack.

Disclaimer: The risk that the entire Internet collapses seems fairly unlikely, unless you assume a situation in which all technology (and probably most people) collapse.