What Would Happen If the World Lost the Internet?
Mike Pearl on the Unnerving Depth of Our Digital Dependence
2:45 pm, Brooklyn, 132 S. Oxford St: Nearby intersection has become a citywide hub for protest activity. NYPD requests that all protesters remain peaceful, and withdraws police presence.
3:35 pm, Manhattan, Statue of Liberty: NYPD Harbor & ESU responding to protest activity. A crowd has gathered inside the statue, despite closure. Multiple officer-involved shootings reported.
4:10 pm, Citywide: Mayor announces restoration of 80 percent of internet service.
4:55 pm, Manhattan, Statue of Liberty: State and federal agencies responding. Multiple fatalities reported inside statue.
Note: Web-based record-keeping has been restored. This written account will be digitized at a later date. For further dispatches from today, please see digital records.
What you just read might sound unusually dramatic, but I promise it’s not. Losing the internet would be very, very bad.
I know the cliché: “Kids these days . . . They can’t do anything without their Snapchat and their Fortnite. They should relax and read a book or play outside.” Undoubtedly a whole lot of people in a position to do so would simply view Internet Blackout Day as an “Internet cleanse,” a large-scale version of that self-care trend where you turn off your phone, unplug your WiFi, and spend your day taking bubble baths, gardening, and enjoying quality time with the kids. That’s lovely and everything, but it’s also naive in the extreme.
The world would come to a dead stop if the Internet clicked off—particularly in extremely wired countries like China, India, the United Kingdom, and the US.
Let’s start with your job. There’s no clear measure of exactly how much the internet has penetrated the working world in any country, but I put it to you: Could do your job without the internet? I did a quick inventory of my own career stops:
I’ve worked at a video store, and that whole industry no longer exists because its business model was annihilated by, well, the internet. It’s worth noting, however, that this was simply a retail job, and these require point-of-sale (POS) systems. Modern POS systems like Oracle’s Hospitality Simphony are cloud-based, and when they lose their internet connections businesses that rely on them can’t function. (In 2015, the Oracle system Starbucks uses went down and all the stores had to just close or start handing out free drinks.)The world would come to a dead stop if the Internet clicked off—particularly in extremely wired countries like China, India, the United Kingdom, and the US.
I’ve worked as a substitute teacher, and while the classroom experience would be lovely—no kids on their damn phones!—I’m not sure I’d be able to get jobs, because without online portals like ReadySub most of the schools I know can’t request substitutes. They’d have to make a quick ad-hoc switch to a phone call-based system, and both mobile phones and voice over internet phones (VOIP) would be either spotty or useless. What’s more, on Blackout Day, I’m sure the front offices of schools would already have their hands full.
I’ve been a private ESL tutor, and I relied on smartphone apps and downloadable material for curriculum, but I could probably adapt, assuming my lessons that day were all scheduled in advance, and were all at familiar addresses. I always relied on GPS apps to get to where my students were, and unlike dedicated satellite navigation devices, GPS apps generally don’t work without the internet.
I’ve worked at an eBay store and an online marketing company, and needless to say, neither of those could operate at all, on any level. Everyone would just have to go home.
Finally, I’ve worked at an international news publication, and while I could theoretically compose stories offline, that was just a small part of my job. Without the internet, it would be tough to gather leads—I find probably 75 percent of my story leads on the Internet—and almost impossible to reach sources. It would also be impossible to file or publish any of my articles, since the vast majority of my work was only ever published online.
But as a member of the Coastal Elite, I worried, in pondering the repercussions of Internet Blackout Day, that I might have blinders on regarding how workers would be impacted, so I went in search of whichever kind of job was furthest from my own personal experience, and I found truckers. In my mind, they drive loads from point A to point B, and if they need to communicate, they use CB radio. What use could they possibly have for the Internet other than maybe phone-based GPS?
“I’m almost about ready to say we’d be fucked,” said Jim March-Simpson, a fifty-two-year-old Alabama-based long-haul trucker. “I get my job assignments over the internet. Could be email. Could be Google Hangouts, depending on the company.” He said other truckers are independent owner-operators who use websites called “load boards” to find loads and plan and coordinate trips.
In fact, almost every aspect of trucking is saturated with internet connectivity. Upon receiving a shipment, March-Simpson told me, “I get a physical paper in my hand. I put it on my steering wheel, photograph it with my phone, and send the picture back to home base so we can get paid on it.” If he uses email for this, then during the blackout he could try to switch to text messaging to send the photo, but that’s just the beginning of his worries.
March-Simpson also uses the internet for his expenses. “There are financial instruments that we use in trucking that you don’t see anywhere else in the world.” These include cards from a company called Electronic Funds Source, LLC, that can only be used to pay for trucking-related expenses, such as fuel at the pump and roadside repairs. And to use the card, he said, “I get a quote. I tell the boss. ‘Okay it’s gonna be $237 to fix the tire.’ He emails me something called a ‘money code.’ It’s a long string of numbers. It turns into that amount of money.”
All that being the case, as soon as March-Simpson needed to stop for fuel, he’d run into an almost insurmountable problem. “Could I use my own cash to pay for more gas? Yes, I could. Would I choose to . . . ?” he said, trailing off. The trouble is that if you’re a trucker, spending several hundred dollars of your own money to buy fuel is a huge risk, when you have no idea if you’ll be reimbursed. Instead, there’d more likely just be thousands of truckers stranded on the side of the road. “You’d have to commandeer every Greyhound bus in the country to do nothing but get truckers home,” March-Simpson said.
But that’s easier said than done because the problem wouldn’t be limited to truckers. Bus companies like Greyhound, along with planes, trains, and automobiles—particularly app-based companies like Uber, Lyft, and Gett—would all be in holding patterns. Some of this would no doubt be dire—operators of public utilities and those who staff emergency services can’t suddenly take a day off because there’s no Internet (more on these people in a moment), and neither can companies that process payments. Stock exchanges would absolutely be brought to their knees, leaving markets to go haywire.
At this point, it’s probably quicker to name the very few sections of the economy that sound like they’d still function than to name the ones that would be forced to shut down. Most jobs dealing with plants, like landscaping, gardening, and small-scale farming, seem like they’d be unaffected. Businesses that dispense food, like restaurants, would be a mixed bag because kitchens aren’t digital, but their point-of-sale and concierge systems often are. Nearly everything else in the industrialized world is too saturated with digital information to keep chugging along without a hitch.
So billions of us would suddenly be unable to access, transmit, and store information the way we’re used to.Today, taking away the Internet means taking away a superpower that billions of people take for granted.
But let’s not be so literal, or practical. The Internet is more than just your job. It’s your life. No one thinks about how they’re moving ones and zeroes around while they’re using the internet. If you’re old enough, there was a time—1997?—when you might have fired up your computer and said to yourself, “All right! Time to log on to the web, so I can access and transmit some data!” but those days have long passed. Today, taking away the Internet means taking away a superpower that billions of people take for granted. All at once, everyone on Earth basically goes from wizard to Muggle. The actual impact is hard to fathom.
The only thing that compares was in 1998, when PanAmSat Corporation’s Galaxy IV satellite went haywire, knocking out most pager connectivity in the United States. Even then, the pager network was small potatoes compared to the internet. But in those days, millions of Americans, including ER doctors, actually did rely on pagers for cheap, easy, and, most of all, reliable communication with their families and employers. Still, much of the reaction at the time was glib and more or less about being relieved not to hear any annoying beeping sounds. “How’s that for a picture of bliss?” Los Angeles Times columnist Shawn Hubler wrote at the time.
But all that came about because of pagers, which just make a few numbers appear on a bulky device in someone’s pocket. If you think that’s bad, imagine about four billion people suddenly without intra-office communication, public safety updates, calendars, weather updates, medical records, driving directions, most phone calls, movies, answers to urgent questions, study materials, music, currency transfers, breaking news, games, photo and document storage, reminders, along with—let’s just acknowledge it—procrastination, dumb jokes, and porn.
Could the result of losing all that really be as terrifying as all that?
Yeah, it could.
In my days at VICE, I used to seek out and research some of the reasons the entire Internet might theoretically go down. Two biggies were solar flares and electromagnetic pulses (EMPs). Both are just big floods of electromagnetism with the potential to fry electronics and, just maybe, break society—the Internet, the power grid, a country’s defense infrastructure, you name it. But in the end, I didn’t find much there to worry about. The biggest solar storms can certainly futz with radio reception and GPS, and they’ve caused local damage—including knocking out all the power in Quebec in 1989.
But since the Earth is shielded by a magnetic field, and a lovely thick atmosphere, solar storms simply aren’t strong enough to knock out our Internet infrastructure (although someday we’ll move more of our telecommunications infrastructure into space, and when we do, solar weather will become much more of a life-and-death concern). Meanwhile, EMPs in their current form aren’t really much of a danger, either, because only a tiny one can be generated with present-day technology; to take down the internet with an electromagnetic pulse you’d have to do it with the help of dozens of nuclear bombs. If either one of these catastrophes befell us humans—a record-shattering solar storm or a huge EMP—we’d have much bigger problems than the internet going down.
But when I corresponded about this topic with Stuart Schechter, a former security researcher and now an entrepreneur based in Seoul, South Korea, he joked that the whole thing might come crashing down when “OK Go and Psy collaborate on a video together.” His joke wasn’t completely a joke. This is where we get the cliché “break the Internet.” A sufficiently viral piece of content with international appeal can cause an outage at a major website—this is why PAPER magazine boosted its server infrastructure, making it capable of handling eight thousand requests per second instead of the usual maximum of two thousand requests per second—in the days before the magazine’s website published a now-famous photo of Kim Kardashian’s oiled butt. What’s more, this effect can be simulated with distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks, in which an army of users keeps accessing a site in order to overload it. So let’s follow that thread: Can overloading the Internet break it?
It would take an absolutely gargantuan DDOS attack, requiring (and this is my own conjecture here) perhaps millions of human participants, to temporarily disable even just the top ten websites in the world: Google, YouTube, Facebook, Baidu, Wikipedia, Yahoo, QQ, Taobao, Amazon, Twitter. Individually, any one of these sites is designed to handle hundreds of millions of requests per day. Google.com alone performs millions of web searches per minute. So overloading it would require an unimaginable amount of computing power.
But cyber-weapons can temporarily kill a Google-sized website, as we saw in 2016 when hackers used the Mirai botnet—a collection of compromised “internet of things” devices (the eponymous bots) around the world whose owners had no idea they were infected with malware—to attack servers that connected people to Twitter, Reddit, Spotify, and CNN, preventing many users from accessing them for several hours. It’s important to note that this isn’t a perfect comparison because the Mirai botnet didn’t attack specific popular sites; it attacked one popular name server that connected people to those sites.
Excerpted from The Day It Finally Happens by Mike Pearl. Copyright © 2019 by Mike Pearl. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster.