If you’re like most people, you probably check your email first thing in the morning, even before you brush your teeth or brew your coffee. But imagine on this particular morning, your Gmail account isn’t loading on your laptop. Soon, the classic error message pops up in your browser: no internet.
Hey, no matter. Must be something with the router. So you unplug it from the wall and plug it back in. Problem solved, right?
Assume the morning keeps unfolding this way and you might find yourself staring deep into the belly of what Extremely Online people probably call hell. The router trick doesn’t work, so you pick up your smartphone and resolve to load your inbox using your carrier’s cell network, only to find out this doesn’t work either.
Sweat starts to form on your brow—although that’s because your Nest thermostat isn’t working. Your smart TV is on the fritz. Your connected refrigerator’s display monitor won’t work. And when you frantically dart across the street to ask the neighbors if they can get online, the series of anomalies that have characterized your morning suddenly don’t seem so anomalous.
The internet isn’t just down. It’s gone. Stopped. Kaput. No more. May God have mercy on our Instagram influencers.
A World Without Internet
So how long could society carry on without the internet? However implausible, it’s nonetheless a scenario that futurists, economists, and IT workers spend considerable time contemplating.
“Eliminating all internet communications, even if only for a few days, would inflict huge economic costs,” says Thomas Hazlett, who served as chief economist of the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1990s. “Look at the economic damage wrought by the 9/11 attacks that closed Wall Street trading and cut off international flights in a large part of the world for about a week. Those losses are calculated to be over $120 billion.”
The number one application of the internet is still email, and, given that it’s such a crucial piece of how we conduct business around the globe, we can expect a screeching halt in productivity on a grand scale. The major cell phone carriers use the internet for call routing and communications, so forget trying to phone your family or your friends. The credit cards in your wallet? Useless.
The notion of an internet shutdown in a 21st-century context isn’t entirely farfetched. Think of any number of countries that block certain applications or turn off telecommunications services. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that if the internet had been shut off the whole year during the 2011 revolution in Egypt, close to 5 percent of the country’s $236 billion GDP would’ve been eliminated. And in a 2016 report, the Brookings Institution figured that internet shutdowns in 2015 amounted to $2.4 billion in economic losses.
Some businesses actually prepare for this sort of disruption by sketching up plans to withstand internet loss for as much as a month.
But we’re not talking about a limited, modern internet shutdown. We’re talking about a global, holy-balls event, the stuff of science fiction come to life, where a massive disruption of the internet backbone eliminates anyone’s ability to do anything online for an indefinite period of time.
“Most businesses don’t plan on an apocalypse lasting more than 30 days,” says Bret Piatt, CEO of cybersecurity firm Jungle Disk. “If the whole internet vanished, I would withdraw a big enough chunk of money to buy a year’s worth of rice, beans, desalination tablets, and fresh drinking water.”
In the event of a world without internet, the inclination to panic or prepare might be fairly strong. It’s no zombie apocalypse or repeat of the 1918 flu pandemic, but a massive internet shutdown would probably rock neighborhoods, towns, and cities much in the same way hurricanes, earthquakes, or tornados do.
Devastation wrought by a disaster calls into question or highlights everything that was already troubling in a community, according to Anita Chandra, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation who studies community resilience and long-term disaster recovery. It’s why repairing critical infrastructure in the wake of a natural disaster is always easier compared to helping people get back on their feet.
“It’s more difficult to recover from things that disrupt social connections,” Chandra says. “We’ve now relied on the internet in more ways than we probably expected back in the ’90s. It’s a means of social connection; it’s a means of routine and normalcy.”
Filling the Void
While the internet has existed for quite some time—it was 50 years ago this week when two ARPANET computers first transmitted messages—the general public has really only had a relationship with it for about a quarter-century, when the World Wide Web arrived in the early 1990s. Yet in that time, it has fundamentally reshaped the contours of our lives. On a daily basis, we rely on complex infrastructure and a dizzying array of software.
“Some of us grew up in a world without internet,” says internet pioneer Vint Cerf. “So some of us know what that pre-internet world was like and would honestly not want to return to it.”
Some people are eminently prepared for a world without access to Twitter’s blue-checkmark brigade, mainly because they’re preparing for an even more catastrophic event. Think: an atmospheric EMP, a massive cyberattack, a solar flare, a collision between satellites orbiting above the Earth that knocks out GPS capabilities or weather forecasting.
“We assume the entire electric system is going to go down,” says Drew Miller, a retired colonel in U.S. Air Force Intelligence. “And if the electric system goes down, our worry isn’t dealing with the internet. Our worry is dealing with the loss of law and order.”
Miller is the founder of Fortitude Ranch, a survival community in West Virginia, where all the essentials for a collapse-level disaster are available for members, like wood for heating and cooking, solar power, and propane towers and tanks in order to charge batteries from time to time. As a result, their default is to operate as if there is no internet.
When the internet goes, businesses that do just-in-time delivery, like Amazon Prime, will grind to a halt. These businesses will have to rediscover paper processes, sure, but Miller’s concern is that people react violently to the slowing pace of commerce.
“We don’t really give a crap about the internet going down,” he says. “We care about lawlessness.”
Whether a lack of internet leads to societal upheaval is hard to predict. Most of the people Popular Mechanics interviewed for this story didn’t seem to think that crime, conflict, or geopolitical altercations would erupt, and argued instead that this is more about becoming reacquainted with landlines than land mines.
“I don’t think anyone would end up in a war or something like that,” says Christopher Hooten, chief economist of the Internet Association, a Washington, D.C., advocacy organization that represents the online industry. “But if the internet goes down, I think we’re talking about a greater-than 50-year setback on the technology impacts on the day to day lives of individuals.”
Absent the internet, how we operate in the world suddenly hits a steep learning curve. Think about the myriad ways the internet fits into a normal day: talking to friends and colleagues; checking in on family members; paying bills and rent; DoorDashing that Wendy’s order to your place before Netflix-and-chilling with the person who earned a right swipe on Tinder.
Just sharing information, like the news, becomes a challenge. Your Boomer parents could offer guidance here, except for the fact that you can’t contact them by phone, and it’ll be about a week and a half for you to exchange letters, assuming the U.S. Postal Service is still running.
“Communities may have to become more self-sufficient on local services than we now experience with the major cloud-based systems,” Cerf says. “One can easily imagine far more manual operations: Think of traffic cops when the traffic signals stop working.”
So what’s the solution to an offline world, other than packing up and heading out to Californee-way like the Marsh family? You could probably Google it.
After all, there’s no on-off switch to the internet. Indeed, the decentralized nature of the network of networks that we know as the internet is thought to be pretty hardy.
The bigger worry is a sharp splintering of the online world, says Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute and a professor of strategic foresight at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Such a splintering, where information and how it’s digested is increasingly fractured, would only exacerbate many of the current problems we have with misinformation, election interference, and businesses being blocked from operating in certain locations. (So, you could probably Google something, provided you don’t live in China, where Google is prohibited.)
But the entire internet just stopping? Very unlikely.
David Bray, executive director for the People-Centered Internet Coalition, notes that the TCP/IP backbone of the internet was built to be resilient. While there could be disruptions in access to specific regions—maybe an autocratic nation will “turn off” activities associated with their national-level internet domain—it would be incredibly hard, he says, to take the internet completely down for the entire planet.
“It’s fun to think about a Mad Max future of the Internet. As a futurist, I would never say anything is impossible,” Webb says. “But to me that’s not scary, because it’s not plausible.”