Contemplating Friday: We Need a Plan B…For the Internet?

A certain video has been making the rounds — not the happy cat-on-a-Roomba rounds, but the oh-god-we’re-hosed ones. The video is from a TED talk given by scientist, inventor and Internet pioneer Danny Hillis recently. In it he warns of the collapse of the Internet.

“We need a Plan B,” he says, and proceeds to argue that the Internet wasn’t designed for the vast scale we see today. On the contrary it began as an intimate affair, connecting trustworthy people to each other — few enough of them that there were only two other people named Danny at the time, and he knew them both. Because its underpinnings relied on honesty and decency, weaknesses were baked into the very infrastructure that supports the Internet today.

“We’re setting ourselves up for a disaster like in the financial system,” Hillis says, since the Internet is a “system basically built on trust.”

If true, the implications would be hard to exaggerate. It’s not just that we’d go without cat videos and discount Amazon paperbacks for a few days. Perfectly analog-seeming fixtures of daily life — gas pumps, bus lines — have come to be Internet-dependent. We would stop moving. Money would stop moving; it would stop coming out of ATMs, sure, but also stop flowing through the global financial system, whose interruption would trickle its own chaos throughout the land. Civilization would grind to a halt.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious.

I realize how naive that will sound to anyone who knows about this stuff. And of course I’m being willfully blithe to make a point. Killing the Internet would affect real lives. But here’s the thing: Inventing the Internet has affected real lives, too.

It happened slowly, of course, with hardly the drama and screwing-up-of-things that’d come with a suddenly flipped switch. But it’s saturated every corner of existence, and I can’t help but wonder what life would be like without it for a while. Just as light pollution has come to obscure the night sky, the ubiquity and speed of information, chatter, images, general distraction and basic on-ness has obscured a simplicity I can only vaguely remember. I want to see that dark sky again.

Yes, I could just go camping for a few days. Walk away from the computer for a spell. Try out the Sabbath approach. But an individual unplugging temporarily is a vastly different thing than shutting the Internet off all together. Both have their merits, to be sure, but the latter lets us experiment on a social scale, rather than individual. Besides, there’s no fear of missing anything — work, stupid texts, etc — if everyone’s missing everything.

I certainly don’t endorse this. One delayed ambulance is not worth humoring my idle curiosity. I just find it interesting that, as a society, we seem to be fretting at both ends of this strange new rope. It’s come to where we must valiantly defend the Internet, even as we work to limit its hold on us. How will this all play out? I suppose I’d Google the answer if I could.

Chris Colin is the award-winning author of “Blindsight,” published by the Atavist and named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. Read his work at www.chriscolin.com.

Chris Colin
Chris Colin is the author most recently of What to Talk About, as well as What Really Happened to the Class of '93 and Blindsight, named one of Amazon's Best Books of 2011. He’s written about chimp filmmakers, ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, blind visual artists, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe and more for the NewYorker.com, the New York Times Magazine, Outside, Pop-Up Magazine, Wired, Smithsonian, Mother Jones and Afar, where he's a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]
Chris Colin
Chris Colin
Tags: Downtime,Tech Culture,Technology