William Gibson ((In his excellent collection of essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor.)) suggests the Internet is the culmination of thousands of years of humanity’s pursuit of external memory. From the earliest cave paintings to YouTube, we have endeavored to leave something behind for future generations. In the last two decades, the Internet has dominated this impulse, winding its way through us to become inextricable from human culture. But what if it was shut off? What if, for whatever reason, we decided—or were forced—to abandon the Internet?
It may seem easy to live without something which has only been a part of human life for a few decades, but if the Internet really is the current iteration in an ongoing evolution of surrogate memory, then shutting it down could have big consequences. More than being just a hyperactive mood ring for status updates and pictures of our food, the Internet has become part and parcel of daily life. If we had to turn it off, we’d be hitting pause on the evolution of shared stories, legends and information. We’d be saying, “This is as far as we go.”
Below are five possible consequences of a world without Internet. The selections are broad in nature and focus on the long-term consequences, rather than short-term catastrophes, which deserve their own speculative inquiry. These hypothetical outcomes aren’t exhaustive; instead, they’re a peek into a series of possible worlds—dreams from a collective unconscious gone suddenly dark.
Fewer Maps for These Territories
Once, there were blank spaces on maps reading: “Here be Dragons.” We were both confined and inspired by the limited knowledge of such maps. Before the Internet, the Earth seemed vaster. One wouldn’t, in the course of a day, talk to people from several continents about a variety of subjects—unless one happened to be, say, recruiting for a cult in a airport lounge. We didn’t always have the opportunity to debate the merits of Kirk over Picard with a guy in Shanghai or help disseminate the latest LOLcat to spring from the mind of a bored cubicle monkey.
The Internet has no center, and therefore no single narrative can overwrite history as it actually unfolds.
These are small, inane and mostly useless things, but they occur alongside meaningful dialogue. What if that were gone? Once the lights go out, it’s much easier for the dark areas on the map of human consciousness to creep back in from the corners. “Who we are” is becoming an increasingly shared identity; rolling that back conscripts us once again to separate corners of the globe. Once again, we would be bound by the speed of print and television. The monolithic cultures of old, currently being undone by an onslaught of diverse opinion and perspectives, could rebuild themselves into singular, repressive messages.
Totalitarianism Gets a Second Shot
I hear a lot of people heralding the technological apparatus of modern surveillance as a tool which will usher in an era of Orwellian despotism, but I think the very technology that allows such surveillance also undermines its implementation in a totalitarian state. Yes, the NSA, Facebook, and Google may know you were dumped yesterday—but you know that David Petraeus cheated on his wife with his biographer. The Internet has made things porous. Without it, the opaque membrane behind which secrets are kept would reappear. Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and social media’s role in revolution augur an end to a monopoly on secrets. I believe many of the ideological demons of our past were products of the technological age in which they flourished.
The Internet has made security a porous enterprise, and it’s done the same to human consciousness. Bits of ourselves leak out, and bits of the world leak in.
Broadcast media—that single, ubiquitous voice on your radio or TV—is necessary to the establishment of groupthink and the erasure of history. In his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes about a Soviet-era Czech official deleted from history as he was erased from official photographs. The Internet would not let such a man disappear. The Internet has no center, and therefore no single narrative can overwrite history as it actually unfolds.
Encyclopedia Salesmen Become Hipster Gods
We’re used to vast fields of information. In college, my ability to identify almost any actor and connect him to Kevin Bacon in less than six steps was held in high regard. Today, it’s something anyone with a phone can do faster, and better. While the loss of my dorm-room party prestige is only minimally ego-shaking, it’s a sliver from the broken mirror we’ve all been gazing into for the last two decades.
Our collective memory has been compiled and uploaded for anyone to access. Granted, books, newspapers and encyclopedias filled some of these functions prior to the Internet’s invention, but it wasn’t the same thing. The Internet has made security a porous enterprise, and it’s done the same to human consciousness. Bits of ourselves leak out, and bits of the world leak in. Google may be seen as an index for free-association. Look up any given thing, and you fall down a rabbit hole of intersecting ideas. Even a cursory interaction with Twitter or Facebook is bound to expose you to stories, ideas and ephemera you’d never have otherwise seen. We have acquired a common language.
Without this common well of memory, we’d revert to looking things up in time-consuming, solitary ways. A lone librarian, no matter their utility to society, will not rival the gestalt of an Internet-fed social forum fueled by sheer amounts of data.
Jungian Rage Quits the Collective Unconscious
If the Internet is to human consciousness as cave paintings are to film, then we may be on leading toward a realization of Carl Jung’s idea that we share deep symbols, memories and ideas embedded within our species. If we simply turn that off, I think we’d have a kind of phantom hive-mind syndrome. There are people who, having lost an arm or a leg, will still try to scratch itches on their missing limbs.
We have replaced the dragons at the edge of the known world with wonderful things.
A lost Internet might feel like such a phantom limb. We’ve been plugged into version 1.0 of the human collective unconscious for the first time. Amid the swirling pixels of twerking Miley and relapsed Lohans, we’d also lose Deviant Art, William Gibson’s Twitter feed and BoingBoing. We have replaced the dragons at the edge of the known world with wonderful things. We have populated our maps with wonders both banal and bizarre—each of them part of the tapestry we’ve been weaving since the last Ice Age. Carl Jung’s symbols sit next to Miley’s wrecking ball on the modern mindscape. “The horror.”
The structure of our global mind is emerging. We are becoming something more than individual units running a similar OS. We’re networked, distributing our processes to the collective so we might find better, quicker solutions. Take away our all-too-brief communion with the vault of human symbols, and we’re thrust back into a dark age. Man is the toolmaker. What happens when we take away his latest, greatest tool?
To scratch the interconnected itch, our species would likely try to form local communities replicating the vast panoply of the Internet on a smaller scale. However, these would just be models, prosthetic limbs made of wood, with none of the feedback of modern artificial parts.
Buck Rogers is the Retro Future
Before the Internet, science fiction was dominated by rocket ships. These phallic, monolithic testaments to the glory of a decidedly American future were the go-to tool for dreaming about tomorrow. A rocket ship could take you to alien worlds and potential futures where man had spread across the universe like pollen on the wind. In the so-called “Golden Age” of science fiction, this was mind-expanding stuff—but now, it seems quaint, and not simply because we no longer invest in space travel.
We took a different path, went inside instead of out, and that has made all the difference. As long as we were aiming at something “up there,” were limited in what we could do “down here.” The rocket ship was a very Western vision of tomorrow. The Internet is not. The bandwidth on rocket ship futures was narrow, and afforded the United States the driver’s seat in whatever came next. For some in America, this nostalgia is welcome. For the world, it is not. The Internet has empowered the citizens of a global future to change the political structures under which they live, to expose the abuses of multi-national corporations under which they work, and to contest the idea that tomorrow should be culturally monochromatic.
If we lose that dream, that playground of multicultural ideas, we may revert to the worst aspects of nationalism and provinciality. Imagine trying to solve climate change in a world without the Internet. We can’t even solve it now.
The Internet may be one of those few technological innovations which arrived precisely when needed. Like fire, agriculture, and cities, the connectivity offered by the Internet may be the only tool capable of handling a world of seven billion people. Perhaps it is a survival mechanism. We seem to have pushed the industrial revolution—and the planet—about as far as it will go. If we don’t move forward, might we be forced to go backwards?