What if the Internet just shut down?

By Paul Sullivan
Georgetown University

What if the Internet just shut down? Think of the implications. Think of how much we rely on it now.
The idea for something like the Internet started in the early 1960s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Back then it was just a small kernel of an idea. It really and effectively started to spread to public uses in the 1980s and early 1990s. I remember the first time trying to figure it out in my office at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, in the very early 1990s. I was amazed at its power even then. I spent hours a day trying to figure out how this could help with my research and communicating with my family and others I knew who were, and still are, spread across the world.
The world became a much smaller place for me that year.
I remember spending many months collecting, collating and analyzing data by hand in my college days and doing my Yale Ph.D. in the early 1980s. I spent months in dusty, hot and often unlit offices with infrequent air conditioning in India. I also flew to England to do further research in the books at Cambridge, Oxford and some companies’ offices in London. Then I spent a couple of years scouring and gleaning ideas and data from books in libraries at Yale and other places on the east coast of the United States. That was a lot of travel. Communications were often by letters to and from India and England – or expensive (for a graduate student) and quite infrequent telephone calls or telegrams.
If I were to research a Ph.D. now I would have a massive amount of information literally at my fingertips. It would take seconds or minutes to gather up enough articles to write a short article and a few days to do the same for a longer one. I now communicate almost instantaneously with colleagues, family and others over email. I get invited to give talks via the Internet. I get interviewed by newspapers, TV, radio, and more from all over the world fairly regularly via the Internet.
Most of us set up travel plans via the Internet. Some of you may remember having to go driving or walking to a travel agent who would then call airlines to book reservations. Others may have done that directly and called hotels directly without being able to judge how much one airline compared to another or how one hotel compared to another. Now everyone with a computer and basic training on Google’s search engine can compare hotels, airlines, and so many things it just baffles the mind sometimes.
Many people in the world can buy clothes, food, cars and even houses on the Internet. The Internet also gives them the chance to compare and even negotiate prices. Some people do their banking and investing via the Internet – and hopefully on secure platforms.
Commerce and finance on the Internet has sure helped globalize the world and helped develop very efficient ways of doing business compared to the options that were had in the not so distant past. Massive amounts of foreign exchange transactions, international trade, and more happen on the Internet. On a smaller scale, if a Mongolian family wanted to send money to a son or daughter in school in the U.S. or the E.U., now they can simply wire it across the Internet and some of the children’s and parent’s burdens and worries are softened faster than ever before.
If a Mongolian is working outside of Mongolia, he or she can send money back to mother and father much faster. Also, they can communicate with their mother and father, for example, instantaneously. When I needed to reach my parents in the 1980s when abroad it was the slow mail or the expensive telephone or less expensive, but not exactly cheap, telegram. Now, if I need to reach family and friends I can go on Facetime or Skype and talk to them face-to-face to see how things are going. Or I could just send a brief email to see how my children did on their tests or their soccer games. All of this could have taken weeks or a lot of money not so long ago.
Deals in the trillions are made globally every day via the Internet. Ships, trains, trucks and more have their pathways and transport networks determined by the Internet in a very big way. Oil, gas, water, and even solar, wind and geothermal energy systems depend on the Internet in many ways. Entire supply change of many products and a good part of the supply chains of other products are developed and controlled via the Internet. Countries are sanctioned, aided, and helped sometimes via the Internet in one way or another.
Aid to refugees and those caught up in natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, cyclones, fires and more is often helped via Internet connections. Even learning about these disasters comes from the Internet to the far away and nearer places that can help out. Just two centuries ago it would have taken weeks or months to hear about and respond internationally to the earthquake that recently devastated Nepal. I heard about it seconds after it happened. Many aid organizations, countries and others were in motion to see how they could help within minutes. The solid things that need to be moved in, such as medicines, temporary housing, food, etc. will always take a long time to get to people in need. However, getting the supply chains of aid going is a lot better now with the internet than in the 1970s or 1980s. Requests for charity can create an almost immediate response globally now.
Of course, there are many down sides to the Internet. We often spend too much time on it, and not as much time with family. Children and others often communicate by texting even when they are sitting just across from each other. Many people, especially younger people, have lost the art of reading faces and body language as they have relied so much on sending email and texts. Emotional connects are an important part of human existence.
Then there are the hackers, Internet criminals, and other nefarious people and groups who use the Internet to magnify their greed, evil deeds and criminality. Then there are the moral and ethical slippery slopes when so much bad stuff is found so freely by those who may not have the moral and ethical teachings to stay away from it or to deal with the issues that such awfulness may present. It is surely a challenge to be a person who was brought up with a solid moral and ethical compass in an Internet world that seems to not have one. The moral and ethical teachings that should go along with these threats and challenges are simply not developing at the speeds needed.
The Internet is such a profound part of so many people’s lives that they could hardly think about not having it. But what if they did not have it? What would they lose? What would they gain? This is the sort of debate of the counterfactual that we people of the world, as parents, as friends and as leaders need to consider more fully. Someday, given the way threats to the Internet have been developing, it may be that for a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks there could be serious problems on the Internet. There are some nasty folks out there. How would you react? Will you be prepared? Do you know the supply chains for your food, water, energy and more? How will you connect with those important to you? How will the now simple acts of banking and buying and so much more be accomplished?
This may never happen, but it is always good to think about possibilities – and be prepared at the family, farm, company, government and other levels. It is a smaller world for the Internet, but maybe we as a world have become too reliant and complacent.
On a much nicer note, as the summer approaches, a nice day, weekend or week in the outdoors with family and friends without Internet connections, cell tower reception and all of the online things in life might actually help create real conversations and real solutions to some issues that are often drowned out by the noise, ease, swiftness and efficiency of being Internet connected.
Sometimes slow is good. Sometimes eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart can make a bigger difference in life than a huge number of texts, emails and the avalanche of information we often find ourselves “swimming” in, without much analysis or challenge.

Short URL: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=14758

Posted by on May 28 2015. Filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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