Jeff Hancock from Stanford University likes to give his students weekend assignments, which they then discuss in class. Until 2008, he sometimes offered them this experiment: not to use the internet for 48 hours and then tell them how this experience had affected them. However, when Hancock returned to teaching in 2009 after a year of study leave, the situation changed radically.
“When I offered them this assignment, the audience rebelled. The students were unanimous in saying it wasn’t fair and it wasn’t possible,” recalls Hancock, who studies the psychological and social aspects of online communication.
They said that if they were left without the internet even for the weekend, they wouldn’t be able to do the work set by other teachers, that it would ruin their social life, that their friends and relatives would think something had happened to them. Hancock had to give up and cancel the assignment, and since then he has never tried this experiment again.
“It was 2009, and today, when everyone has a smartphone, I’m afraid to think about how students will react to such an offer. They will probably write an application to the dean’s office for me,” he says.
However, now that we are all online all the time, the question posed by Hancock sounds particularly important: what would happen if the internet disappeared from our lives for at least one day? And the answer to that question does not seem to be quite what it seems at first sight.
In 1995, less than 1% of the world’s population had access to the Internet. The World Wide Web was something poorly understood – by and large, a toy for people from Western countries. More than 20 years have passed and today the Internet is accessible to 3.5 billion people – almost half the world’s population – and every second that number increases by 10 people.
According to a study by the Pew Research Centre, one in five people in the US is online “almost permanently” and 73% of Americans access the Internet at least once a day. In the UK, the same is true; a 2016 survey showed that almost 90% of the population had been using the internet in the last 3 months. Many people simply cannot imagine their life without the Internet.
“One of the biggest problems with the internet is that people take it for granted and do not realise what a key role it now plays in our lives. They can’t even imagine what it’s like not to be online,” says William Dutton of the University of Michigan, author of Society and the Internet.
But the Internet is not something that is eternal and immutable. Theoretically, you can lose access to it – within a country or around the world. For example, it can happen as a result of a cyber attack. If hackers release viruses that find vulnerabilities in routers – the devices that provide the traffic – the Internet will hang. Closing domain name servers – Internet address books – will cause massive disruptions to the network, and sites will no longer be loaded.
Serious problems will also arise in the event of damage to deep-water cables that transmit huge volumes of Internet traffic, different continents will be cut off from each other. It is not easy for intruders to get to these cables, but sometimes they are damaged in an accident. In 2008, people in the Middle East, South East Asia and India experienced enormous difficulties in accessing the Internet when submarine cables were damaged three times – accidentally or intentionally.
Some governments have special ‘switches’ that can be used to cut off the Internet in their own countries. The Egyptian authorities did this during the Arab Spring in 2011 to make it more difficult for demonstrators to coordinate their actions. Turkey and Iran also blocked Internet access during civil protests. It is believed that the Chinese government also has such a “switchboard”. And American senators have proposed making it in the US as a protective measure against a possible cyber attack.
However, it is not so easy to make such a switchboard. The more the government and the better developed its technology, the harder it is to completely disable the Internet there.
However, the biggest threat to the Internet comes from space. A large geomagnetic storm with solar flares pointing in our direction will disable satellites, power grids and computer systems.
“A single solar flare can do things that bombs and terrorists cannot do in a few seconds. Sooner or later such a geomagnetic storm is bound to happen,” says David Eagleman, a neurobiologist at Stanford University and author of Why the Internet Matters.
But in most cases, however, interruptions to the Internet will be short-term.
“A lot of effort will be put into solving these problems, if they do occur. Internet service providers and network equipment companies have specialists and action plans on how to restore the Internet in case of force majeure,” says Scott Borg of the United States Cyber Consequences Unit.
However, we are so used to the fact that the Internet is always at hand, that even relatively short interruptions will affect our lives. But the consequences of these interruptions are not exactly what they seem at first glance.
In particular, the damage caused to the economy will not be very great. In 2008, the US Department of Homeland Security asked Borg to give a forecast in the event of an internet blackout. The scientist and his colleagues have analyzed the economic impact of computer disruptions since 2000. After reviewing quarterly reports from 20 companies that they claimed were the most affected by these events, and more general economic statistics, analysts found that the economic impact of these disruptions was surprisingly small – at least in cases where the problems could be resolved within four days (longer internet cuts were not considered).
“In some cases, companies reported supposedly huge losses of hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. But in reality, even in industries such as hospitality, airline and brokerage, there were no very large losses,” recalls Borg.
It turned out that the lack of internet for several days simply forced people to do their work later than planned.
“People did their job just as if they had the internet, it just happened in two or three days. So such disruptions are not a threat to the economy: in fact they are comparable to long weekends,” says Borg.
Moreover, in some cases, short-term internet outages have resulted in productivity gains. In another study, Borg and his colleagues analysed situations in companies where the internet was cut off for four or more hours. Instead of sitting idly by, employees did the work that they usually put off, such as cleaning up paper. As a result, productivity increased.
“We jokingly suggested that if all companies shut down their computers for a few hours each month and force employees to do all the work they normally put off, this would result in a total increase in productivity. In my opinion, the same positive effect will be seen in the economy as a whole,” says Borg.
With short-term shutdowns – for a day or so – the travel industry should not be seriously affected. Planes can fly without the Internet, trains and buses will not stop either. However, longer outages will have a negative impact on logistics. It will be difficult for companies to operate without the internet. “I suggested developing a plan in case of internet outages that would help people and companies cope with the situation, but I didn’t hear anybody really working in this direction,” says Iglman.
The massive crisis with the fall of the network is likely to hit small entrepreneurs and blue collars particularly hard. In 1998, 90% of the 50 million pagers in the US stopped working due to a satellite failure. Analysis of the consequences of the shutdown revealed that people’s reaction to the event was directly dependent on socio-economic factors. Upper middle class representatives are managers, doctors, engineers, etc. – did not take this as a serious problem.
However, blue collars, such as carpenters and plumbers, were totally dependent on pagers to find work and were left without money for several days. Single mothers whose children went to kindergartens were always in a state of anxiety, as they could not be reached by pager if there were any situations that required their participation.
“This suggests that a person’s reaction to losing access to the internet is likely to depend on their socio-economic status,” says Dutton.
However, the psychological consequences of such an event will be very serious, and many people will experience feelings of loneliness and anxiety.
“The most important function of the internet is communication between people,” says Hancock. We’re used to being able to contact anyone at any time, wherever they are. If we lose this opportunity, the consequences for the psyche will be negative. Borg also had to experience these emotions:
“When I suddenly realise that I have forgotten my smartphone, I feel naked. I immediately begin to think: “Do I know where I’m going? If my car breaks down, will someone give me their phone so that I can ask for help?”
There has already been a similar example in history. In 1975, a fire in a New York telephone company left 300 blocks of Manhattan without a phone for 23 days. As soon as the connection was re-established, scientists conducted a survey of 190 people. They found that for 80% of the respondents, not having a phone was a problem – because they were unable to contact friends and family. More than 67% of those surveyed admitted that they felt “disconnected” and “concerned” without a telephone, and almost 75% said that they felt more confident after the connection was re-established.
“There is an opinion that, having lost the internet, people will become more sociable and will want to spend more time with friends and family, but I think that this is not the case. In fact, most internet users are more active in communicating with other people – compared to those who don’t go online,” says Dutton.
Stine Lomborg from Copenhagen University agrees with him:
“If we didn’t have smartphones, we wouldn’t have started talking to strangers more often at the bus stop, not at all.
The loss of internet communication may force people to communicate more in specific situations: for example, colleagues will discuss work-related issues in person rather than in emails, but this will have negative consequences overall.
“The world will not collapse if we lose the Internet for a day. But I think that for most people even one day without the Internet will be full of torment,” he adds. However, this feeling will pass with time.
“The loss of the internet will make many people realize the important place it occupies in their lives, but soon we will take it for granted again. I would like to think that the loss of the internet will make us look at the world differently, but I’m afraid that’s not going to happen,” concludes Hancock.
Maybe he is right. But even so, Hancock can’t convince his students to give up the Internet at least for the weekend.