Contemplation: Whatever Would You Do If the Internet Were to Disappear?

The above question is posed in this Wondermark Comic by David Malki with a hilarious retort (well hilarious in my opinion anyway).

I include it here because I feel that it is a worthwhile piece of contemplation.  I believe I have asked myself and others a similar question about the hypothetical disappearance of the Internet.  I believe that the concept can be extended further, beyond the bounds of just the Internet and into the realm of the theoretical demise of any type of technology upon which a specific society heavily depends.  To demonstrate just think about the last time you found yourself in an extended power outage.  Did you ask yourself, or others, “What did people do before electricity?” (Or some variation of such).  It is this kind of thinking that I want to consider further.

We humans are technological creatures.  By this I do not mean that we are robots (though perhaps some of us are) but more so that we are creatures which rely upon our technological innovation to solve problems that our own physicality and mental capabilities may not be able to achieve alone.  We are tool users.  Our long history of tool use, and using our tools to develop subsequently more advanced tools, is something we have long considered a mark of uniqueness for humans (though more and more studies are finding other animals very capable to tool-use thinking).  In many ways our tools and their uses define us.

In that we use tools to make our lives easier we have throughout history worked to make tools more convenient and more able to accomplish complex tasks.  A motor run tractor is arguably more efficient (at least time wise) than an oxen pulling a plow.  A calculator is quicker and easier than an abacus.  In many ways this continual inventiveness is a boon for humanity.  It has provided us with many opportunities to pursue other interests in inquiries rather than having to spend all of our time on the procurement of food and shelter. 

However, there is a downside to this which I will call the “what to do when the powers out” conundrum.  As our tools and technology has advanced we have become accustomed to the easy at which they make our life.  Remove a degree of these technologies and we find ourselves feeling like a fish out of water.  We are not sure what to do.  We worry that we will not be able to accomplish the tasks we were able to with the technology available.  We  very often fail to recognize that for much of previous history humans had survived and succeeded without the technology to which we are accustomed.  Our present moment appears dire in lieu of the fact that historic evidence suggests we are more than capable of surviving and having things to do.

Much of the apocalyptic fiction and film/television we have imagines a sudden inaccessibility of present technologies (often times paired with other disastrous occurrences like asteroids or zombies).  While arguably the sudden demise of a technology could have some strong negative impacts, especially depending on the type of technology made inaccessible (the sudden failure of all electrical devices would arguably have a much greater negative impact than just the failure of all cellular phones).  Often I feel that these portrayed apocalypses are really only temporary things and that they pose less threats to the continuity of humanity than they would have us believe.  Would they create major inconveniences?  Absolutes.  Will people die and suffer because of them?  Unquestionably.  But will they result in the absolute collapse of the human species?  In most situations the answer is “no.”  (It takes a truly global cataclysm to pose that risk.  Something like a dinosaur killer asteroid).

I think that the real risk in loosing a current standard of technology is more in regards to what we have forgotten and not in regards to capability.  How many people really understand how to use an abacus today? How many people know who to temper their own steel?  Another downside of increasing technology and more efficient tools is in regards to what we forget. If we do not need to hand write stuff because we have computer to type on, to what necessity is continuing to teach writing? Obviously this is an extreme example, but it is something that we can see occurring in the real world right now; as more and more writing is done digitally through typing, handwriting is having major setbacks in quality and skill.  How much have we forgotten over the generations of our technological pasts?  Certainly there are still people who practice blacksmithing or know how to use a sextant for navigation purposes, but these people are more of an oddity and an exception than as a general population skill.  It is in the potential for forgotten tools ans skills that we run the biggest risk for cataclymatic occurence if some degree of our technology should be deprived of us.

I think about this often because in many ways I am part of the last generation born before the full emergence of the digital age.  I actually went to school in a time when computers were not in every classroom, though this was only up until first grade.  from second grade onward there were always computers present in schools.  As such I have a vague memory of the time before our mass of connected digital electronics.  The Internet did not become widely available until about 1995 -1996 at which time I was in middle school.  Likewise with cellphones, which came a little bit after, and for me didn’t arrive until I was a Junior in college.  So I know, within reason, that none of these are things that I absolutely need to make a living.  Yet knock out my Internet connection for a few hours and I am left feeling greatly deprived.  If I leave my GPS home I feel at an absolute loss of finding my way to places (who the hell uses a map?). 

I don’t think that this is a laziness problem though a lot of people would call it such.  It is simply an accustomation.  Our technological abilities make it so that at a present moment we do not have to rely on older less convenient tools to accomplish tasks.  There is a logic in this.  Why waste time and energy on doing something one way when there is a simpler was that will provide more time to accomplish other things in the long run?  But we do have to face the reality that we are loosing knowledge over time.  I think that we would be wise to make efforts to try to retain some of this knowledge.  I am not a terribly apocalyptic individual (regardless of this blogs name) but I do worry what we’d do if the unforeseen were to happen. This is part of the reason why I make such big efforts in regard to things like cooking and growing food because at least in that way I have some practical knowledge that makes me a little more capable of surviving without modern conveniences.  Obviously I could work on doing more.  The challenge then, is not looking at these things as inconveniences, but as opportunities.  Not only could the knowledge and use of older tools be helpful in certain circumstances but they can also provide a means of perspective and appreciation for where we came from.  Technology is progressive.  Cavemen didn’t have computers because they had to figure a lot else out before such a technology would be accessible. So they worked with rocks and bones and sticks and they managed to make some fire and paint some pictures and in the long run we are all better off for it.  Let’s try not to forget it.

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~ by Nathaniel on November 29, 2011.

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