Monday morning, people up and down the United States' East Coast woke from their dreams to enter a living nightmare: Google was down.
The loss was short-lived, but nonetheless, work was halted, Google Nests left homes in darkness and undefended, and worst of all, Googling "Is Google down?" was an impossibility. Every time this happens — whether it is Google, Amazon Web Services, Twitter, or another online gathering place — our dependence on the internet becomes uncomfortably clear.
Luckily, Google returned after a few short hours. But what would we do if the internet was truly gone? For German director Werner Herzog, this is one of the top apocalyptic scenarios that keep him up at night. He is not wrong.
In an interview conducted in November, Herzog told Inverse' Jake Kleinman:
"The abrupt end of the internet would wipe out all almost all of you, the human race, except hunter-gatherers."
Cheery. But fair.
Here's the rub — Herzog's fear may sound like a Luddite conspiracy reminiscent of Y2K, but considering our increasing dependence on the internet and the devices we connect to it — the so-called Internet of Things — Herzog has every right to be worried.
The idea of the internet suddenly failing is typically framed as a "what if" discussion for future netizens, but partial internet blackouts and communications failures are already a regular occurrence in many parts of the world.
Countries like Eygpt, Turkey, and India in recent years have all implemented a version of an internet "kill switch" to control the spread of information. In the Indian state of Kashmir, for example, internet access has been blocked for as much as a year at a time — an act branded by some as censorship.
The United States' government technically has this power, too, via the Communications Act, but the House of Representatives proposed a new law in October to limit it.
But aside from overt government control of the internet, governmental negligence can also lead to mini-internet apocalypses. In Puerto Rico, the island's fragile communications networks took a massive hit in the wake of hurricanes Maria and Irma. A year after the storms, internet speeds were 10 times slower than those on the U.S. mainland. More than just a nuisance, this degree of infrastructure failure can make daily necessities, like reaching loved ones or emergency services, difficult.
These international incidents are comparatively isolated and short-lived compared to a widespread disintegration of the internet. So, how might the global internet be disrupted?
How it could happen — There are a few major areas to watch when it comes to a potential global internet apocalypse. They are:
- Global communications satellites
- Fiber-optic cables
- Telecommunications software
Global communications satellites circle the planet, ensuring internet and other communications signals reach around the Earth. These satellites not only enable certain internet providers, like Viasat, but they also relay information to ground computers to enable GPS and other navigation systems. If satellite internet failed, then organizing large-scale delivery operations — for example, getting groceries to supermarkets — would become very difficult. Global shipping would be disrupted, too, meaning ships would need to use more traditional methods to reach their destinations.
Taking out internet satellites could be accomplished by human force (such as knocking them out of space) or at nature's whim by rogue solar flares.
Another potential target are fiber-optic cables, laid in the ground or on the seabed. These are already fragile — in 2008, a boat scrapped seabed lines and knocked out the internet for 75 million people through the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia. They are harder to tamper with directly, but if they did fail, it would have a major effect on people's connection worldwide.
Matthew Zook, professor of Geography at the University of Kentucky whose research focuses on 'Big Data,' told Gizmodo in 2019 his favorite hypothetical scenario for the start of an internet apocalypse is "a small dedicated group with chain saws and backhoes start cutting fiber in some key locations."
Finally, in lieu of physically damaging internet connections, nefarious hackers could also choose to damage software instead. This could take the form of a mass distributed denial-of-service attack, for example, and, if powerful enough, could make it impossible for devices as ubiquitous as our smartphones or as critical as government server farms from accessing the internet.
Why it matters — However it begins, a mass and sustained internet outage would be detrimental not only to people's daily lives but also to essential services.
Because they'd be unable to organize delivery systems, grocery stores would quickly start running out of food. Self-driving cars might stop in their tracks on highways (though your less smart car will be fine, until the gas station runs out of fuel, that is), access to online banking will vanish, and water and electricity may fail, experts predict.
Daniel Pargman is a senior lecturer at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden who has written about potential post-collapse computing. He tells Inverse the effect of an internet blackout to this degree would be "unimaginable."
That said, opinions vary on how catastrophic such an event would actually be to live through, ranging from "total economic collapse" to a "rediscover[y] of free time."
In reality, our telecommunications infrastructure is more likely to go out with a whimper rather than a bang, as Pargman told Fast Company in 2019.
"If you think that things will go to hell in a hand basket tomorrow, probably you’d do best to get out of computing and buy beans, bullets, and bandages," Pargman says.
What's next — So, are we doomed to one day fall prey to our own, insidious creation? Not necessarily.
Groups like The Commotion Wireless Project and the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute are working to spread knowledge of how to build apocalypse-proof networks, such as a mesh network — a local network made from devices like smartphones instead of giant satellites — that could be used as a temporary proxy if things do go south on the global stage.
While solutions like this may sound dystopian, Pargman tells Inverse it would be enough for most people to survive on.
"I remind my students that a low-tech Internet — while sounding like science fiction or like a dystopian nightmare — would be instantly useful for the vast majority of people to scrape by on," Pargman says.