I’ve had a busy few days – spent the weekend in London, seen Embrace at Exeter and Bristol on Tuesday and Wednesday (the Exeter gig ended up with me taking Danny to the Lemongrove for a freshers’ week “beach party” which involved 18 year old boys dressed in wetsuits vomiting on each other), somehow found time to write a piece for The Guardian (I don’t know if it’s going to get in yet, but fingers crossed for a slot tomorrow) as well as go to work and do my actual job. Only my job is broken…
I should explain. For two or three days before I went to London, we’d had internet connection problems at work. I assumed this was down to our occasionally temperamental wireless router or perhaps an AOL outage in our area (yes I know we shouldn’t use AOL for innumerable reasons, particularly in coastal Devon, but… oh sod off), but it didn’t bother me much because I was going to London. My girlfriend, who lives across town, also had problems with her connection for a couple of days. She uses AOL too, so, y’know, it must be them.
Only then her university server (she’s finishing an art history degree with Plymouth University, based in Exeter) was having problems on Monday and Tuesday. And then my work server went down on Tuesday and Wednesday for big chunks of time, causing great consternation on Wednesday lunchtime when I was trying to email the finished piece to The Guardian. I work at Exeter University, looking after the film and music collections in the library there. The internet is pretty bloody important to the library. Only it wasn’t just down in the library – it was the entire university server that had gone down. Not one student, academic, librarian, accountant, energy manager or admin assistant could get on the internet. The entire library circulation system and catalogue was inaccessible.
This morning I got in and it was down again, until about half nine. I was expecting an important email and had to try and check it on my phone, which took an age and didn’t work properly anyway – I got to read the first few words of the email and that’s it. In itself this is a minor inconvenience – twenty minutes or so later I was able to check it on my work desktop and reply as usual – but just think about the scenario for a second. The internet in Devon appears, at a glance from where I sit, to be fucked.
What if the internet dies?
I’ve had full internet access since I went to university almost exactly 8 years ago. Before then I’d been online for about 30 minutes tops, on friends’ computers with a superslow connection. Since then… I doubt there have been more than a dozen days when I’ve not been online at all, and most days I’ve been online at least several times, if not pretty much all day at work. I’ve just paid my credit card bills online. I’ve earned money by writing online. I’d not have written for print publications if I hadn’t been spotted writing online. I’ve met a number of very good friends online (well, in most cases I “met them” in the pub, but we arranged it after talking online). My life wouldn’t collapse if the internet died – my bank does just about still have high street branches, I have my friends’ phone numbers, I can send physical printed sheets of paper to publications – but it’d be severely hampered.
That’s not the point though… because even though my bank have physical branches, even though the books in the library are mostly physical copies (ejournals are popular, ebooks not), if the net dies… the library has no physical hardcopy back-up of the catalogue or circulation system. Countless reams of information in 2006 exists purely as digital code online – financial, political, commercial, industrial, social information. Travel agents. Record shops. Local government offices. Hospitals. Electricity companies. All rely on intranets and the internet. If they vanished?
We’ve only had the internet a decade, effectively. I know the Queen sent an email in 1979, but essentially, as a workable, useable interface, the internet has been useable by most people in the Western World since about 1996. Kids my girlfriend’s brother’s age, 15 or so, have grown up using the internet. They can all touchtype apparently, even if they can’t spell. But we don’t know how to use it. We’re not even close to expressing its full potential as a creative, social, business and cultural tool – that will take another decade, maybe more, although in all probability we’ll never fully catch up spiritually with the pace of technological change.
I quite like the idea of the internet dying. But then again, sometimes I want to live in a mud hut.