Saturday, March 10, 2012

How the Internet will die

Unlike the Easter Island statues there won't be much trace of the Internet for future archaeologists to study

Okay, granted, that’s a mildly provocative title for a subject so close to so many people’s hearts these days. This week I got a reminder of how psychologically dependent many have become on computers and the Internet when something that many would regard as unthinkable actually happened: Facebook went down.

In the office where I work, people logging on on Wednesday morning expecting to find out what their selected bunch of loose acquaintances were listening to at the moment, were instead met with a frozen screen and the message ‘Last update 13 hours ago’. The disbelief was palpable and those just arriving for work were told of the cataclysm before they’d even had a chance to take their coats off.

Facebook’s half-sister Twitter still seemed to be working and a quick search with the hashtag #facebookdown revealed a torrent of people who were either puzzled, concerned or downright jubilant. “It was as if millions of voices cried out in terror and then there was silence,” wrote one Twit wit. “How will I tell people what I ate for breakfast?” asked another.

It seemed that the site had crashed across Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa (the parts where people know what Facebook is). Given that I work pretty closely with several people in Africa and am in more or less constant Skype connected with them, they expressed amazement that something as sturdy as Facebook could crash in the First World.

But by mid morning it was still not up and running and the man who sits near me who was recently employed as a Facebook consultant/developer began to look sweaty. Theories about hacking emerged, with one quite plausible one centring on the fact that the leader of a hacking collective had been outed as an FBI informer the previous day.

By lunchtime it had suddenly started to function again and most people breathed a sigh of relief, with only one of my work colleagues whispering to me “Damn, I thought I was going to get my life back.”

Outages such as this, while being entirely inconsequential, serve as a warning that the idea that the growth of the Internet is far from inevitable. I would go one step further and argue that they are the first nail in its coffin. I’m not ready to bury the Internet just yet (and no, the irony that I’m writing an online blog is not lost on me) but the undertakers must at least be thinking about putting on their white gloves and eyeing their shovels.

How will the Internet die? The answer to that is: death by a thousand cuts.

Creeping normalcy is the key to understanding the likely trajectory of the Internet. It refers to a situation where a system changes radically but only in small, barely noticed increments. Connoisseurs of collapse look for creeping normalcy in everyday life and it all too easy to see it when looking at the Internet. Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed said that such a phenomenon occurs with cyclical regularity and applied it to several past civilizations who underwent a collapse. In the case of the Easter Islanders, for example, we know that they brought about their own demise by cutting down every last tree, thus denuding the landscape and undermining their ability to gather food, both from the landscape and from the seas as their fishing boats were made from wood. With our advantage of hindsight it is easy to ask why some Easter Islanders didn’t put a stop to the tree cutting, but that would be to ignore the idea of creeping normalcy - or landscape amnesia, as Diamond calls it. Successive generations thus unfamiliar with the richly forested landscapes of their forebears saw it as increasingly okay to hack down the trees - until it was too late and a tipping point was reached from which they could not return.

The Internet, just like the Easter Island societies, is a system that is vulnerable to collapse. Unlike the Easter Island societies, however, it is complex to the point of abstraction. I’m not sure how many people realise just how astonishingly complex the system is, relying on everything from advanced communication protocols and encryption programs to giant trans-nationally interconnected industries spawning increasingly hard to manufacture hardware and the armies of trained technicians (aka geeks) needed to keep the whole thing growing. And, of course, you can’t talk about the Internet without also mentioning the inconvenient fact that it consumes more electricity than many entire countries (in the US alone it uses more energy than the auto industry).

Let’s face it: the Internet is a monster that is getting out of control.

When some environmentalists, such as Bill McKibben, imagine a future where we will all be small scale farmers, living in egalitarian eco-communities powered by biomass - but still have full Internet access so that we can all teleconference instead of hopping on a plane - they are missing a huge point. In any rational analysis there is simply no room for the kind of Internet we are used to today to exist on anything like the level other than which it was intended: for military use.

The US military, as we all know, has plenty of resources. But in the 1960s even its resources were being stretched to the limit by the need to do complex research involving several number-crunching computers at different locations. To get around this problem and pool computer power the Pentagon developed an ‘internetworking’ programme based on an untested system of data packet switching developed by Donald Davies, a valleys Welshman whose father worked in the coal industry.

The system proved to be pretty reliable, making it far easier and cheaper to process data. Email soon followed (which has just celebrated its 30th birthday) and the magic of investment capital, media hype and cheap energy has brought us forward to the point where, now, people get a spooky ‘end of the world feeling’ if Facebook doesn’t work.

This is all well and good but the Internet, like any system, needs to pay its way. It’s one of the prevalent myths (and I use the word in the common sense to mean ‘untruth’) that the Internet is free. That is, the energy needed to sustain it must be equal to or greater than the worth that it produces. I mentioned above how much energy and how many resources the World Wide Web gobbles up, but what does it give us in return? Well, it gives us a lot of more or less useful things (think education, news, Wikipedia - i.e. useful information) and a lot of not so useful things, such as porn (which accounts for about 10-15% of web use) and a whole lot of dubious brain rotting tripe (I won’t mention any examples as there are far too many).

But what about the death by a thousand cuts I mentioned above? Yes, I was getting to that. It occurs to me that the creeping normalcy has become more pronounced of late. Here are some of the indications of it that have occurred relatively recently.

1. Succession. When the Internet first bloomed it was as if someone had liberated all of the seeds from a bio bank and scattered them at random over a large piece of fertile and recently ploughed land. Seemingly overnight a million weird and wonderful plants sprouted forth and began to colonise the earth. Seemingly overnight again many of them died off, some did well and others spread like wildfire, only to overshoot themselves and die back. When winter came (the dotcom bust) many more died off but those that survived had a natural advantage over the new arrivals of spring: they were stronger, taller and able to reap more of the sunlight.

This is what ecologists call succession: an untidy race for colonisation in which there are a few winners and a lot of losers. At the moment we are in one of the middle stages of succession, with some of the tiny seedlings now having grown into rather large trees which dominate the landscape. There remains an illusion that we are still at the riotous spring flower stage of the first period of succession, but this is only maintained because the amount of new land being given over to it keeps on increasing.

In the early stages of succession the plants are busy trying to out-compete other species and perhaps the ones with the brightest flowers attract the most bees. Survival is the name of the game here. But in the later stages, when they have come to out-compete their rivals, they are able to set the terms for their own existence. Be they newspapers, anti virus programs or iPhone apps, what they once gave away for free they are now able to charge for and, we, the users, are usually the target.

2. Invasion. The Internet is a tool. Like all tools the moment we finish designing them, they in turn begin to design us. Nowhere is this more true than the Internet. How many of us are addicted to checking our email, looking at news websites and finding out what our friends have been saying in some social media forum or other? An obsessive compulsion like this is commonly known as an addiction. And where there is an addiction, be it coffee, heroin or Twitter, there is always a ready supply of people willing to supply that addiction - for a price.

So, in addition to the prices being levied on users for what was once a free service (how long before Blogger starts to charge me for writing these words?) there is also an invasion of what we once quaintly thought of as private. As of only a couple of weeks ago Google changed its privacy code meaning that it now overtly gathers data on our browsing habits, which can then be sold on to the highest bidder. Thus if I decide to mention the fact that one of my friends recently went on holiday to the Canary islands I can expect targeted adverts to pop up in my browser as shadowy computers around the world work 24/7 to build up profiles of every Internet user on the planet: what websites we visit, what we talk about in emails, blog about etc, it all goes into the mix. It may well be in contravention of our human rights, but, what the hell - Google just seems to be able to do what it likes. Unsurprisingly, some people don’t take kindly to this, and a few more people drop out of using the web.

3. Saturation. It may be a combination of the above two reasons, plus a case of social media fatigue, but we are staring at Peak Facebook. Using the analogy from point 1. Facebook is the fast-growing tropical tree that burst up through the bushy undergrowth and shot skywards, thus depriving its rivals of sun and nutrients. Despite being valued at some colossal sum, the Facebook giant doesn’t seem to be able to capitalise on its position of dominance and there are clear signs that its exponential growth has halted. Just look at the chart linked to below, created using Google Insights.

Peak Facebook

4. Energy greed. This is the Internet’s real Achilles heel. Peak oil and a steady upward pressure on energy prices will make data farms seem like an anomaly of the age of abundance. At present there is still a huge demand for new data centres and many of these are being constructed around the Arctic Circle to take advantage of the cold air and reduce the costs of cooling. But when energy becomes scarce and it comes down to deciding whether to keep a hospital running or a data farm, which one do you think authorities will choose to keep running?

5. Malicious attacks and censorship. The Internet is a threat to those who would seek to concentrate power. These days it is very hard to commit an atrocity without someone uploading mobile phone footage of it onto YouTube. Authoritarian strongmen, of which there are still quite a few, don’t take kindly to this and tend to do their best, usually clumsily, to suppress the system which seeks to expose their crimes. Thus the Internet, which most regard as a benevolent medium to expose wrongdoing, becomes a battleground for proxy wars fought between competing power blocks. Witness the wrath that was poured down on the head of Wikileaks following the release of thousands of confidential documents belonging to the US military. Paypal duly helped out by banning donations to Wikileaks, which in turn caused hacking collectives to attack its site and bring it to its knees. With ever more frequent attacks by both shadowy groups and shadowy government angencies, is it any wonder the Internet is beginning to resemble a John le Carre novel? Another cut.

6. Brain drain. As societies around the world wrestle with budget cuts and austerity, there simply won’t be as much money around to pump into the tech industry’s hidden subsidies. And that includes the huge technical departments of universities in which human beings are processed into system technicians at public expense. In the super fast world of modern technology their skills are rapidly redundant necessitating further rounds of training, all done at either public or private expense. Cost is the keyword here.

7. Hardware redundancy. High technology and hyper-capitalism go hand in hand like two evil twins, and it is doubtful that one could exist without the other. Computer equipment is not built to last very long and greater software demands make it artificially obsolete long before the circuit boards stop working. In a world of constrained resources where getting parts is likely to become ever more difficult, hardware redundancy must be seen as a brake on the continued expansion of the Internet.

8. Systemic complexity. As previously mentioned, the Internet is the most complex of beasts. It is likely to represent the high point of human technical endeavour - never again will be create a system so awe-inspiringly complex. But complexity in a system is a weakness, requiring ever greater resources to maintain it and provide security against those who wish to attack it or subvert it for their own ends. When the costs of maintenance and security exceed the returns on the system as a whole the entire thing begins to create feedback loops that lead to either a sudden or gradual collapse.

So, for the above reasons, and no doubt many more will crop up in the years to come, I believe that the Internet’s glory years are well and truly over. That’s not to say that it won’t be around for some time yet, and whether you think this is a good or a bad thing, it’s certainly something worth contemplating. When it finally does topple, unlike the Easter Island statues, there will be precious little of it lying around for future archaeologists to study.


  1. Excellent! When I heard the news of the Facebook IPO, and the projection of exponential growth, I had to shake my head and wonder, with almost a billion users, how long can that possibly last?

  2. Hi Jim, yes, I think the Facebook boat has well and truly sailed. Unless they can monetize it in some way it will simply remain what it is: a big pile of inflated hot air, hallucinated value and static electricity.

  3. Deep in the Himalayas of India at 3500 meters above sea level in a town that only has electricity for six hours a day (sometimes less) you can find an internet cafe that runs on a generator with robed Ladakhi nuns registering for Facebook.

    The sheer force of that site is nothing short of shocking.

  4. Jeffrey - I used to post a lot on Facebook and then decided to drop it. I couldn't stand it any longer.

    Then, after six months or so, I found myself unemployed. The local authorities insisted I reactivate my Facebook account or they would cut off my unemployment benefit! Why? Because apparently if you're not on FB you're not part of a 'real' network and are therefore not looking for a job.

    The irony of it all is that I then got a job where I have to use FB professionally and attend meetings about social media trends etc etc. Gah!


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