Dave Pollard: The Internet — A Depression Scenario

How To Save The World Blog

Last year, my article What Are You Going to Do When the Internet’s Gone stirred up lots of discussion and surprisingly little pushback from the technophiles (perhaps because they’ve stopped reading this blog). I thought it might be worthwhile thinking a bit about what life will be like as a combination of economic and energy crises slowly transform the Internet from a ubiquitous tool (at least in affluent nations) to a hobbyist toy for die-hard techies and uber-geeks (kinda like amateur/ham radios were a half-century ago).

The reasons I cited last year for believing the Internet is going to be impossible to maintain as we face the end of cheap energy, the end of stable climate and the end of the industrial “growth” economy) are as follows:

  • The Internet is a huge user of electricity and related electrical and telecommunication infrastructure. That infrastructure, as invisible as it is, requires massive amounts of continuous maintenance.
  • During the Great Depression of the 1930s, one of the first things to go was reliable phone and electrical service. The utilities went bankrupt like everyone else, because their customers couldn’t afford to pay the bills, so the utilities as a result couldn’t afford to pay repair, maintenance and service people to keep these services operating. (When farmers abandoned their unsustainable, monoculture farms, they left notes on their doors inviting other migrants to stay and take care of their homes to ward off poachers, and left the doors unlocked. No power, no phones.)
  • Much of the infrastructure underpinning the Internet is owned and managed by heavy-spending good-times mega-corporations, which are not long for this world, and this infrastructure is mostly subsidized by advertising revenue which is going to shrink dramatically.
  • The Internet requires, for most of its value, a huge number of ‘volunteers’ working mostly at the ‘edges’ providing millions of hours of free labour to write the software to keep it running and to keep its content current. Most of these volunteers are people who have a source of income (other than the Internet) that allows them to volunteer this effort in their ‘spare’ time. No full-time jobs, no time for volunteer work.
  • The hardware that allows us to use the Internet is utterly dependent on large-scale, inexpensive global trade in metals, minerals and materials, some of them rare and scarce. You can’t build computers, servers and telecom lines from materials you can find locally. When global trade grinds to a halt, made worse by the end of cheap, affordable oil, where are we going to get these things? And what happens when supply of these materials simply runs out and there’s no money to research and develop alternatives?

In the same article I described what I think we will do with our time instead:

  • Instead of downloading music and film, create our own music and theatre, in live performance
  • Instead of taking photos, draw, paint, sculpt
  • Instead of blogging, write a journal, and meet in our community and share stories and ideas, cook together, rant, organize, build something together
  • Instead of playing online games, organize a real-space scavenger hunt, eco-walk, or bicycle rallye, or play board games
  • Instead of taking online courses, unschool ourselves in our own communities, and learn about our place… or show/teach others what we know (including, most importantly, teaching children how to think and learn for themselves)
  • Instead of organizing online petitions and complaining online about the state of the world, go visit our local politicians, get involved in community activities that make a difference (disrupt, show our outrage, satirize, or create something better)
  • Instead of looking for health information online, set up a local self-help health co-op, offering preventive care, self-diagnostic and holistic self-treatment information
  • Instead of porn… well, use your imagination

For the last month or so I’ve been drawn into a couple of online forums that include some amazing minds — people who are aware of what’s going on in the world and want to work with others to make it better. But the vast majority are either technology salvationists (who believe that innovation and technology will come through and prevent collapse of our civilization indefinitely) or social salvationists (who believe that there is some kind of accelerating global social transformation of consciousness in progress, enabled by the Internet).

Both groups seem to think a future without the Internet is inconceivable, impossible. It’s a utility now, with everyone dependent on it, they argue (notwithstanding that in three fourths of the world the Internet is a luxury for a tiny rich elite, and that more people live in urban slums off the grid in our world than live in the wired or wireless powered one). I can only attribute their myopia and denial of reality to spending too much time in online and media-managed echo chambers, engaged in wishful, “magical” thinking. Tea Partiers, techno-geeks, neo-survivalists, or new age communitarians, we all want to believe that what we want and love will be here forever.

I thought it might be useful to try to describe how the Internet might stumble, try to adapt, and finally fall under a collapse scenario, and what that would mean for us as we make our way through the energy, ecological and economic crises ahead…

Complete article here… ~~


As long as we’re being realistic and working to counter myopia, let’s add one more bullet point to the list:

– Instead of eating, we’ll hold our stomaches and moan in discomfort.

In a global implosion such as the one envisioned, loss of the internet – a very recent development – will be the least of our problems.

Interesting speculation, but I fear it is generated by a Luddite wish-fulfillment fantasy. Possibly a covert Amish agent, or a Sufi camp follower – we may be headed for major political collapse and a quasi military takeover of government, or a fascist coup following riots in major cities, etc. etc. But my guess is that the technology of the internet will be preserved, albeit not in the free wheeling free spirit modality we’ve come to take for granted. Rather, it may be part of the management protocols of the new “liberation” culture of a military plus mega church information monopoly. No matter what it “costs”, it will be sustained. Only not by “private capital”. Just my dismal counter to the blog piece, not necessarily my belief in the inevitability of it all.

I will post this as a comment on the original site for the full article, along with another idea that occurs to me now, having read the full article: all the worries and speculations are based on an economic model of monetized value. The pyramids, of course, were built by slave labor. But the cathedrals were built out of “community faith and dedication”, with a payroll approximating a barter system – you eat your own food, but you are blessed in heaven for your voluntary sacrifice of time and energy.

The medical system in Cuba works because it is based on idealistic commitment to medical service.

And China will fail unless it abandons its egregious wayward multi-decades journey into the fantasy land of capital dividends.

Unrelated? Possibly, but small analogous models for a way forward, where the “cost” of energy becomes an irrelevant factor.