Distraction, Surveillance, Peak Oil

and the End of the Internet

What do we do when there's little left to power our computers with?
What do we do when there's little left to power our computers with?

Let me be upfront about one thing: I don't particularly want to be writing this blog. But as I am an unpublished writer completing his first book in this early twenty-first century of ours, for what should be obvious reasons, I am.

Why don't I particularly want to be writing this blog?

For one, I'm not a very big fan of the Internet, and beginning in mid-2008 had spent more than five years (mostly) not using it – nor computers in general. To be more specific, I did still use computers at libraries to access their catalogues, after three years I did very sparingly start using email again, and after the fourth year I did occasionally ask a few people to look up various pieces of information for me online. (To be more specific, I wrote the first draft of my manuscript by hand, edited on top of that with a red pen to complete the second draft, typed that out on a circa-1930s Remington typewriter, then had an ever helpful cousin of mine transcribe that over to a computer for me.)

Secondly, when I say I "mostly" didn't use the Internet, I'm fully aware how intertwined our lives are with the online world and the virtual impossibility of completely separating oneself from it. In this flush-happy modern world of ours, I have no doubt that the chlorine in the drinking water used to make my bodily "waste" go away was purchased, ordered, and delivered by services dependent on the Internet, and that the lever on the toilet might as well have been an "enter" button (or better yet, an "out of sight, out of mind" button).

Nonetheless, my abstention was significant enough to note, but upon moving to a new city in late-2013, where I knew no one, I of course couldn't go about repeatedly asking my new housemates to give me a hand with various online activities – buying a used desk, chair, bookshelves, etc. So after a five and a half year hiatus I acquiesced, and since November 2013 I've been back online. (Note to prospective publishers interested in contacting me about writing a cutesy My 280 Weeks Without the Internet book – forget about it.)

In hindsight, and particularly in regards to writing the manuscript for From Filmers to Farmers, I can now see that abstaining from the Internet is the best thing I could have done those six or so years ago. I'll digress.

Although I suppose that largely abstaining from the Internet for five and a half years is something someone would do for either highly ideological reasons or to perhaps secure a fat advance from a New York City book publisher (again, please don't contact me), the rather anti-climactic reason for why I began my hiatus was little more than the result of a gut feeling. I suppose I was always irked by the fossil fuels I had to burn through in order to do a bit of online reading, my contribution to the destruction of the ecosphere in order to mine the rare earth elements necessary for the construction of my computer (partaken on my behalf by multinational corporations), as well as the amount of Asian coolies I used by proxy in order to assemble my computer's components and all the others that made the network possible. So sure, although that stuff and more often went through my head, it wasn't as if some moral epiphany had suddenly washed over me. Instead, having given up filmmaking – and so film and video cameras – a few years earlier, it just seemed like the appropriate thing to do in the natural progression of things.

It wasn't until I was about two years into my hiatus (which, for all I knew, was going to last my whole life) that I got a strong confirmation for what I was doing. This came courtesy of what I think is not only the best book that has been written about the Internet, but the best book that can be written about the Internet. That would be Nicolas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I won't give a summation here, but I will point out that the book provides ample scientific evidence of how the Internet hampers our minds from thinking very creatively or deeply, and that multitasking is much more of a hindrance than a benefit to our thought processes and productivity.

Although I didn't expect it to be so blatant, Carr's conclusions became readily obvious to me in the final half a year of my hiatus when I increasingly asked other people to open various webpages for me. And not only did I continue to access library catalogues, but I also began to heavily peruse the catalogues of online booksellers. As my usage increased I noticed my ability to concentrate on my research and note-taking significantly deteriorating, and I went from being able to sit down for hours at a time at the library to repeatedly "needing" to get up and log onto a computer, only to end up tapping away at the refresh button on my email account with repeated fruitless clicks. Not only that, but all this occurred even though I was readily aware that virtually nobody ever emailed me except for a few seed saving organizations I had joined and/or volunteered with, as well as various unsolicited organizations that repeatedly sent me what I presume were targeted emails with offers of various pills and other concoctions that promised to increase the size of my "member" (to this day I'm still not sure how the Internet and all its devious algorithms deciphered that well-kept secret of mine – curses that darn NSA!)

Anyway, having now jumped back onto the Internet bandwagon full-force (minus online video), my ability to sit down and concentrate on the research for my manuscript has been decimated. At best my work output is somewhere between a third and a half of what it used to be, and not simply because I spend a half to two-thirds less time at my work and in front of a computer instead; while I used to be able to read a book for hours on end, a half an hour is now an accomplishment for me. Similarly, when I'm sitting down at work the productivity just isn't there anymore, more and more of my time being spent twirling my pen between my fingers and daydreaming about nothing of importance, probably deep down anticipating when I'm going to give in and let myself get up and log onto a computer again. And for what, you may ask? To log into my email account and find out that no one has emailed me; to discover that my website has had no new visitors since I last checked; and to perhaps visit one of the two news portals I peruse and read a few fairly interesting articles on energy supplies and/or about the latest tit-for-tat resource war shenanigans between those nations vying for the remaining dregs in this early peak oil era of ours.

In fact, this very website you're on is the product of the distraction I'm talking about. While it's hard to deny that the kind of book that I, an unknown writer, am writing in this modern era pretty much requires a website for promotional reasons, I also can't deny that the construction of the site provided ample fodder for me to feed into my newfound Internet reliance (unless addiction isn't too strong of a word). I spent about a month on and off building it, which included teaching myself how to code HTML and CSS, as well as how to manipulate (but mostly just copy and paste) JavaScript, PHP and Ajax that other people had coded. (I did this on a loaner as I don't own a computer and haven't bought one since I purchased a brand new Apple G4 back in 2000, and which was disposed of years ago.) When I then tried to take myself away from coding my site in order to work on the prep work for my last draft, I found my mind repeatedly unable to concentrate very well, it probably having gotten too used to the hyper-stimulated environment of clicking and jumping between links and pages on the Internet (again, see The Shallows).

That's one of my two main gripes with the Internet. The other, contrary to what gets bandied about in fashionable circles today, has nothing to do with net neutrality or the whole Snowden/NSA brouhaha. For what concerns me is the longevity of the Internet, and what its demise portends for a civilization that without it, for one, would barely have any idea what to do with its own feces.

Let me be quick to point out that when I say "demise" I don't refer to some imminent coronal mass ejection (CME) from the sun or an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) unleashed by some rogue nation, both of which could theoretically cripple electronic infrastructures in an instant and usher entire societies into utter chaos virtually overnight. No. What I'm talking about is the slow and comparatively uneventful demise of the Internet due to peaking supplies of oil, other forms of energy, and the rare earth elements required for construction of the computers and the rest of the paraphernalia that makes up the Internet. In other words, not an overnight crash, but the decades-long slip into the up-and-coming dark ages.

As put in one of author John Michael Greer's excellent peak oil books, The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered,

To suggest that the Internet will turn out to be, not the wave of the future, but a relatively short-lived phenomenon on the crest of the age of cheap abundant energy, is to risk running headlong into the logic of abundance... It's essential not to get caught up in thinking of how many advantages the Internet might provide to a post-abundance world, because the advantages conferred by the Internet in no way mean that it must continue to exist. The fact that something provides an advantage does not guarantee that it is economically viable.

So while issues of online privacy and access may at best offer a passing interest to me, what really concerns me is how our uber-dependent society is going to manage without its ever-present www intravenous (or to be more specific, without cheap energy). How many businesses are you aware of that would still be able to function, or even know how to function, without the Internet? How about their suppliers? The transportation system which they rely on? It ends up being not much of a joke to wonder how long our porcelain goddesses would continue to woosh away, regardless of them not having a direct connection to the digital realm.

Falling through the looking glass
Falling through the looking glass

Not exactly a topic du jour amongst polite company, how many of us are talking about this? Does Glenn Greenwald's book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, The NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State address any of this? No. Does Mr. Snowden? Not that I've read. Does The New York Times, The Toronto Star, The Melbourne Age? Fat chance of that. Even read through eco-oriented magazines and some peak oil writings and it's not uncommon to come across pronouncements of the Internet as harbinger of a post-carbon era where a world of diverse local communities is bound together through the deliverance of ones and zeroes. I'm not sure if I should then call it a sad fact or not, but I suppose it should come as no surprise that pretty much all of what's been written about the Internet's demise exists, of all places, on the Internet.

Conscious of the fact that most of us seem to be giddily sleepwalking over the edge like a mob of true believers, I see no good reason why I should (re)create too much of a dependency on the Internet, it probably being a good idea to ween oneself and one's community away from it as much as feasible. What kind of a timeline am I talking about here? Honestly, I haven't the faintest idea, but I certainly don't expect the Internet as we know it to be around for the duration of my lifetime. (That being said, I think it's fair to say that when the Internet does start to go down, for various reasons it'll be rural areas that lose their connections first.)

But in the meantime, should we not be concerned with the recent NSA leaks and such? Well, sure, I've read 1984. And yes, the surveillance state will probably get significantly more uncomfortable for many of us before its existence is significantly threatened by the diminishing returns of a post peak oil world. But nonetheless, from what I can tell there's absolutely nothing revelationary that the recent NSA leaks have pointed out (either because you've already read books by James Bamford and such, or you simply applied common sense), while the repeated libertarian cries for digital rights amount to what are basically little more than shrill cries of fossil fuelled privilege, the demands all the more delusional when we consider the Internet's inherent bias towards surveillance. (Erroneous talk of technological neutrality is fodder for another blog post, along with another about our ever-ridiculous technological optimism. But those parts of the manuscript need to be elaborated upon before they can be copied and pasted to this blog.)

I'll never forget that day I first read about the NSA leaks, a friend of mine later that evening whipping out his cellphone and showing me the PRISM logo, followed by some unpleasant words about being spied upon. Concluding our conversation, my friend then turned to his fiancé and said, "come on honey, let's go set up your new media box" (a device with which to watch digital content on a television set). Frankly, I don't think I could sum up my feelings more clearly than by quoting from one of the greatest books of this early twenty-first century, Andrew Nikiforuk's The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude: "The people on fossil fuels [are] perhaps the most narcissistic and bankrupt cohort in the history of the species."

And never mind the problems within a digital world, what about the problems outside of the digital world? Do you have any idea of the hassle and interrogation one gets crossing an international border when customs finds out that you don't own a cellphone? (Hello Australia and the US!)

In summation, what should be the real story of importance here is not privacy rights or equal access to the Internet's transmission lines, but what – if anything – our preparation for the Internet's demise will be.

Update 01/01/2015: So as to not give the impression that I'm some computer-coding whiz kid, I'll point out that at the end of 2014 I did spend another month on-and-off fiddling around with the website, as well as figuring out how to build a site for mobile phones. Although I still don't own a computer and did all the coding on a friend's netbook and on library computers, I do now own a cellphone. That is, a friend gave me his spare iPhone 4 so that I could test out the mobile site as I built it. But that being said, I don't have a SIM card, and so no mobile number either.

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Comments (10)

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Dean
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Aug 2014
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Excellent my friend!
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Dean: Thanks!
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Lindsay Went
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Aug 2014
Hi Allan, I met you briefly on Saturday at the Book Expo in Sydney. I liked this piece, I think you write well and I'm looking forward to seeing what else you have to offer.

What do you think provoked you to change course in the way you were living your life?
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Lindsay: Thanks for the kind words, they're much appreciated.

About transitioning from film to agriculture (and writing), I initially had two main motivations.

First off was the narcissism: the more successful I became the more the cult of personality seemed to take precedence. Upon completing what ended up becoming my final film, this reality escalated to an absurd level, and so I decided to refrain from submitting what was going to be my first entry into the short film program of the Toronto International Film Festival. (I then decided to make what became a temporary move into documentary filmmaking as I thought it would be worthwhile to concentrate on more productive ventures.)

Second, I wasn't fully convinced that there was a net benefit to film. I couldn't deny that there were films out there that covered important topics, and that were well done. But what was nagging at me was whether those few films outweighed all the other crud that's out there. For one, did those few "beneficial" films and television programs justify us having one, two, or even three television sets in every household? Ultimately, and having made that late move over from fiction filmmaking to documentary filmmaking, I decided there wasn't a net benefit, and so quit film altogether.

I did just happen to upload the latest blog post a few minutes ago, Lemminged: Verb, which might illuminate my motivations a bit more for you.

Regarding how I got into agriculture, a few days after I decided to ditch fiction filmmaking (and university / film school) I was in my parents' backyard with my dad and brother as they were about to lay down grass seed over the exposed soil. Staring at it all, the thought popped into my head "why don't we build a garden back here?" About two seconds later my dad said out loud "why don't we build a garden back here?" And so it went.

In terms of getting into writing, a year later, and once again only a few days after deciding to quit documentary filmmaking and so film altogether, the core question that led me to decide to write a book "conveniently" popped into my head.
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Nathanael
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May 2015
I find it hard to explain how misguided this viewpoint is as a prediction. I came here from John Michael Greer's even more misguided column
(http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-death-of-internet-pre-mortem.html) but he doesn't allow open comments, apparently.

Here's the analytical mistake: the Internet is being compared to one-way broadcast media (like movies, TV, radio). The Internet is in actual fact a two-way communications device (like the telephone, telegraph, postal service).

We have NEVER gone backwards on two-way communications. We humans apparently love to talk to each other, and especially to faraway people. The telephone destroyed the telegraph. The Internet is displacing the telephone and most of the letter-writing functions of the postal service.

And yes, governments spied on the postal service. And governments tapped phones. The same pattern continues on the Internet. And people protested and created a legal system to punish government officials who did that... or in the USSR, people just started speaking in code, calling from unexpected phones, etc. People didn't stop using the phone. And that sort of cat-and-mouse behavior has already occured on the Internet and will continue to. Think about all the functions of telephones, telegraphs, and letters; the Internet is doing all of them now.

Has any rural area, anywhere in the world, actually lost telephone service? (Permanently, I mean, rather than temporarily until it could be fixed.) Only when new tech (the Internet! Cellphones!) replaced it. Likewise, telegraphs were never removed from any location until the telephones replaced them. There is practically nowhere in the world which has lost postal mail service, and absolutely nowhere which has done so without getting telephones first... Even in the middle of the most brutal war of the 20th century, WWI, telephones were everywhere. Even in the trenches.

Communications tech does not go away until it is replaced by better communications tech. This is an exception to the general rule of tech.

The Internet isn't going anywhere; it certainly isn't going away. There's no tech which is going to replace it; or to put it another way, whatever tech replaces it will still be called "the Internet". The underlying tech has been replaced several times, from copper cable to fiber optics to wireless -- but the Internet can be used over carrier pigeon (google it). I don't see a replacement. Ever. I have done my research on what's needed to (a) maintain and (b) build Internet connections using current tech. It's not bad if you live near Corning. :-) Nowadays you need chip fabs, fiber-optic fabs, a large silicon supply (easy) and small supplies of other metals (harder but quite possible).
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Nathanael: Very true that "We have NEVER gone backwards on two-way communications." However, the continual advancements you are referring to are not so much due to human ingenuity as much as they are to the availability of cheap fossil fuels which allowed for it all. Decreasing EROEI levels, increasing prices for oil, and decreasing supplies of rare earth metals all point towards diminishing returns, and thus, the Internet's eventual demise. It doesn't matter how much "We humans apparently love to talk to each other," because when it comes down to it, energy trumps it all. We'll still talk, no doubt, but it'll be via less energy intensive methods, and with systems which aren't dependant on multi-million (if not multi-billion) dollar chip factories. We simply won't have the resources for such things.
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David Searle
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May 2015
Firstly, though I disagree with many of your perspectives this is a well written blog.

I believe your concerns about energy production, specifically peak-oil, and its correlation to computer production are misplaced. Solar energy costs are now reaching parity with coal and green energy investment has surpassed fossil fuel investment. This is an important metric that demonstrates that fossil fuels are not the be all end all for energy production and green energy is taking over. The battery that Musk has released (when it eventually becomes affordable enough) will provide an avenue for decentralized energy production. An energy revolution is occurring as we speak that has the potential to create abundance and take power away from industry.

Plastics and metals for production are an issue, but recycling is getting better in many regards and alternative materials are constantly being developed. Crystal drives are be developed that don't decay like magnetic drives and can be "grown", nano computers that work on atomic levels are developing - slowly albeit, and each generation of chips are more efficient than the last. As resources are depleted new methods of computing will be developed accordingly.

The Outernet Project and Google (among several others) are developing ways to get free wireless internet across the globe specifically to address rural access.

Technology is a pencil, eye glasses, and many other things NOT digital; this point I think gets lost in modern debate concerning technology.

Lastly, your experiences with cognition are anecdotal and based on your personal behavioral patterns. I use the internet and a digital device very often yet I feel no need to incessantly check my email or Facebook or anything else. If I am depressed I will spent extra time doing mindless things online, but that's no different than my offline behaviors.

I have learned a great deal of the knowledge I have accumulated through the internet, to the point that many of my current university studies (in economics and politics as a returning adult) just seem like outdated and rehashed topics.

I'm also a musician who studies lutherie, both are interests that require long in-depth attention and have long learning curves. Again most of my personal development in these fields has been enabled by the internet. Tools are innate, it is how we use them that matters. Some of cognitive challenges you mention are of course real and require attention and inquiry. However, I believe that predominately these are greater societal questions about behavior and conditioning less than they are about machines/technology forcing us to act in a particular manner.

In any case, the internet isn't going anywhere. The resource depletion required for your scenario would also indicate a global food/transportation/medical/poverty/energy crisis that would make the lack of internet inconsequential comparatively.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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David: My major problem with this "renewable" energy thing is that those renewables are dependent on fossil fuels for their production. Put a bit differently, they have low EROEIs (Energy Return on Energy Input), and so don't have the output to perpetuate themselves, as well as to supply us with the energy we want. While oil's EROEI used to be around 100:1 a hundred years ago, it's now down to 15:1 or so. Even worse, and according to Charles Hall in his short book Spain's Photovoltaic Revolution, solar's EROEI is around 2.35:1. While such things may provide worthwhile assistance on our way down the slope of de-industrialization (and with decentralization), I don't see them as being a replacement for our large usage of fossil fuels in the slightest (Ted Trainer's rather textbook-ish book, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain A Consumer Society, mentioned in my Peak Oil Primer, readily covers this topic). Making comparisons between current prices unfortunately misses all this. Similarly, it is these realities which I use to base my questioning of the Internet's longevity upon.

And you're absolutely right that my observations with cognition are anecdotal. Not only that, but seeing how others experience things in different ways, it may very well be that I'm on the worse end of the spectrum. That being said, I just put up a post on this a couple of days ago called Too Much Internet Crack, which refers to pieces that have covered the scientific studies behind this.

And the notion of yours that "a global food/transportation/medical/poverty/energy crisis... would make the lack of internet inconsequential comparatively"? Well, yes, exactly. Or otherwise put, with so much now dependent on the Internet, such a dependency would make such crises possibly that much worse. Hence, I think, the need to learn about these things and localize ourselves while the going's relatively easy.
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Grey
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May 2015
Hmmm...
I think JMG and you misunderstand what the "internet" IS - it is a network of networks a way of getting electronic devices to talk to each other and deliver some sort of info to people.
I think both you and JMG are right that the current setup of the networking of networks is not sustainable in its current usage as a reliable media providing, 24/7, no lag, service of distraction for the masses. - HOWEVER- that some remnant of it will continue, probably run on alternative power, less pervasive, and offering less diverse type of content WILL continue- as long as two computers are running that people want to be able to send info to. The energy costs of the routers and switches behind networking can be significantly reduced and that is already the next frontier for electronic/telecom industries. Simple text based web pages and minimal multi-media usage would also significantly reduce the overhead the current internet takes.
Sure this is a lot different that how most people think the internet is going to go (streaming the latest sparkly vampire fantasy to my holodeck!) but the technology of information and networking is flexible and adaptable if nothing else. Look at 3rd world nations where more people have internet access than running water or reliable power- the IT infrastructure adapts flexibly. Sure they aren't often watching movies or buying the latest fashions on amazon dot com but they do send emails, tweets, Facebook, and read web pages of information.
Now, once computers can no longer be made or maintained- at any cost- you might have a point. I kind of think though that the utility of computers is such that they will hang on a lot longer than much of the rest of industrial civilization (they complement weapons of war very well for example).
I would expect that internet globally will first become a library/school/business and government thing with only the really rich having their own dedicated connection, probably because of the expense of maintaining the computer ahead of the expense of internet. But the "internet" will remain. The fiber optic cables in the ground, the switches and routers will be on for some part of the time, the email you send make take 2 days to arrive instead of 2 hours, and might not allow for any attachments.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Grey: Well, yes, what you're saying does make sense, which is what I meant when I referred to the "slow and comparatively uneventful demise of the Internet." I certainly don't see it as something happening overnight or even over a year, but over several years if not decades.

You make the point that "Simple text based web pages and minimal multi-media usage would also significantly reduce the overhead the current internet takes." If I'm not mistaken, this refers to some kind of desire or need to downsize our use of the Internet. That would happen either because we wanted to burn up less fossil fuels, because we wanted to dedicate ourselves to other activities, or due to a collapsing Internet (which is, I think, the more likely).

Reduced energy costs for routers and switches can only stave off problems for so long, and is also something dependent on high sales. If the sales can't keep up then their economies of scale no longer work either. Meanwhile, as energy supplies continue to dry up, prices will increase as well, resulting in higher priced goods, less affordability, fewer purchases, and so forth. How long until we see that beginning, and the time-frame over which it will occur, I can't say.

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