Distraction, Surveillance, Peak Oil and the End of the Internet
Peak oil and other energy shortages will gradually shut down the world wide web. Isn't it time we start talking about the end of the Internet?
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 But as I am an unpublished writer completing his first book in this early twenty-first century of ours, for what should be obvious reasons, I am.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.
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 whoosh away, regardless of them not having a direct connection to the digital realm.
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.