Like most of you who read this blog, I’ve been sequestered for several weeks now. And also like most of you, my link to the outside world–to work, family, news, commerce–has been the Internet.
I think there’s a song about not appreciating what you have until it’s gone…
A few days ago, in the midst of end-of-semester grading and other academic “wrap-up” obligations, our Internet went out. The timing was particularly bad, because I’d agreed to participate in a FaceBook “town hall” on voting that night, and the next morning a doctoral committee on which I’ve been serving was meeting via Zoom for the candidate’s all-important dissertation defense.
Thanks to my phone, I was able to participate in both, at least to a degree. But when I drew a breath of relief, it occurred to me that I had seen a highly plausible version of the future.
Think about just how dependent we have become on the Internet.
In our house, we have a “smart” thermostat. We open and close our front door with an Internet-enabled Amazon Key. Our new water softener uses the Internet to tell us when it needs salt. We bank online–remote depositing the occasional checks that still come via snail mail, and paying bills through the bank or PayPal. If we run out of some household good–batteries, furnace filters, vacuum-cleaner bags, whatever–we order replacements on line.
Our burglar alarm is online. We pay our taxes online. We stream television online.
The pharmacy that fills our standard medications is online. Amazon is there for so many purchases–especially during the Coronavirus lockdown. And during this lockdown, we’ve been able to order groceries online and have occasional dinners delivered by ClusterTruck and the like.
Communication and information? All online.
After my panicky episode (lasting a whole day!), I started to think about what America would look like if huge numbers of our citizens lost access to the Internet.
We are already seeing the problems caused by the so-called “digital divide.” As schools and universities have moved to online instruction, poor children and children in rural areas without access broadband have been significantly disadvantaged, further driving a wedge between the haves and have-nots.
In my more idle times, I’ve wondered what would happen if America was attacked not by guns or bombs, but by a successful effort to take down the country’s Internet. I don’t know whether that’s possible–whether there is sufficient redundancy in the system to foil such an effort–but the consequences would be disastrous. It would bring all the country’s systems and commerce to a screeching halt.
What is far more likely is that, when we finally emerge from this pandemic, it will be into an economy where unemployment is at Depression-era levels. Millions of people would be hard-pressed to pay for food and a roof over their heads–let alone IPhones and Internet service.
What would that America look like?
This pandemic has brought so many of our national weaknesses into sharp focus, and not just our inexplicable refusal to adopt universal healthcare. Chief among those weaknesses is a longstanding inattention to aspects of our constitutional system that no longer serve us; glaring examples are the Electoral College and the way our federalist system currently allocates responsibility/jurisdiction between the federal government and the states–especially responsibility for conducting elections. Along with gerrymandering and the widespread lack of both civic literacy and civic responsibility, outdated constitutional structures are a major reason we have both a President and a Senate utterly incapable of doing their jobs, let alone handling the crisis we are now facing.
Meanwhile, social media promotes the conspiracy theories and “alternate facts” these officials depend upon for their continued political viability.
Think Nero was bad?
Our own mad leader doesn’t fiddle; he tweets while America burns–continuing to squander America’s global credibility, endanger the lives and livelihoods of millions of our citizens, and demonstrate un-self-aware buffoonery.
What would he and his pathetic crew do if more than half of America lost access to the Internet?