40
$\begingroup$

From 1995 to 2015 we have become heavily reliant on the internet for a lot of our everyday life. Skip ahead another 20 years and under the assumption that our society and technology keep evolving in a similar way to the past 20 years, we are now live in a world where the internet is the centre of everything. It is no longer something that makes our lives easier but it has grown into something that a lot of our systems are now dependant on. Even in today's world we are seeing this - in 20 years from now the dependancy will be much greater.

In this futuristic world, what would happen if an unexpected and unexplained event hit the internet and suddenly all around the world the internet simultaneously shut down? Every connection is lost. And the event causes major problems with the internet that mean it could take years of work to get it back up and running again.

I'm not interested in what the event that shuts it down could be. Consider it a theoretical event. What would happen in the seconds, minutes, hours, days, and weeks following the shut down? What would be the initial reaction? How would this affect the world?

$\endgroup$

closed as too broad by Mołot, Azuaron, James K, Youstay Igo, L.Dutch Jul 12 '17 at 2:59

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Do you really mean "only" internet or all of the communication networks? There were quite some different systems available before TCP/IP became ubiquous (dialup with BBS, X-25, X-500, teletypes). Also, would that include intranets/LAN? $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Jul 14 '15 at 12:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Hi, let's say any method that sends data packets over long distances (more than a few metres) is down. Intranet/LAN remains up. $\endgroup$ – EverythingIsCake Jul 14 '15 at 13:02
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ There's only a problem: phones and radios can be used to transmit data, so either they are down too, or it doesn't add up. $\endgroup$ – o0'. Jul 14 '15 at 18:11
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I think this question needs more specificity, for example, "What would happen in relation to topic x over seconds minutes hours and days if the internet shut down. That would make the question far easier to answer and allow answers to be judged against each other. Other topics could be covered in follow on questions. $\endgroup$ – James Jul 14 '15 at 20:24
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Interesting thing about this is the difficulty of doing such a thing. The Internet was actually designed to avoid this sort of problem, which is part of a lot of the other problems. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Jul 15 '15 at 16:59
56
$\begingroup$

The scenario you describe could be the result of highly coordinated attack by an ultra-radical anti-technology group that has managed to simultaneously attack and knock out every Tier 1 network provider and every Tier 2 provider on the planet. I'm exceptionally impressed with their ability to pull this off. They have destroyed the world.

One could stage attacks on the BGP protocol used to control routing between large networks but attacks of this kind wouldn't result in a long term outage because the network operators are very careful to make sure their networks stay up....after all, that's what their customers are paying for.

Boom

Every router and switch at the Tier 1 and Tier 2 network providers locations are gone. Millions of devices have just disappeared. Vanished. The wires are just dangling there.

Outage+1 minute

People will respond with "Hey, is the internet working for you?" "Nope, I can't get to Google or Facebook." Internet addicts will start to feel the first pangs of withdrawl. All phone calls halt. Financial institutions who depend on Internet connectivity to clear transactions will start to feel the pain. High frequency trading companies will absolutely lose their minds, as will every engineer in the T1 & T2 network operations centers. In an instant, untold billions of dollars of investment have vanished. While the ability to build new routers and switches remains intact, the money to buy them is gone. New switches and routers are suddenly priceless and worthless at the same time. Priceless because every network operator on the planet wants them. Worthless because without another router on the other end, a single router can't do much.

The electrical grid which has been smartened up no longer functions as well because coordination between power providers cannot occur. Having the load from the switches and routers disappear may cause damage to steam generators as they will suddenly overspeed. But other power generations sources will enjoy the decrease in load.

Remote surgeries will initiate their Internet-failure protocols to close up the patient safely. Surgeries where the surgeon is on site will continue, though who knows when/if he'll get paid for his services.

Outage+30 minutes

Internet addicts are having fits as is every single teenage boy addicted to the World of Warcraft (or whatever online game Blizzard is running). All commerce has stopped. Credit cards don't work. Let's assume that cash has been replaced with cryptocurrency....which also no longer works because to clear a cryptocurrency transaction requires an internet connection. Stores will be able to sell things using the very primitive "CHUNK-CHUNK" paper based records. They won't be able to clear these. Every single stock and commodities exchange on the planet has frozen. Packages in transit over UPS will arrive if they are already on the truck but no new packages can be shipped.

Outage+1 hour

Ham radio operators begin to share information about the outage. They describe the scope of the outage in their area and over the next couple of hours the scope of the outage begins to take shape. Mesh networks (which hopefully are widespread at this point), kick into high gear to share information about what's going on. Connectivity within a town or city may be high but connectivity between cities is zero. Mesh networks can't handle that kind of load.

Millions are stranded at airports because boarding passes can no longer be checked. It's like 9/11 again, only it's everywhere and no one can pay for alternate transit. Container ships with the goods of civilization arrive at port, are unloaded but the containers just sit on the docks because no one can figure out where to send them with no way to call to ask someone.

Outage+6 hours

Mayors, governors and heads of state declare a state of emergency but not many people can hear them. Panic has set in. Any kind of a store with food is now empty. Violence escalates as people begin to forcibly take the things they think they need to survive.

Outage+24 hours

Factories that build routers and switches will go into monster overdrive as demand for new routers has gone through the roof. It will take years to manufacture new routers to satisfy the demand. Businesses of all kinds have shutdown or are in panic mode, hospitals too.

Riots are in full swing. Police and fire departments are stretched beyond breaking. Vigilante justice and neighborhood protection groups spring into existence.

Outage+1 week

The riots and chaos of the last week have largely subsided. The barter system has returned in force. Small items are now used as currency in place of money or a local cryptocurrency has sprung up, supported by mesh networking. Communities have shrunk and become geographically focused. People have met their neighbors for the first time in their lives. Anyone with a mesh network node is extremely popular. Anyone with mesh networking expertise is extremely valuable. Google and other Internet companies have lost significant portions of their stock value. Phone manufacturers have also lost practically all value and will close or be supported as "too important to fail" and kept on nationalize life support till the market comes back.

Medical and food supplies are running low because there's no way to reorder them.

For a better idea about what happens when commerce significantly slows in a country, look at the changes in Greece between April 2015 and mid-July 2015. This situation is worse because commerce has stopped, where Greece has only slowed down (a lot).

Demand for Flash drives and external storage media go through the roof as people fall back to moving data around by hand. Postal and package service may resume service but with significant delays.

Every single business that staked their productivity on Applications-In-The-Cloud are having a really really tough time. They can't do business and won't be able to do business for a long time. Secondly, they may never be able to get their data back because the companies that hold their data may go out of business and take the data with them.

Outage+1 month

Internet providers are nationalized or placed under centralized government control in order to manage the trickle of routers and switches coming out of the factories. Companies have fallen back to the old paper forms they used to use the 1980s. Snarky gits laugh at the organizations who went all paperless.

P2P application such as BitCoin and BitTorrent become the primary means of or paying for things or distributing information. These applications work because they don't need any centralized source to run. On a network of three computers (with the appropriate software) these are completely functional networks.

Open source software (distributed source control, compilers, editors, operating systems etc), already powerful in their 40+ years of operation, step up to fill the gaps in services left open by the disappearance of the large providers such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon (and whoever else may pop up in the next 20 years.)

Outage+1 year Internet access is slowly returning but the quality of service is significantly slower than it was. Shoddy equipment causes datacenter fires, setting back the return of internet service for months or years.

Ham radio becomes an unprecedentedly popular past-time, causing a boost in science education.

The mints of the world have been de-mothballed and begun to turn out hard currency again. Designs of old currency are renewed.

Culture in general will go through a period of introspection on whether Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, are really all that important anyway? Many people may say "No, it isn't" and find other things to do.

Merging all the cryptocurrencies that have sprung up back into a single national currency becomes a legal nightmare.

The courts are absolutely chalk full of lawsuits. Legislation will need to be written to cut down the number of lawsuits and handle the aftermath of the Outage.

Outage+10 years

Internet service is back for everyone. Network topologies rely increasingly on mesh principles. Large telecom providers have been bailed out. Market share in the network equipment space is unrecognizable compared to pre-Outage as new companies appeared to fill the staggering demand for new routers and switches. Cryptocurrencies become more tolerant against widespread disconnects.

Mints and postal services the world over issue 10 year commemorative coins and stamps.

Some people will ask "Where were you when the Outage hit?"

[Update]

While the dedicated routers may be gone, the ability to route Internet traffic hasn't completely disappeared, it's just grown horribly more inefficient and lower capacity. Routers are just computers with lots of network ports and a specialized form factor to better fit into data centers. The only difference between a router and a general computer is the number of network ports and the software running on the computer.

There are also long distance microwave transmitters that can move traffic tens of miles at a time. Long distance data trading could happen this way.

Outage+1 day

Inventive network operators will begin to repurposing multi-port servers to be routers. The capacity of these machines is far below what used to be available but at least some data will flow. Prioritization of traffic in these early days will be intensely political.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ No down vote, but I disagree with a number of points. I don't see why demand for USB's goes up; people care about lost SERVICES, not an inability to share photos. Ham operators are basically truck drivers and a small group of enthusiasts TODAY; more time is needed before that tech makes its way where it's needed. Mesh networks would not start springing up that fast; most people don't know how to make them for one, and for another they still don't restore SERVICES. Mesh all you want; Facebook is still down. You would need to write and distribute new applications AND build mesh. $\endgroup$ – GrinningX Oct 24 '16 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ People may care about services but business will care about handling and processing their data. Granted, shipping data over the Internet is the fastest and cheapest way to do that but if that's not longer possible the data has to get around somehow. Some kind of external storage medium will be required to hold that data for it to move across the country or even within a metro area. (As for ham operators, 800K operators just in the US is not a "small group of enthusiasts".) $\endgroup$ – Green Oct 24 '16 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ You did not mention anything about open-source softwares, but they will have a significant impact on this kind of scenario. We will be able to replace almost all our favorite webservices (such as Facebook and Twitter) by their open-sources alternatives (such as diaspora* and identi.ca) by installing instances on small servers and building networks on each school, neighbourhood, cities, and increasing the networks size gradually until the worldwide network, which will be much more decentralised than today. In addition, open-source software contribution will increase very significantly. $\endgroup$ – roipoussiere Oct 24 '16 at 14:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @roipoussiere, I forgot about open source stuff! I'll put that in. $\endgroup$ – Green Oct 24 '16 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Green - Business care about providing their services to their customers. If their customers can't connect, they can't provide services and cease to exist. The services that those businesses rely on (such as Office 365!) will also cease to exist, creating issues for businesses that don't primarily offer internet-facing services. Websites for every business and directories to call them will also be down though, so even contacting businesses is a major issue; creating the primary issue of connecting to customers. Moving data around internally is a DISTANT second or third issue. $\endgroup$ – GrinningX Oct 24 '16 at 14:33
11
$\begingroup$

The problem with this scenario is you specifying "And the event causes major problems with the internet that mean it could take years of work to get it back up and running again".

By design, no such event exists, in the same way that by design, all mains AC sockets cannot suddenly get 10,000V on them indefinitely. Events exist which can locally knock out local internet connectivity, sure - fishermen on illegal deep-trawling operations are a favourite. But not permanently for the entire world.

Also be aware that "the internet" has 100% absorbed phone traffic (ultimately it's all just data), and "the internet" can be connected wirelessly. So if you've lost "the internet" then you've also lost phones and radio as well. It is not possible to separate them, so loss of internet is just one aspect of loss of all long-distance electronic communication.

With all these things, the nature of the event has to be a consideration. Could an impossibly massive solar flare which EMPs the entire world and wipes out every transistor and every bit of stored data cause this? Sure it could. But then you've also got to worry about radiation sickness, and whether the survivors are sterilised, and if they aren't then unbelievably high rates of birth defects and cancers, and so on.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Everything is routed through the internet in some form precisely because the internet has levels of redundancy that is hard to comprehend. Simply put, the internet can survive many world ending scenarios... $\endgroup$ – Aron Jul 16 '15 at 11:58
7
$\begingroup$

Ok, you're not interested in the event that could cause the shutdown but I'm going to assume that local infrastructure has remained intact but anything part of long distance dedicated packet based network has been zapped by aliens or something.

I'm going to exclude networks not usually used for packet data despite the fact that IP over avian carriers is a thing that can be done. The aliens have not shot down all carrier pigeons.

Old-style non-packet based networks like old phone connections are also still alive even though people can technically send packet data over them.

I'm assuming that every running non-leaf node in any primarily packet based communication networks has burned and any long cable has been broken at some random point along it's length.

Seconds= every on-call network engineer on the planet is woken as contact is lost with their networks except those who relied too heavily on other networks for their wakeup call.

Minutes= people start noticing that they can't make phone calls, 911 calls are no longer a thing except in areas with really old phone networks. A few people start to get a little annoyed because they have no signal, the network engineers are currently leaping into their cars or trying to contact others. A large portion of the rest of the worlds on-call tech staff are being woken, some by banging at their door. Some systems like nuclear power plants are likely going into failsafe mode and shutting down or being shut down by their staff for safety sake since they've lost contact with other nodes in the grid.

Hours= it's really starting to hit the fan. The dying has started in small numbers, operations being performed remotely are screwed up. Local ham radio enthusiasts are being turned out of bed by police/local officials and apart from emergency radio broadcasts the entire spectrum is being commandeered for emergency use, high priority communication is starting to be pushed over quickly jury rigged radio links, some of it voice, some of it packet based. Most of the world still doesn't know anything has gone seriously wrong. AM radios start issuing announcements and warnings. Military is on highest alert assuming a surprise attack, fortunately red-phone style systems are likely not packet based. India and Pakistan nuke each other anyway.

Days= stock in companies which produce networking gear is heading for pluto, or it would be if many of the exchanges weren't legally not allowed to operate since many mandated communication links are dead. Any company which has the facilities to produce networking gear or cables is doing so as fast as they can to cash in. Lots of old hardware is being pulled out of storage. There's probably a lot of people scared. many areas are blacked out as many of the power plants can't get supplies or can't be safely run or coordinated.

Weeks= looting, rioting, many shipping networks have been screwed up so there's a shortage of almost everything while food rots in the fields due to breakdowns in communication but the networking engineers of the world have yet to sleep and have all been pulling 72 hour shifts. high priority, low bandwidth links have been restored within most first world nations between cities but ocean cables are still down. Lots of local infrastructure is screwed. Ditto bureaucracy.

Most network dependent industry pretty much collapses but there's lots and lots of jobs running fiber/cable and installing switches.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "old phone connections" - even if the copper is still there, I doubt any traditional analog long-distance trunk lines are actually still in use by the phone companies in any first-world country even now let alone in 2035. $\endgroup$ – Random832 Jul 15 '15 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ What Random832 said. In addition, what makes you think the emergency services aren't relying on packet-switched networks for their incoming phone calls? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jul 15 '15 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ I worked in the telecoms industry 10 years ago and back then we started to shut down analog copper lines. That's 10 years ago, I assume today most international connections to be IP based (though, not necessarily packet switched, I think we still have a ton of ATM infrastructure still in service). $\endgroup$ – slebetman Jul 15 '15 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ The seconds and minutes paragraphs are contradictory - if phones don't work, you can't wake the engineers. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Jul 16 '15 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ it all depends on whether the engineer has things set up such that they get woken if contact is lost with their network from their location rather than getting a phone call from a remote location. I imagine the ones in startups sleeping under their desks will be the first woken. $\endgroup$ – Murphy Jul 16 '15 at 17:12
3
$\begingroup$

Well it would take something pretty big to knock out the entire internet and actually keep it mostly down for any length of time. It is a distributed system covering a very wide area physically on the earth. So two 'ideas' that might knockout the internet.

1: A major virus/worm that infiltrates the back bone and all machines it is capable. This virus would have to disrupt communications, be hard stop and just clog the internet like a clogged toilet. Only it keeps coming back.

2: Something like a solar flare or magnetic storm that totally wipes out a large % of the communications backbone, along with the vast majority of electronic devices.

I mention these because of how hard it would be to seriously knock the vast majority of the internet for any length of time. Don't forget that all communication systems are very closely integrated. Data and phone use much of the same network.

In either case if this happened even today, it would almost be an apocalypse, at least for most 1st world countries because EVERYTHING is on computers, in databases and would be lost and/or not available. Who owns what? Who owes what? Where are my products? How much money do I have in the bank? It would be very difficult, most executives do business and make decisions based on computer programs, at the very least giving them market and production data.

My job requires the internet. I'd be out of a job. Even many manufacturing jobs are ultimately dependent on the internet or at the very least computers getting/sending data somewhere.

At first it would be a mild inconvenience, for about the first 5 minutes. After that, business communications would start to back up and the most hot issues would be done over the phone, though no one would think they need to Fedex 'thumb drives' with data around yet.

After an hour broadcast TV 'might' be the only major form of communication left. Without the network, even many/most satellites will become mostly useless. Things will be slowing down as work backs up since communications have broken down. After 10 hours cities will start to panic. After a day most large cities will be shut down, people will stay close to home, and most of the small community grocery stores will have a run on all stock as people buy to hoard away their food. After 5 days riots might start, many who have friends and family in a rural setting might have left to 'visit' them.

(Burki's comment) Many hospitals and pharmacies are going to have issues too. Prescriptions will need to be written on paper again, but keep track of stock will be difficult. Hospitals need to interact with pharmacies, insurance companies and other health related places. Often even their own electronic records are offsite are accessed over the internet.

After two weeks if a coordinated effort can't be done because of lack of communication people are going to start going hungry.

After a month North and South Dakota will be wondering what they are going to do with this years harvest, since no one knows what the current market value is which means they don't know what to sell it for nor who's going to buy it. They might also notice that there have been a lot few people visiting Mount Rushmore and the badlands this year.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ I like your answer, and you covered up large areas of our everyday lives. Maybe you could add the fact that hospitals and pharmacies would have quite some troubles, too. But i also think that for really important information, people would switch back to coice calls pretty quickly. So a lot of things might go haywire, but pretty soon a lot of ppeople would jump forward with practical (and profitable) ideas. $\endgroup$ – Burki Jul 14 '15 at 13:40
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Burki yes, healthcare would certainly be hampered as well. As far as phones, anything that really wipes out the internet will take out huge swaths of the phone industry too. As of now there isn't much difference between them both use the same 'pathways' and machines. On top of that, telephone traffic would skyrocket, since no more texting or chatting or email... $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Jul 14 '15 at 13:45
  • $\begingroup$ @bowlturner It's actually worse than that. All voice traffic for phones now goes over the internet and has for quite a few years. All voice comms in this scenario are gone. $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 14 '15 at 14:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Green I thought that might be the case, wasn't sure. Thought some of the older tech might still be around in places. So you might be able to call across town, but not across the state? $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Jul 14 '15 at 14:57
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It depends on where the CO is. A CO in Manhattan is going to cover a much smaller geographic area than a CO in some backwater village. In 20 years, the phone system could switch from analog to the premises to digital to the premises. We already see this conversion taking places with VOIP services bundled with television and Internet service. It's not too far a stretch that your home router could disappear too along with all the networking hardware in the CO. $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 15 '15 at 0:46
0
$\begingroup$

Most other answers seem to have ignored the OP's comment that only Internet is down, not phones. So I really don't think an apocalypse would happen, with dramatic permanent food shortages, cities burning, etc..

As such:

  • Major business transactions would still go through on the phone. Less efficient, yet not a complete stop.

    Yes, you can't buy 1 share of APPL from Fidelity. But a Fidelity mutual fund trader can easily pick up a phone and buy $500M worth of bonds he wants. Hell, that's how bonds have been trading till probably 3-5 years ago, even if stocks joined the internet revolution much earlier. He may not have fancy investment software he had the last 10 years, but he still has his knowledge of Modern Portrfolio Construction, and Excel, and local PCs and a phone.

    Notice how I said "bonds"? That's because, the driver of most important things in modern commerce is credit. Yes credit, yes commerce, yes businesses can run.

  • Ditto finance/banks.

    Your online banking account is caput. You'll have to take your lazy a$$ down to ATM or bank branch, like your elders had to.

    JP Morgan Chase settling a multimillion dollar account with the Fed does so over the phone. So no major liquidity crisis.

  • Major business purchases can be negotiated and executed over the phone.

    Yes, your Amazon order of quadcopter, fancy soap, and a special colored housecoat don't work no more. Sucks to be you, Mr Hipster.

    But a Costco placing an order for $1Mil worth of produce or goods picks up the phone to the supplier and does the deal. Both will incur some extra costs for processing the transaction (someone gotta write into paper ledgers for now and work the phones, so local temp employment soars).

  • Things are a bit tougher for smaller retailers (you gotta call 100s of suppliers). But somehow, they DID manage to do business before internet, y'know? They'll adjust.

    BUT again, major food distribution that's done in bulk won't actually suffer.

    In general, people who work the phones (and call centers) make out like they found free cash.

  • Medium term, Messenger services experience a major reneissance. UPS and FedEx make out like bandits.

    Don't never underestimate the bandwidth of a dude with sneakers, loaded with a bunch of CDs and flash cards. And definitely don't underestimate the bandwidth of a semi truck fully loaded with DVDs/flash cards

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If phones work the Internet works. I've got a 56K modem in the closet. Nearly every cell phone has a modem mode when connected via USB, if it wasn't disabled by spit Verizon. Even if no one has real modems anymore it does not take much to wire a headphone jack to a phone handset cord. $\endgroup$ – Zan Lynx Jul 14 '15 at 23:21
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Some of the other answers have asserted that it's actually impossible for the internet as a whole to go down without taking, at least, large chunks of the phone system down with it. Also, think of how much more tied into the internet everything is now compared to 1995. $\endgroup$ – Random832 Jul 15 '15 at 0:22
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I think you may be underestimating how much the phone system relies on packet switched networks nowadays. Internal phones in many organisations might survive but a lot of the major nodes in the phone network will be gone. The basic phone system would be quickly rebuilt but long distance phone conversations would be tough for a while. $\endgroup$ – Murphy Jul 15 '15 at 11:29
  • $\begingroup$ @ZanLynx I've got a 56k modem in the closet too but when I went to hook it up I discovered that there were two tiny little problems.... I needed a USB to serial port adaptor and an analog phone line. ;) $\endgroup$ – Justin Ohms Jul 15 '15 at 20:35
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "You'll have to take your lazy a$$ down to ATM or bank branch, like your elders had to." - Which will accomplish absolutely nothing. The ATM is definitily out of commision, even today they stop working if they are not online. If you have a branch office to visit they might be open. However: They will not have access to the details of your account, those are on a server somewhere. Once that is sorted out you face a different problem, there will not be enough cash. The amount of physical cash in circulation is limited, and demand for it suddenly went through the roof. $\endgroup$ – Taemyr Jul 16 '15 at 7:35

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.