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Humanity is facing some pretty scary possible futures. Income inequality could lead to a permanent state of poverty for the vast majority of people. Resource depletion, coupled with inadequate investment in alternative energy sources, could lead to reduced availability of technology. Climate change could increase the frequency of highly destructive natural disasters (okay, this one isn't speculative).

Whatever the future brings, will we at least be able to complain about it online?

I'd like to know what the plausible scenarios are for maintaining, losing, or adapting the internet in the face of future tragedies, including but not limited to:

  1. Widespread poverty and lack of civil infrastructure upkeep
  2. Drastically higher energy prices, possible degradation of public electric grids
  3. Increases in severe weather and natural disasters, especially floods and hurricanes

For this question I'm not interested in scenarios where governments or private carriers deliberately shut down or restrict internet, just in our technological and economic ability to keep it running.

I'm also interested in what "downgrades" we might experience as either transitional or permanent states. For example:

  1. A reversal in current penetration trends, where only the wealthy will have reliable internet access?
  2. Widespread data access, but lower bandwidth / higher latency?
  3. Fewer, more centralized access points?
  4. Or the opposite, highly connected local networks but unreliable communication between regions?

Update: I thought 4 might be a possibility because at close range, people can connect via an ad-hoc mesh network distributed across lots of devices, even if each device is old or unreliable. This might be possible even if there are no longer the centralized resources required to maintain long-range fiber or satellite links. Or perhaps the poor will mostly be on local mesh networks and, as Brythan suggested, occasionally pay long-distance charges to use the worldwide network maintained by the very rich.

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There are many alternatives for network access, maybe you could check with projects in 3rd world countries:

  • As landlines are expensive to maintain, networks would go mobile. Each community would keep working its own local base stations (working mostly on solar). Of course, you would expect it not to work at night, and when a failure happened it would time some time for a technician to arrive and fix it (days or weeks instead of hours). Latency would go high.

  • Devices would be chargeable by solar or hand-operated chargers (OLPC anyone). They would more rugged and basic, favoring survivality over features. They would also be more modular / repairable. So no, you cannot have a 200gr device with motion detection and videocamera and whatever all in one, because you get that now because it is all integrated and has very low tolerances.

  • As a result, the usage would become less interactive. You do not want to be connected 24/7 if that means cranking your device(*) each five minutes. And sending whastapps and the like is less useful if the recipient may atay at a "dark zone" for a couple of days. Maybe it would not be like going back to BBS days, but e-mail, forums and (if latency is acceptable) chat/IRC would become more important.

  • Not to mention, those fancy ad-based services will go the way of the dodo when they find that their public has no money to buy the unnecessary things advertised.

That said, for me, the main issue would be the fabrication and distribution of the devices themselves.

To put it bluntly: electronics is not a industry that can be downscaled easily. You can have a small car factory that produces only a few dozens of trucks a year (which is what your regional market can afford to buy), and it will work well (will not be as efficient as a modern plant, but it won't be as costly, and you cannot sell more trucks anyway).

You just cannot do that with an electronics plant.

Electronic components factories are big, and very delicated. They would need to keep working with clean rooms, industrial robots, highly refined materials. These are expensive to get, and even it would be worse in a dark ages scenario, where the factory would have to be able to be almost self-sufficient (the factory must to be able to produce and maintain industrial robots because there would be no other industries using them, so either it acquires that ability or it will fail in time). Similarly to all of other processes.

Now, you understand that such a factory would not be a minor issue. In order to make profits, it would need to sell millions of phones each year... which means that you need a distribution network to put those in the consumers hands, while you are at a dark age that most likely will prevent that.

(*): You know what I mean

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  • $\begingroup$ Great thoughts on how some technologies can scale flexibly and others can't (including scaling to different levels of technology, wealth, production, connectivity...). This is really helpful. $\endgroup$ – octern Nov 30 '14 at 21:22
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Some of the things actually already happened, but in different form:

Let me introduce you to The History of Internet in Czech Republic

For really long time, there was only one company owning the land lines - so the state was in pure monopoly regarding internet provider. It means dial-up fees were pretty high and you could not allow yourself to be online for too long.

The internet community had basically only two options:

  • Build your own WiFi network from what you have at home (WiFi antenna made from can was pretty normal) (link in Czech only, sorry).
  • Go mobile.

But at the time, the mobile operators were solving the time issue where you could be online as long as possible, as long as your data usage was 5 MB during one month.

(Yes, you read it right, five megabytes. Amount of data which is nowadays used for one online picture.)

Being already employed for one of mobile providers, I was the lucky one to be allowed to have ten times more allowance on data (yes, that's 50 megabytes).

  • Online page providers were aware of the fact.
  • So our favorite pages were text only, no pictures, all data were zipped.

Obviously, the push from cell phone operators did lead to ADSL line price reduction, so fast internet is now quite "normal".

TL;DR: Life finds a way to quote Jurassic Park.

No matter what you put to the internet, people will find a way around it

Edit: Wrap-up

  • If the fee for connection is too high, people will drop back to text only (so forget about selfies or catvideos, there is no time for that).
  • If you are restricted from connecting to the internet, you will build your own local network, most probably based on WiFi or generally wireless connection.
  • Even if price for running this is pretty high (energy costs), you will drop back to renewables (solar) and build it around a community fee (everyone involved pays small fee to connect).
  • There is a high number of people who do this "for community" so they do not care about their personal profit.
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    $\begingroup$ Dropping back to an all-text internet? You mean that the memes and abbreviations and ascii art of my youth will be relevant again? Bring on the dystopias! $\endgroup$ – octern Nov 30 '14 at 21:20
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    $\begingroup$ FidoNet for the win! You youngsters see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FidoNet $\endgroup$ – Ghanima Dec 1 '14 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ At times like these I regret being "behind the wall" and having Czech (at that time Czechoslovakia) to connect to internet in the early 90s... $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Dec 1 '14 at 15:42
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So you're looking for a future where the middle class starts getting actively poorer but there is still economic growth which goes entirely to the wealthy.

Or the opposite, highly connected local networks but unreliable communication between regions?

This seems unlikely. Presumably the wealthy will want to connect to the wealthy in other regions. You'd need some other change to get to this. One that created schisms in the wealthy.

A reversal in current penetration trends, where only the wealthy will have reliable internet access?

This also seems unlikely. The most expensive part of the internet is not the connection to your house but the fact that a connection has to be run to your area. Local connections are actually pretty cheap.

Widespread data access, but lower bandwidth / higher latency?
Fewer, more centralized access points?

These seem the most likely results. The poorer people will have to connect to areas where the wealthy have already brought connections. The wealthy will get first call on the lines while those poorer get the gaps that would otherwise be empty.

This works because the nature of the internet is to be clumpy. Sometimes there's high traffic and sometimes there is less. The system needs to provide enough bandwidth to support the wealthy's peak needs. Everyone else can make use of the extra bandwidth in the gaps between.

Just a note, but in my opinion, you're skipping the hard part. If energy becomes more expensive, I would expect income equality to go down. It's going up now because automation is cheaper than people. Automation runs on energy. If energy is expensive, then automation would become expensive as well. This would favor labor over capital rather than leading to increased income inequality. I stuck to handwaving that part for this answer, but your world needs more thought in how its backstory would work before you fill in details like this.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your thoughts. I added a technical note to my post explaining why I thought local connectivity might be easier to maintain than global connectivity, but I think you're right that one possibility is a lower-capacity global internet with limited access. A lot may depend on how much upkeep all the fiber we've already laid is going to require, which I don't know much about. $\endgroup$ – octern Nov 29 '14 at 23:55
  • $\begingroup$ Good point about the income inequality. OTOH, it also means that there will be more jobs because you need the people to do the manual work. And outsourcing to far-away countries will be too expensive due to the high transport cost. The whole economy will become more localized. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Nov 30 '14 at 9:36
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I know this is an old question, but I couldn't help answering. Some of the rich would not let the breakdown happen. Google makes money because you are online. That is why they are launching their balloon fleet and are making routers. This particular group of the rich would do most anything to keep you connected, because your internet is their revenue.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a good point... but only if I have money to give them. $\endgroup$ – octern Aug 27 '15 at 1:55
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No Net Neutrality giving the rich better access, and perhaps content shaping were they have access to different sources of information, education, and investment opportunities.

Also, rise of Big Data enabling profiling of the average worker to either suppress wages through intimidation or other nefarious use of information.

Data can also be used to take down political candidates that are populist while the establishment candidate could have their information scrubbed. Also, the establishment candidate could get better campaign messaging due to the preferred candidate's sponsors controlling the delivery mechanism of the internet.

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Peer to peer wireless Mesh Networks could be used to maintain an internet that relies only on a certain density of users and no centralized infrastructure.

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