© 2024 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What If There's No Internet?

I email. I search. I shop. I Facebook. I stream. I Skype. Every year I seem to do these things a little bit more. Stroke by stroke, as I slip deeper into the Internet's embrace, I find myself wondering:

"What would happen if the Internet went away?"

Can it? It was famously built to be indestructible, with no center, no hub, no "off" or "on" switch. It is, after all, a creature of the U.S. Defense Department, designed, supposedly, to survive a global war.

I know, of course, that it's voluntary. People can shut down their websites, information can disappear; some domains can peel away; its ocean cables are vulnerable to attack, but as to knocking out the whole thing, is that possible?

In his book An Optimist's Tour of the Future, writer Mark Stevenson asked Vint Cerf, one of the original team of computer scientists who put the thing together, if there was any way to pull the plug, in spite of the fact that it doesn't have a plug. Here's Vint's answer:

If every internet service provider in the world decided one day just to shut down the routers, that would pretty much screw the Internet ... So the answer is, it's technicallypossible, but would require cooperative action that's extremely unlikely."

There are tens of thousands of service providers around the planet. It's hard to imagine them all doing anything in unison. But what if they were targeted? What if a talented cyber-attack team went in with the intent to take knock the whole system down? Could they?

"Well," says Vint, "there are hostile actions going on every day all the time and they're capable of rendering parts of the Net inoperable but I don't think the machine would stop in and of itself ... We launched the Internet in January 1983, and as far as I'm aware the entire system has never been shut down since."

But what if he's wrong? Scientist David Eagleman has imagined four ways the Internet might be severely compromised. The first threat on his list is a powerful solar flare, knocking out multiple satellites simultaneously. That's the scenario you'll see here, in this short French video, directed by Francois Ferracci.

It's Oct. 10, 2020. A couple is on a date. They've only recently met, he's crazy about her, and he's snapping (or digitally producing) thousands of pictures — of her, of them, of Paris; he's the kind of lover who wants to record everything all the time.She's a little put off by his techie ardor, but he's obsessed — until, all of a sudden, his gadget freezes. He can't take pictures any more. The images he got start — they start to fade.

He's more than alarmed; he's paralyzed. She, however, she is going to teach him a lesson. With one simple gesture, she shows him something more permanent than the Internet. Something small and portable.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.