Science Questions

Could the internet die?

Tue, 23rd Feb 2016

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Martin Burroughs asked:

How long will it be before the internet dies? I know that sounds unanswerable, but we have probabilistic formulas to look at (say) the chance of extraterrestrial life, so it ought to be possible to make a similar model for something like this, which will have a series of "known unknowns". This was prompted by a conversation with a museum archivist who seemed to just assume crowdsourced data in the cloud would be there forever.


Kat asked Peter Cowley  if the internet could actually die in the first place...Technology

Peter - Yes, I think we’d probably live without the internet in time but let’s just unpack the question.  Presumably the questioner means, will the internet die completely but the internet does actually die in short burst anyway.  The BBC had what they call a “distributor denial of service attack” at the end of last year.  So the BBC site was down - only for a day.  It was hardly dying but it was obviously very ill that date.  Country’s censor: China censors quite a lot of sites.  In the Arab Spring, social media was switched off in a number of countries in the Middle East, so those are ones that are short term.  Ones that are sort of not death but when it’s ill is things like broken cables.  Broken submarine cables - that happens remarkably often - trawlers and things.

Kat - So there’s a difference between the sort of the technical hardware breaking down and then the servers where the internet pages live not being allowed to get through to us?

Peter - Get through… exactly, yes that’s right exactly.  So there are times in these situations where it would slow down but what the question is actually asking would it, could it ever die?  Now I think there’s only about three different reasons that could happen.  One is some sort of global war; with a threat like that where the whole of the population of the Earth would be badly affected by that, purely because of what was going on in the war.  It could be somebody ruling the planet would switch it off.  Or it could be some really massive cosmic or gamma shower.

Kat - So something like a solar storm. That’s something we hear worries about that that could knock out communication systems.

Peter - But more than that - it would knock out probably most electronics.  So you know a lot of aircraft would fall out of the sky, telecommunications and everything…

Kat - And no-one could tweet about it because the internet would be broken.

Peter - Exactly.  So everything would shut down: banking, transport, utilities, power, water, all kinds of thing.  But, of course, once you remember that it’s only been about 15 years that the internet’s been in mass use even though it’s been around probably about 50 years.  So we could recover from that reasonably quickly, I suspect.


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First you must answer "What is the internet, to you?".

To some people it is a way to:

Be entertained, 24/7; there is no need to ever be bored. Sort of a super combined rock concert, TV, Cinema and computer game.
access the knowledge of mankind, no matter where it is located, at a mere request. Sort of a super enhanced library.

access your friends and acquaintances, no matter where you or they are located, and in what timezone. Sort of a continuous, 24-hour party.

share your experiences and creations with others, anywhere. An art gallery, where anyone can exhibit.

manage a geographically dispersed nation, business or workforce. Produce a super bureaucrat.

do what I did last year, only faster & better. A technological accelerator.
Variously assist/influence/coordinate/control people in personal/social/educational/consumption/business/political/religious/military spheres

have machines do the work, instead of people; alternatively, free up people for more creative endeavors and more leisure. 

There are already some cracks in the internet (sorry about the essay):

It's not clear how people will pay for services, and how much they will pay.

Some people are so addicted to being in contact that they can't even hold a sensible conversation - or a job requiring concentration.

Some malicious people use this ubiquitous connectivity to harass others, and some steal information and/or  money.

large amounts of human knowledge are unavailable on the public internet, because they are considered:


pay per view (sometimes at exorbitant rates)


sensitive in some way. 

Some of these areas will remain (especially in the area of national security), but exercises in eGovernment are showing that information collected at public expense can often be used by the public, for the public good, often in unexpected ways. Wikipedia and Youtube (across their many linguistic variants) demonstrate that people will often willingly share their skills, knowledge and experience with others.

It's not clear that most of the traffic on the internet actually leads to economic growth or improved wellbeing; or, if it did, whether we would be able to measure it.
It is still very much a rich man's toy. More people are getting connected, but in many parts of the world, one mobile phone with SMS at a nearby village is the closest they come to the internet.
the advances of the internet are based on "Moore's Law", which has celebrated its 50th birthday this year. But it's not clear how much longer this exponential growth in computing and communication can continue.

Internet usage approximately doubles every 2 years. This requires continual investment in infrastructure, power, cooling and connected devices to avoid obsolescence. Again, it becomes a problem about "who pays?".

The IPv4 address space used by most people are running out, and is now being rationed in some parts of the world. IPv6 has far more addresses, but is not actively used by most people.

All parts of the world have certain internet content which is considered illegal. Some parts of the world have tight controls on internet access, and others are actively considering it.

The internet uses a lot of energy - estimates vary from 0.5% to 2% of global CO2 output. A significant power outage, due to natural or manmade causes will shut down most of it within 24 hours.

The internet as we know it suffers problems with long-distance connections; CERN and NASA have had to rewrite the internet protocols for their own particular environments. But it's still very much a "world-wide" web, without connection to anyone else out there (cue spooky music...),

I think that, having experienced high-speed internet, few people would willingly give it up. Less visibly, our whole modern society depends on easy communication - if it suddenly failed, there would be chaos within days.

Barring wars, natural disasters, sabotage, strict government censorship and the robopocalypse, I think people will continue to demand internet access to the world. Even with severe energy shortages, given a choice between saving energy on the internet, and saving energy in motor vehicles, people will prefer to economize on motor vehicle usage.

It is expected that within 10 years, there will be more automated internet users than human users - the so-called "Internet of Things". In 20 years time, the bulk of internet traffic may become unrecognizable to a citizen of 2015. evan_au, Wed, 7th Oct 2015

You could ask a similar question about how long road networks will last?

Barring some new technology that obviates the need for roads, or collapse of civilisation, they're not going anywhere.

I think if something bad happened to the Internet, engineers would just rebuild it and redesign it and reduce the chance of the bad thing happening again.

So there's no probability here, at this point everyone agrees we need an Internet, so we're still going to have it unless or until civilisation collapses. wolfekeeper, Wed, 7th Oct 2015

Look at the fax machine: from slow, specialist equipment for news organisations to essential business tool and back to obscurity in one generation.

With increasing calls for censorship of the internet, and the supine response of western government to anyone who wants to stop anything (except schoolkids' access to guns, of course) for fear of upsetting the Sky Fairy, I think we can guess that all communication will in future be moderated by computer and you will not be able to read this subversive message in 2030 because there's something suspicious about the placing of the commas..  alancalverd, Wed, 7th Oct 2015

It seems to me that you both have the same mentality, and that you hate that mentality.

Someone I respect said "Treat other people the way you would like them to treat you".

This applies on the internet, just as it does in other spheres of life. evan_au, Wed, 7th Oct 2015

A personal journey...
The internet started with the ARPANET in the 1960s. Initially, this involved communications between 4 university/research computers in California.

My university was connected to the internet in the 1970s. Interested students in computer science and electrical engineering could use email and newsfeed on text-only terminals (24 lines of 80 characters, fixed font monochrome).

In the 1980s, I had the privilege of having a tour of the original ARPANET control center, located in Cambridge, Mass.

In the early 1990s, I used an internet application called Gopher to show my family and friends "the internet". My wife commented "This is a glorified library catalog - it will never catch on."

Around 2000, my family relocated overseas. Digital photos and streaming audio over the internet were a great way to keep in touch with events "back home".

By 2010, the internet was dominated by traffic delivered by the "World-Wide Web", with video making up a significant fraction of the bandwidth. Social media had really taken off. My wife was an enthusiastic user.

Today, around 2015, much internet traffic is consumed on mobile devices, using special-purpose "Apps" which combine communication and computation, rather than through a general "Web browser".

In the future, with IoT, much of the traffic won't be generated or consumed by humans.

Perhaps a common theme over that time was that the internet was seen as a way of communicating between decentralized computing devices. The balance between local and remote resources is continually changing, but with both rapidly growing more powerful over time.

In 20 years, affordable computing power and storage has grown by around a factor of 1000. If your car were replaced by one that was 1,000 times faster, would you still call it "a car"? evan_au, Wed, 7th Oct 2015

The Internet already died once before:

It basically went down for two days or if you prefer the term "partitioned"- either way, it was no longer functionally up in any coherent way for anyone as an overall entity.

This was before the web of course, so it wasn't such a big thing, but it did happen. wolfekeeper, Fri, 9th Oct 2015

Could the internet die?
Only if it was alive. Bored chemist, Sat, 10th Oct 2015

I have been on the internet since Windows 95. This was back in the day of phone dial up. Even though the internet was slow those were the fun days. It was just starting to come into its own, beyond research organizations. Now the internet has gotten faster, but to me it has gotten boring due to being too market place. It was exciting in the early days, when the internet required some basic tech savvy. Now you sit  there an let yourself be done.

Now, the internet is too top heavy with gimmicks and adds to manipulate a wider range audience. When you do a data search, the top positions in the search are bought and sold. Buying and selling search words is an industry to get you to adds. Search engines will even try to funnel you based on the political orientation of the owners. Social media is used in the same way.

The internet will never die, since new children will always fall in love with the novelty. But those who have been there and done it, will grow bored as the format becomes way too supply side and the  original exploratory demand search is contaminated.
puppypower, Sat, 10th Oct 2015

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