This is my favorite photo of the Internet.
While users’ experience of the Internet is always local,1 Internet infrastructure is truly global. It unfolds across diverse material forms: light pulses under the sea, radio waves through the air, electricity through copper wires under the earth. There is nowhere on our planet where this infrastructure isn’t. You can get an Internet connection anywhere on the surface of the earth.
For me, this image of the planet evokes both wonder and anxiety. It’s something incredible, but it’s also something that can destroy us.
Like our planet, the Internet is in danger. And, like the planet, our species could go down with the ship.2 If the Internet were to destabilize, industrial collapse could well follow—locally, regionally, or globally.
Without hyperbole, how we steward the Internet will determine the fate of our species.
Without hyperbole, how we steward the Internet will determine the fate of our species. We cannot approach climate change without a global internet, let alone manage a global system of trade.3 A changing climate, aging infrastructure, and an increasingly multi-polar international stage has produced a recipe for disaster—or rather, for numerous disasters—which I expect would fall differentially along the usual lines of power and privilege.4
Yet no one (at least, no one we know of) can tell us what exact risks the Internet faces. What would happen if Russia hit Cloudflare with a Stuxnet-level cyberattack? What would happen if large and increasingly frequent storms brought down power in major cities worldwide? In these scenarios, who would be affected, and how? Our inability to answer these questions signals our difficulty in protecting against—or prioritizing between—the risks they invoke. It testifies to a broader inability to assess risks about the Internet.
Like scientists building models of the climate in the 1960s and 1970s, we need models of the Internet
When it comes to the Internet, what we lack is this: a structural model that describes how the whole thing fits together. Like scientists building models of the climate in the 1960s and 1970s, we need models of the Internet both to stave off disaster and shepherd a stable and global internet into the future.
How do we build such a model? That’s the question I’ll puzzle through over the next few weeks.
First, we’ll have to understand why the Internet is in such danger. See the next post in the series: Why is the Internet in danger?
Thanks to Sean Beld—you know why.
Janet Abbate. What and where is the Internet? (Re) defining internet histories. Internet Histories, 1(1-2):8–14,201
Imagine: you try to use your credit card, but it doesn’t work. Nobody’s credit card works. You try to access the news to find out why, but that doesn’t work either. Chaos ensues. People smash ATMs and empty them of cash. Global trade systems disintegrate: ships don’t know where to go to dock or what to pick up when they get there. Overnight, 90% of the population becomes what you might call “hunter-gatherers.”
More people are aware of the existential risk of AI than the existential risk of Internet instability, even though the Internet is the medium through which AI operates!
Global or repeated meltdowns (i.e., frequent, widespread, and prolonged periods of unexpected behavior) could cause systems of pricing, trade, logistics, and international finance to disintegrate in unpredictable ways across diverse geographies and timescales.