What would happen if the internet suffered a prolonged and serious outage, reason irrelevant (cyberattack, zero days, P = NP with a simple and fast algorithm, solar superstorms, major vendor compromise, AWS KMS shredded from attack or mistake, total BGP meltdown, take your pick), but we still had electricity, gas, mail, mostly functioning government, and basically everything we used to have in the ~80s, in most areas?
Well, besides the obvious awful consequences on basically everything in every industry, I can sure think of some extremely low-cost, easily preventable technical consequences which would make rebuilding unnecessarily difficult:
- How many people would have maps?
- How many people would have survival information?
- We had PCs before we had the internet. What happens when you can’t set up a PC without the internet?
- Many platforms don’t support offline updates. What happens when you have a Switch game card for your desperate kids, but don’t have the update for the Switch?
- How would education continue, if so many books and resources gone digital no longer exist – and the physical material that exists is now in great danger of theft?
Now… I will admit, what is the likelihood of such a scenario? Not very high… but it’s more amazing that we have successfully digitized so much knowledge, we now have capacity to widely distribute this knowledge and make ourselves more resilient to outages, and we don’t.
Imagine my following (very early, not set in stone, probably have loopholes or other issues, they are just sketches, hopefully somewhat common-sense) proposals:
- Every internet-connected device should be capable of being set up, and updated, without an internet connection, from stored offline files.
- Devices should be capable of exporting their own newer firmware to an offline image, to update other devices on older firmware offline. If my PlayStation is on v37, and my friend is on v32, and my game requires v34, I should be able to help my friend update to v37 and play, especially because we’re going to need it during those difficult times.
- App developers on closed ecosystems, such as the Apple App Store, should have the option to allow their apps to be installed offline. Apple can still certify the app to their standards, but if I’m the developer of an open-source application, I should have the option to let my users export my app to a signed file, stash it on a flash drive somewhere, and install it on random people’s iPhones in case of emergency. (I’m not making a point against the App Store here – the application would still have been signed by Apple at some point, and it could be double-checked if internet is available.)
- Right now, people can self-certify up to $300 of charitable giving to the IRS without receipts. Why can’t the government grant, say, a $20 Tax Credit for self-certifying you are storing a full set of Project Gutenberg? Or for storing a database of emergency survival information with images? Or for storing full copies of OpenStreetMap for your state? Or for storing an offline copy of Wikipedia (~120GB)? If even 10 million people did it, it would cost up to $80 million – a pittance by government budget standards (and our $700+Billion national defense budget), but it could make a ludicrous and disproportionate difference on outcome to have the knowledge so widely distributed. If people widely cheated on it and 100 million claimed to be doing it… is even $8 billion with some fraud here and there that big of a deal compared to our national defense budget and the benefits provided?
- Emergency situations are unpredictable – that’s why every phone is legally required to support 911, even without a carrier plan. But we have smartphones now, so why aren’t we raising the bar? Would it really kill us to store a database of just written information on how to survive various situations on every phone? Why can’t I ask Siri, without an internet connection, how to do CPR? It would probably take 10MB at most… and save many lives.
- Many films and TV Shows are becoming streaming-exclusive, and as many fans are finding out, this is very dangerous for archival purposes. Just ask fans of “Final Space,” who had the series completely erased from all platforms, even if they purchased it, for accounting reasons. I wonder if the relationship between creators and fans should be reconsidered slightly. If you are a major corporation, and you get fans invested in a series, do you perhaps have a moral obligation to provide a copy of your content on physical media for those interested, so as to prevent a widespread loss of culture? (Also because, all it takes is a few Amazon data centers to blow up and a ton of streaming-exclusive movies might no longer exist…) Perhaps this should be called a Cultural Security issue.