Everyone reading this post knows about the inconvenience of occasional power outages, I think. In my neck of the forest in Quebec, they probably happen with more frequency than they do in big city centres. All it takes around here is one big gust of wind causing a tree to fall onto the hydro wires, and out go the lights. It has happened twice in the past few weeks.
I’m pretty prepared for that, as I have mentioned in previous posts. We have a wood stove, a fireplace, stored water and access to more from a local stream in winter that never freezes etc. I’ve even purchased three power stations with lithium batteries that can recharge our electronic devices, so during a power outage I can still work from home. Nothing could go wrong, right?
Not quite, as I discovered recently when a software glitch caused millions of Rogers customers to lose their wireless internet connection for eight hours or more. A lot of people like me, who live in areas not covered by fibreoptic internet service, couldn’t sign in to our workplaces. Others couldn’t make COVID vaccine appointments, pay bills, access their bank accounts et al. And for many who gave up their telephone landlines, they couldn’t even call or text anyone.
In all fairness to Rogers, it’s the first time since I started using their service in 1989 that I’ve seen anything like this happen. They have a pretty good track record for reliability. But like many other people, including the executives at Rogers, it was an alarming event. The internet is the lifeline for the office crowd working from home during the pandemic — and for many others who rely on it in myriad ways.
Indeed, for many of us, losing internet access is worse than losing electricity.
Sure, it’s a First World problem. Some 47% of the world’s population has no internet access. They never developed a dependency on it. But we have, and if it were to suddenly disappear for a long period of time or, worse, for good, there would be chaos in Western civilization.
I’ve been thinking about this vulnerability since the Rogers outage occurred, and how we have allowed ourselves to become dependent on a technology that can be hacked for the fun of it by a teenager — or with malicious intent by operatives bent on disrupting life in the West. The next world war could begin not with a gunshot, but with a piece of coding inputted from someone’s keyboard.
I guess we could go back to a world without the internet, but it would take a long period of adjustment and there would be a lot of victims — from companies that would go out of business to mass unemployment. It would be a digital apocalypse.
I’d like to think that corporations have contingency plans for a prolonged or permanent internet outage — that banks have paper records of all transactions and account balances, that hydro-electricity plants would be able to operate etc. But looking at my own trade, the newspaper industry, we’d be out of business for a while — especially those that have gone fully digital and no longer publish a product on paper.
The Rogers incident is a reminder of how increasingly fragile human civilization has become, and maybe that we take too many things for granted that could be snatched away from us in less time than the blink of an eye.
It also reassured me that it was a good idea to keep my telephone landline — in case of emergencies, I had reasoned when I made the decision to keep paying $35 a month for something I seldom use anymore. I bet a lot of Rogers wireless customers were using landlines to call their offices that day to explain why they couldn’t sign in to their digital workplaces.