Future Tense

Taking Away the Cheat Sheet

How an Internet apocalypse would transform life.

computer apocalypse.

Spending time together in the Internet Age.

Photo by Vitranc/Thinkstock

As the Internet embeds itself deeper into every aspect of our lives, fears of an Internet apocalypse become more frightening. We worry about how the disintegration of sites like Amazon, Netflix, and Skype would spell the end of our online consumerism, entertainment, and communication.

But while those are all valid concerns, as I wrote my new novel Notes From the Internet Apocalypse, I was more intrigued by how life without the Internet would affect us on a more personal level—specifically, the effects of losing our quick access to information. Perhaps more than anything else, the loss of instant, free-flowing data has the power to change not only how we do things, but who we are. Perhaps for the better.

The first consequence of getting kicked off the information superhighway would be an instant change in how we argue. How many trivial disputes between friends are now instantly resolved by a quick check of Google, IMDb, or Wikipedia? Take a stupid dispute like “Who played the bad kid in Silver Spoons?” That argument wouldn’t last more than a minute now. But before the Internet, you had to state your case based on memory, rhetoric, and emphasis: “I’m positive it was Jason Bateman! He even had his own spinoff called It’s Your Move—y’know, with that guy who was the neighbor on Married With Children. Well, not really a spinoff, but a similar character. Right, this was before Bateman was on Valerie. The show with Valerie Harper. Yes, the chick who played Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. You never heard of Valerie? Oh, well yeah, when she left they replaced her with Sandy Duncan and called it The Hogan Family. See? I know what I’m talking about!”

That’s how we did it then, and all those inane arguments had some value. You got to share more of yourself. Conversations went different places, and you created entertainment through the use of language and your inventory of memories. And although not everything about an Internet apocalypse would mean a return to the past, that is one area where the muscle memory would spring back. Untethered from the Internet’s cheat sheet, we’d again argue about what doesn’t matter.

Like all cheat sheets, the Internet affects how we learn, or maybe more appropriately, don’t learn. Smartphones and the Internet have turned life into an open-book exam. We used to think a sign of intelligence was actually knowing things. If you had a question about black holes or the Alien and Sedition Acts or the use of 19th-century political symbolism in Moby-Dick, you wouldn’t be impressed with some dude who said, “Oh, yeah, I have a book at home that explains all of that.” The acquisition of knowledge meant both acquiring it and putting it in your head. Now, people are impressed with their ability to find information. They’re expert searchers who pick the best sites and pat themselves on the back for their Wiki/Snopes one-two punch of data retrieval. While it’s tempting to say putting information at our fingertips on every subject in the universe has made humankind smarter, we know we’ve only increased our access to information. That access can be a great starting point, but, somehow, we’ve allowed the ability to know to be a substitute for the real acquisition and integration of knowledge. Losing the Internet would increase the value of information, making it a commodity that must be earned, and therefore, safeguarded in memory.

Losing the Internet would also increase the value of the building blocks of that information: words. We used to say that talk was cheap because language is ethereal and fleeting. We felt anything of real value needed to be written down. Not just contracts and mortgages, but personal things like love letters. But somehow, despite being written, texts and instant messages are even less important than spoken words. How much easier is it to text your love or laughter? LOL. <3333. ILU. Texts provide all the immediacy and transience of speech, while removing the intimacy. There is something more precious about paper. Deprived of the Internet, the main character in Notes From the Internet Apocalypse begins occupying his time by scribbling frenetically into a journal. He’s calmed by the activity but unsettled by the permanence of the mark he is leaving. Like most of us, he’s used to writing online, creating expression of little value by commenting and posting on things like family get-togethers and fancy meals. He’s spent years creating the kind of Web-based information that reveals our lives.

And actually, while it may be mundane, the loss of that social media information is also significant. Mostly because that information keeps us on the grid. At the birth of the Internet, we believed it was a place to become someone new. A virtual reality. A place you could assume identities in role-playing video games and anonymous chat rooms. But with so much of our real-life information existing on the Web (not to mention the data-mining efforts of governments and corporations), a very persuasive argument can be made that it’s actually the loss of the Internet that would allow us to become someone new. We would suddenly be free of the inventory of ourselves.

You’d meet some women in a bar and she wouldn’t be able to Google you. No Facebook page would out you on your favorite movie quotations or religious beliefs. (That’s right! She’d have to find out you were a Pastafarian by actually talking to you—if you were actually lame enough to make that joke out loud instead of in an online bio.) You would be in charge of what people knew about you with each new encounter. And for those who’ve dug themselves into an unwanted e-existence of social media and streaming data, an Internet apocalypse might be the perfect chance to clear the cache of daily experience and begin again.

Notes From the Internet Apocalypse by Wayne Gladstone. St. Martin’s Press