November 16, 2015
As recently as September, Facebook went down for less than an hour. Contrary to expectations, this did not actually lead to the end of civilization and the beginning of the End Times. But distressed users flocked to Twitter, made jokes about going outside and playing with kids, and even suggested attaching photos to a carrier pigeon.
Facebook has obviously since gone back up, but this is just the latest incident of a major website going offline. Similarly, Amazon’s Web Services (AWS) servers overloaded, which brought down Netflix, Tinder, and IMDb. This was soon followed by Skype’s network issue which prevented users from making calls and using group chat.
In a more globalized world where Internet access has been viewed by some as a human right, what are we to make of these recent outages? Are we too dependent on the Internet for our work and daily lives?
That dependency will only continue to increase, as it is estimated that 25 to 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020. That is more than three times the estimated total human population by that date.
But as we use the Internet to stream videos, play games, and conduct business, it has to be remembered that the Internet was never designed to do what we ask of it today. The Internet was created in the 1970s as a way for academic researchers and government workers to pass information along to each other.
As more and more people are using the Internet, there are concerns that the Internet may be reaching its capacity. The Scientific American reported in 2013 that telecommunication networks could reach their limit of how much information they could process within five years, and that governments would have to lay additional expensive cables to compensate.
The possibility of a general telecommunications overload has nothing to do with why Facebook, AWS, and Skype all had crashes within a week of each other. The timing of those crashes wascoincidence. But while Facebook has not reported on the reason for their outage, Skype and AWS both suffered from server shortages. They will have to ensure that their websites can handle the strain of millions of people who would freak out if those websites went offline for an entire day.
There is also the growing threat of cyberwarfare. While news networks over the past week have frenziedly covered Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, little has been written about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to America. Cyberwarfare has been a key topic of discussion between the two biggest countries in the world over this visit, and China and America could reach an agreement over cyberwarfare soon. In the meantime, “hacktivists” are threatening everyone’s private individuals as they release that information without the slightest concern for what destruction they sow in the process.
But while people may be worried about cyberwarfare and a worrisome telecommunications infrastructure, the fact is that the development of the Internet is one of the greatest information boons in the history of the human race. It has allowed for greater communications between business and customers, between family members, and between friends. And when a person really needs a moment of privacy, there is nothing stopping him for just turning his devices off and experiencing the world. Just like those poor souls who went without Facebook for a whole hour.
Western civilization may recall Socrates as a wise man. But the Greek philosopher hated writing, which he said “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.”
When a new means of recording information is created, there is always consternation about how we may become too dependent on it, all while ignoring the other forms of information which we are already dependent on. Just as there are those who worry about Internet connectivity today, there was a wise man who railed about how his ancient Greek civilization was too dependent on writing.
We have built civilizations around writing, no matter what Socrates’s concerns were. And the Internet is another great repository of information, and is fundamentally a great boon for all of humanity.
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