That’s just as well, because for most of us in the developed world, living without the internet now seems unthinkable. Without Facebook, online gaming, email and all the other connected services we now take for granted, life would be, if not impossible, then certainly very different.
Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology Dr Stuart Fischoff thinks that on an individual level, there’d be an intense period of mourning that the constantly connected would have to endure before getting their lives back on track.
“For many people it would take a lot of adapting as their life has been really encrusted around this technology,” he says. “It would be a really profound loss – a bit like what happens to a family when the mother dies. Everything gets disrupted and is suddenly up for grabs and people have to run around doing everything she did. If you take all of these rituals out of a person’s life, you’d really have to work hard to rebuild it.”
Do you get anxious just thinking of a weekend out of broadband range? Stressed out by slow, unreliable Wi-Fi connections? Hit F5 constantly when Twitter is over capacity? Join the club.
“However, the systems at the core of markets and banking networks are not open, public networks, but proprietary, private networks with significant physical controls and security mechanisms for protection.”
Hillary Cash runs the REstart addiction clinic, 13 miles from Microsoft’s HQ in Redmond, California. She’s been dealing with tech-addicted young adults for nigh on two decades: “Back then it was a trickle, right now it’s a flood,” she says. At her clinic, in-patients have virtually no access to digital technology for 45 days in an attempt to wean them off the web.
Cash’s clients are not in as small a minority as you might think. A 2010 study suggests that seven per cent of Chinese elementary and middle school children are “addicted” to the internet (Leui et al) and as far back as 2005, 18 per cent of British students were considered to be pathological internet users (Niemz et al).
What kind of an aftermath would we see in 2011 were the web to fail? “I think you’d have a major freak-out all around the globe with people being thrown into withdrawal, and they’d panic,” says Cash. “People would be feeling anxious, depressed, angry and restless. They wouldn’t be sleeping well and would be very irritable.”
However, she doesn’t think this would lead to suicidal behaviour. In her opinion, internet addiction is more like sex addiction than being an alcoholic or hooked on heroin.
“Let’s say you’re an adult who’s spent their entire life in front of a screen. You might be very anxious and hide away for a long time before you’re ready to be in the world, but in the end people would figure it out. After about three weeks they’d calm down, and their brains would start working on how to get on with life.”
Journal of Media Psychology’s Dr Fischoff doesn’t subscribe to the idea of “internet addiction” per se. His feeling is that the net is just an enabler for more traditional addictive behaviour.
“It isn’t so much that people are addicted to the internet,” he tells us. “They are addicted to the gifts of the internet. They need constant stimulus input, and without it people will skip to other types of addiction that are not net-dependent, be it sex or gambling, that are available offline.
Dr Fischoff says that one of the main things that has us checking Facebook every 15 minutes is the arguably illusory feeling of self-worth offered by online friends and followers.
A recent study showed that those with narcissistic tendencies and also those with low self-esteem were more inclined to check their Facebook pages more often. Without Facebook and other social-networking sites offering regular ego boosts, people could struggle.
“People need feedback, they need more affirmation that they are friendly and worthy of knowing,” Fischoff says. “What Facebook does is to exploit this weakness that exists in social animals such as ourselves.
“I think that losing Facebook would initially be a problem for some individuals. But they would discover other ways to find self-worth. I think the desire to talk, socialise and get reflections back about what you’re saying – the looking glass self theory – says we know ourselves by how people look back at us.”
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