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What if solar storms knocked out the Internet?

January 24, 2012 |  5:37 pm

 

The likelihood is remote, but there's a chance that a solar flare like the one that disrupted the Earth's electromagnetic field Tuesday could be responsible for the temporary demise of the Internet -- or at least your ability to access it.

Don't believe us? Well, in 1989 electrical ground currents created by another solar storm made their way into the power grid of the Hydro-Quebec Power Authority, causing 6 million people to lose electricity. Elevators stopped working. Office buildings went dark. Engineers in Northern America were worried the blackout could travel down the Eastern Seaboard, although that never came to pass.

The U.S. government has since invested in research that has improved the design of electrical systems to make them less vulnerable to the effects of a solar storm. Still, we thought it was an interesting exercise to imagine what would happen if we were forced to live for a few hours, days or even weeks in a world without Internet.

Here are our top five predictions.

1. Self-promotion would become gauche again. Somewhere along our journey to total digital dependence -- maybe around 2007 or 2008 -- we accepted, as a society, that when it came to managing our Internet persona, it was clearly self-promote or perish. Did your kid do well on the SATs? Tell your 256 friends on Facebook all about it. Got a new project going at work? Tweet it loud and proud. Got a big story dropping in Vanity Fair? Email everyone in your address list. But in a world without Internet, where you have to look someone in the face while bragging, all this 'look how great I am' stuff might start to feel weird again.

2. Remembering who directed a movie would be a major project. Instant access to information through Wikipedia, IMDB and even Google has made it weirdly easy to answer any pop culture question that occurs to us at absolutely any time. If the 1986 film "Labyrinth" came up at Christmas dinner, you could figure out who directed it with just a few taps on a smartphone. But in a world without Internet, that same question could keep you guessing, or arguing, all night long.

3. Deal hunting would become a sport again. We are drowning in a daily deluge of deals. Gilt Groupe, HauteLook, Groupon, Blackboard Eats -- those are just a handful of sites that entice Internet users to save money by spending money on fancy local restaurants, Juicy Couture clothes, pricey sunglasses and spa treatments. But in a world without Internet, knowing which nail salon was giving 50 percent off a mani-pedi would take actual leg work. You'd have to really want it to find it.

4. Collecting would take effort. In today's world, deciding to start a collection of Art Deco jewelry, or mid-century pottery, or tea pots, or door knobs or Persian rugs with animals in the design is as simple as going on EBay and forking over cash. But in a world without Internet these collector gems could be found only by combing through Goodwills and tag sales. Stinky, time consuming and frequently unrewarding work.

5. You'd hear a lot fewer Apple rumors. In an online news cycle that demands constant updating, unsubstantiated rumors that Apple's next iPad might have better resolution than its last iPad is considered a major news story. In a world in which we had to typeset our stories by hand, pay for the paper they were printed on and the ink that they were printed with, well...you'd probably hear only about one Apple rumor a week.

ALSO:

Solar storms may cause dropped calls on cellphones

Apple reports record sales of iPhones, iPads and Macs

Google plans to merge more user data across its products

-- Deborah Netburn


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