The man next to you on the train coughs wetly. He glances across with a muttered apology, his red-rimmed eyes dulled by tiredness. Tomorrow you will be confined to bed, bones aching and sweat soaking into your sheets. The day after that, like every other living thing on the planet, you’ll be dead.
It’s a common sci-fi narrative; the civilisation-destroying apocalypse. In my scenario, however, there are no hidden-away communities, no roaming gangs of neo-barbarians. There is nobody, because I’m not interested in bodies.
I’m interested in what happens to that most pervasive and, arguably, revolutionary of human inventions. What happens to the Internet, and its three most popular children, once there are no more humans? What does that tell us about how humans interact with the Internet now?
A Cathedral Of Ghosts:
Given a perpetual power source and a resilience to component failure that is perhaps overly-optimistic, the Internet proper – the globally distributed complex of interconnected computers and computer-like devices – would continue much as it does today. Few people genuinely interact with the infrastructure of the Internet itself, beyond maintenance and development duties, so it is already largely independent of a need for human content. It is a place of silent messengers floating along otherwise-empty corridors, of mono-tasking daemons bound into constant servitude, and of near-infinitely vast storage halls.
The Internet, the architecture that supports a lot of what we would consider daily life, is no longer a human place, its machineries working at a different scale and speed to that which we can comprehend, and our passing would cause it little disruption. Ironically, without the interference of fallible humans, the Internet would probably be more robust than it is currently.
World Wide Dead:
The world wide web, the gaudy shop-front of the Internet, becomes a much different place without humans. Without people to generate content, even simply to give websites a purpose by visiting them, the web would become little more than a decaying strip mall of static, unchanging content visited only by the handful of search engine spiders who still bother to index it.
In fact, a large proportion of the web is like this already; there are approximately one billion sites on the web today but specialist resellers have almost a quarter of a billion expired domains, web address that have either been abandoned or cancelled by their owners, on their books. The number of sites that still host content but which are not actively maintained is harder to ascertain. The guidance website for the defunct Netscape browser, the final version of which was released in 2008, is still available and navigable but is, for all intents and purposes, derelict. How many sites sit empty, waiting for someone to remove their ‘under construction’ holding page, is almost impossible to gauge.
Whilst some of the web may indeed look like the glisteningly neon hyper-city envisaged by the likes of William Gibson, it’s pockmarked by the burn-scars of shanty towns and failed developments.
Dead Letter Drop:
It may be comforting to think that, without humans to write them, the flow of emails around the world would cease and there would be at least some indication of humanity’s disappearance through their simple absence. Comforting, but wrong. The amount of spam email, almost universally sent through automated means, has never dropped below 50% of the total number of emails sent. Indeed, the volume of spam is increasing and would be likely to increase ever more swiftly given the loss of human operators to update virus definitions and software patches.
Beyond spam and junk mail, many legitimate systems also use email as a way of notifying their administrators of events or query points and these would continue, collecting like dust in unread inboxes. Legitimate mails sent by actual humans would be archived in multiple places; on home computers, dedicated mail servers and as duplicates in the interstitial routing servers that make up the mail infrastructure.
No doubt some of these would become caught in failed cycles of sending and resending, the idiot whisperings of ghosts.
Despite being the youngest of the siblings, social media tells a similar story to email and the web; activity would slow, would become more predicable, but would far from cease. For example, a large proportion of Twitter’s content is generated, or recycled, by the 15% of accounts that are automated bots. Legitimate bot accounts – like @censusAmericans, which tweets anonymised US census data, and @FFD8FFDB’s stills from CCTV cameras – would add a haunting element to the cataloguing of a post-human world and would continue to mine data from the web or the interlinked devices of the internet ad infinitum.
Facebook also has its share of automated bots but with the additional element of an entire mechanism built around automated notifications for things like birthdays, reminders of past events and friendship anniversaries. Even without any human input there would be a flurry of communication between social media accounts, many of which are linked across multiple platforms.
Ghosts in the Machine:
So, where does this lead us? The closed infrastructure of the Internet continuing to maintain the data store of the web, the communication tools of email and social media’s constant, recursive chatter means we will have left a footprint that, to external eyes, seems somehow still active but dormant, lobotomised. Would a future civilisation find not a dead world but one that has been almost zombiefied, reduced to performing the same few actions again and again? Would they try to rebuild this mechanism’s creators from the information left behind, as we rebuild extinct creatures from fossils or dead cultures from the art that persists after them?
In “Be Right Back“, an episode of the speculative horror series Black Mirror, a dead man’s personality is rebuilt from his online presence. His web history, email content, tweets, posts, Skype recordings, comments, photos, hashtags and geo-positioning data are all used to build a picture of how he appeared to the external world. This use of appearances is crucial to the story, to the uncanny valley that is plumbed by its narrative. Only a facet of his personality, no matter how realistic it initially seems, has been retrieved. We see how he was thought of by others and, to a degree, how he wanted to think of himself. We are never sure of the truth of this appearance.
Imagine this extrapolated out to an entire civilisation; our email archives and web sites, newsfeeds and Instagram libraries all brought together, prioritised by historic lists of Twitter top-trenders. What would be born from that?
It’s a fantasy, perhaps, but one which isn’t too distant from the online world today. There is a clamour of voices; there is an equally large part of the world whose online voice is either unheard or simply doesn’t exist. With the dominance of online communication, and the globally unequal proliferation of technology in general, do we risk prioritising the wrong voices? Do we even understand how online discourse is prioritised? The core element of online priorities, the trend-enabling hashtag, has, in a way, become a kind of sigil. As I have talked about previously, the sigil is itself empty; It implies importance and, by being important accrues ever-greater importance, yet it means nothing in itself. The linked concepts of virality and memetics are equally value-agnostic; memes aren’t propagated through merit or utility but a bizarre alchemy of novelty, simplicity and group-think.
We are mining our own past, sifting through human culture, and defining importance almost arbitrarily. For anyone trying to rebuild humanity, sifting through metaphorical files of doggos and #epicbants, this would be an archival nightmare of immense proportions.
This is a cynical view, certainly, as much of the online world is intended to be, and understood as being, little more than entertainment. Academic websites and archives are more studiously organised, corporate online presences are meticulously groomed and monitored. Yet our culture is built most truly out of the day-to-day, of what we laugh at and what we mark-unread for later.
Are we, like the characters in “Be Right Back”, at risk of building a world out of what appears to be important, what we are told is important, rather than what is?