Online lifeline

There's no doubt the Internet connects us, but does it have too much power? How does our dependency on connectivity play out when it gets shut down?

Joanne Carew
By Joanne Carew, ITWeb Cape-based contributor.
Johannesburg, 31 Jan 2019
Joanne Carew.
Joanne Carew.

Would you be able to survive without the Internet?

My guess is that responses to this question will be divided into two very distinct groups. The "digital detoxers" who relish the opportunity to go "off the grid" and don't bat an eyelid about heading out the door without their smartphone in hand. And then there are the technophiles: people who thrive in a world of likes and hashtags, and cherish the fact that buying a trolley of groceries or seeking medical advice is only a click away.

But before planting your flag in either camp, take a moment to consider what it would be like with no Internet AT ALL. Say goodbye to ride-sharing apps, food delivery services, mobile payments, Google searches, live streaming and seamless communication.

As a small business owner, I wouldn't survive. I'm pretty much on the Internet all day. Enabled by e-mail, video conferencing and WhatsApp, I can communicate with my colleagues without any trouble. Online project management tools make collaboration with clients easy no matter what city we're in. And let's not forget all the research I do which simply wouldn't be possible without the Web.

I'd imagine that most modern businesses would be hamstrung were their connectivity compromised. In fact, a recent study found that a lacklustre Internet connection costs the average UK worker about 40 minutes of productivity each day. Add up all those 40 minutes and you've got about 21 wasted days each year, which is more "time off" than most employees get in annual leave.

There's no doubt that digitalisation has made our lives simpler but it's also put us in a rather vulnerable position should it all be taken away.

So I'll ask the question again: would you be able to survive without the Internet?

A country in ruins

Just a few weeks ago, the Zimbabwean government shut down the Internet. In response to violent protests over fuel price hikes (their petrol is now the most expensive in the world) the government decided that cutting all connectivity was the only way forward.

Telecoms providers described the "total Internet shutdown" as being beyond their reasonable control; with one telco explaining it had no option but to comply with the government directive.

That may have been the case but in a country where less than 5% of commercial transactions involve cash, an Internet shutdown prevents people from accessing their money, making something as simple as buying electricity or a loaf of bread, impossible.

And no electronic bank transfers mean people don't get paid. Downtime also affects medical aids because access to benefits is reliant on connectivity. So Zimbabweans either had to pay extra to receive treatment or simply do without.

It wasn't long before the High Court ruled that the move was illegal. But there's a catch. The shutdown wasn't deemed illegal because it cut people off from vital resources. No, it was unlawful because the directive came from the minister of state for security, not the president. According to the court, only the president has the authority to make such a demand.

I find that subtle caveat a tad concerning. The court's decision was less about the issue of plunging an entire country into information and connectivity darkness and more about who actually ordered the flipping of the switch.

The Internet was restored but Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp remained inaccessible for several days. Hmm. Restoring connectivity but restricting access to vital news sources and communication platforms feels a little too strategic to me.

The irony being that Zimbabwe's president, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, used his official Twitter account to explain that social networks were being used to arrange mass protest activities, thus the decision to shut them down. He described the clampdown as "temporary, tactical and aimed at restoring the peace".

The whole thing got me thinking about how much we depend on the Internet. Given our reliance on these digital solutions and tools, is it a good idea to give a single person the right to take them away if/when he or she deems necessary?

There's no doubt that digitalisation has made our lives simpler but it's also put us in a rather vulnerable position should it all be taken away. Does this make it far too easy for the powers that be to wield connectivity as a weapon? Allowing them to cut certain segments of the population off from the rest of the world if they see fit.

For me, the situation in Zim offered a very raw, real picture of what things might look like were that to happen. Tools meant to empower and enable us, instead being used to corral and control. The freedom and flexibility the Internet is supposed to give us, being used to suppress us.

Is the Internet really the issue here? I think not.

* Joanne Carew is a freelance writer and content strategist with a penchant for all things business, tech and innovation. Having moved to Cape Town in 2014 to pursue a Masters Degree at UCT, she now very gladly calls the Mother City home.