An internet service outage that cut off Rogers customers in southern Ontario and elsewhere on Wednesday night sparked a lot of outrage. University of Waterloo professor Aimée Morrison, who specializes in digital media studies, spoke with CBC News about why people are so online-dependent.
What kind of impact does an outage like this have on people?
If you ask people about what they did when it went out, you will find that they reflexively tried to check the internet for why their internet was out.
[You say] 'I'm going to listen to the radio, but I'm using the CBC app on my phone, [and] I have no radio now.' Or, [you say] 'I'm going to watch TV. Well, I don't actually subscribe to cable, I just have Netflix, so I can't watch TV either. Or I'm going to call Rogers to find out what's happening, [but] I don't have a landline anymore. I just have a voice over internet, so I can't even make a phone call.'
I think the internet has become a utility for most people. We expect it to work. It's as jarring as flicking on a light switch and the light's not working. It's not something we ever expect to not be there."
The assumption is always there that the internet is a more convenient way to do things, that it's always there.
If I wake up in the middle of the night I can check my email at the same time as I'm checking the time. Or if my husband and I are arguing about what a word means, and the iPad is right there, I can just check that definition. If the wireless isn't working, there's always the 3G network. So we always assume there's some kind of internet perpetually available.
Are people aware how much they rely on the internet?
The Pew Research people in the U.S have had to change the way they ask people about their internet usage, because they were finding that people were using their mobile phone or their smart phones but not counting that as internet. People would say, 'I never use the internet, I just use my phone for Facebook.' So there's kind of a disconnection.
If you have Netflix on your TV, that's internet. If you use Facebook on your mobile phone, that's internet. If you use the iPad to read newspapers, that's the internet. But it looks like a hundred different services that are not necessarily something that you think of as being the internet, and if you were to think about it, you would never think about the internet as failing. People don't realize how many internet-enabled services they kind of use passively and constantly throughout the day.
People feel very vulnerable and frustrated when their internet goes down.
How much more are we dependent on the internet than we were, say, a year ago, two years ago, or five years ago.
Think about the phenomenal increase in growth in voice-over-internet or even something like Skype. People are unplugging their landline telephones. People are cutting the chord on their cable, because they're using Netflix or they're ripping programs off the internet and watching them through Apple TV. They're using cell phones instead of a bunch of other devices. They're subscribing to newspapers and magazines electronically.
So what would have been six or seven different services delivered to them through different infrastructural means are now all dependant on that one little wire that comes into your house. That one internet wire.
What research has been done about people unplugging from the internet?
There was a global initiative where they tried to get college-age students to unplug for 24 hours, and these kids freaked out. At some colleges in the U.S. now, it's considered unethical to ask people to unplug for 24 hours, because they are so deeply connected. They say, 'Well, everybody I know would panic if I wasn't on my Facebook, because I'm there so much' or 'I can't do my homework without having the internet.'
They were seeing mental health breakdowns among students who, in a voluntary way for a class, were being asked to unplug from the internet. They could still use their telephones or their TVs, but a lot of people don't have those options, because all of that is internet for them.
Then it's not a surprise that it seems to be more of freak-out than if your cable goes out.
This is kind of like when you cut your thumb making supper and you have to put an enormous bandage on it. You realize how many different things you bang your thumb into in a given day. This is kind of a mindfulness exercise for people who may not have realized actually how much of their daily activities are undergirded by the infrastructure of the internet.
This interview has been edited and condensed