25 May 2021

Google downtime is the modern Apocalypse

This is Lab Test #02 from the Digital Habit Lab

Each week we release two new experiments from the Digital Habit Lab, launching on Kickstarter later this year. It is designed to help you bring awareness to your digital habits and make them more intentional.

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In 1826 Mary Shelley wrote The Last Man, a novel widely considered to be the first ever printed science-fiction story describing the apocalypse. Before this, visions of the end of the world had largely been found in religious texts, with all of the major traditions foretelling the dramatic (often fiery) circumstances which mark the end of the world.

Albert Goodwins painting, Apocalypse (1903).

Perhaps worryingly for the readers of this newsletter in 2021, the events in 'The Last Man'— while equally dramatic in their own right—read more like an article that you might legitimately find in your news feed tomorrow morning. The book describes a future Earth in the 21st century, ravaged by a new pandemic of a mysterious disease which quickly sweeps across the world, ultimately resulting in the near-extinction of all humanity.

As with all contemporary apocalyptic fiction, Shelly's work was largely written to help her understand and come to terms with complex events in her own world—the recent death of her husband and many other close friends; the failure of romantic political ideals; even the crucial role that medicine has to play in the modern world (the first ever vaccine had been discovered by Jenner just 30 years earlier).

By imagining the end of the world, Shelly was able to gain deeper insight into the things that mattered to her, and which were impacting her life deeply at the time.

In a way, we have all been living out our own versions of this thought experiment for the last year. As we have witnessed people dying around us and experienced the accompanying feelings of isolation, it has given us a prolonged opportunity to reflect on the importance of our closest relationships—not to mention the role that politics and technology play in our lives.

Since we are in the business here of reflecting on our relationship with technology, there is—amazingly—another piece of prescient fiction from 1909 which is even more relevant to our current situation; The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster.

This novel describes a world where humanity has been forced by circumstance to retreat from the surface of the Earth, with individuals living in isolation below ground in separate rooms. All bodily and spiritual needs are met by the omnipotent global Machine. Travel is permitted, but is unpopular and rarely necessary. Communication is made via a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine with which people conduct their only activity: the sharing of ideas and what passes for knowledge. Eventually, the Machine collapses, bringing 'civilization' down with it—a modern apocalypse.

Forster's apocalypse was, of course, a way for him to understand what he saw around himself: people so enamoured with new technology that they forget it was created by humans and start to treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own.

Interestingly, in our modern life we get to actually experience mini versions of Forster's apocalypse, even though they may only last for 30 minutes. For example, at 11:50am GMT on December 14th 2020, a failure in Google's authentication tools meant that crucial productivity services such as Gmail, Google Docs and Google Maps went down globally. As people found themselves in their home offices suddenly cut off from the world they found, to their horror, they couldn't even turn to YouTube for solace as that had gone down as well.

Fortunately for modern historians, Twitter was still up and able to capture the global mood within minutes of the outage:

The imagery alone confirms that Google outages (even for only 30 minutes) really are the modern apocalypse.

Interstingly, the Greek word apokálypsis literally translates as 'an uncovering', and although we may associate our modern usage of the word with the destruction of the world, it's early religious meaning was 'a disclosure or revelation of great knowledge '.

In Forster's novel this revelation comes in the form of the realisation that humanity and its connection to the natural world are what truly matter.

If you were to simulate your own Google-free apocalypse, even just for an hour or so, I wonder what revelations of your own you might uncover?

Ok, now what?

Below are two experiments from the Digital Habit Lab to help you stage your own mini apocalypse. Over the next week, try playing with these and observe what happens to gain insight into your own habits.

We would love to hear how you get on, so do get in touch and let us know what you find!