The Internet Outage: A Lesson in Vulnerability

I like to think of myself as wholly independent. I’m able to spend hours alone, navigate a new city by myself and, above all, work my way out of most problems I stumble into. And this, I believe, is what perturbed me so deeply about the more than 72-hour-long Wi-Fi outage that hit the campus last week. It wasn’t that I ran out of high speed data or couldn’t check my email; it was that I was rendered completely powerless when confronted with the removal of something I’m so utterly reliant on ­— a feeling I’m deeply unfamiliar with.

This sense of helplessness is intimately linked with the eerie anxiety that coated the campus last week. To me, the hindrance of not having internet felt all-encompassing, though the reality was nowhere close to that. Most of my assignments came in hard copy; I can (and do) go a few days without responding to emails, even with a perfectly intact server; and I’m naturally conservative with my cellphone’s data use. I have found myself completely perplexed, then, that I (along with most of the campus) felt paralyzed without internet connection. Has the internet become a security blanket which we feel vulnerable without?

This is not to say that I did not find the reality of the outage more than inconvenient and annoying. I am still in shock that an institution with the financial resources and collective brain-power of Amherst could be befuddled by something as integral to modern education as internet and email. However, the nuances of this technological blunder are not what fascinate me. Rather, I am intrigued by our emotional response and why we were still so rattled even as we found ways to adjust to education without Wi-Fi.

One of my classmates suggested that the shutdown was the work of a “benevolent hacker” who wanted to force Amherst students to unwind a bit. While I feel that this absence triggered any emotion but relaxation, it did raise a valid point about how plugged in we are — and the exceptional lengths required for us to live an unplugged life. Further, it reminds us that it takes something as extreme as a three-day outage for us to realize how dependent we are on this intangible, omnipresent power.

Perhaps this is the wake-up call we didn’t know we needed. It was the final shove to letting us (or at least, me) realize how closely woven fiber optic cables are with the rest of our lives. It was the push the Information Technology (IT) department needed to fully move our emails to Gmail — a move I feel perfectly reflects the need to transition from a tepid 1990’s internet structure (and attitude) to technology that matches our 2019 internet habits. We can hope that from this, IT will strengthen the rest of the network to build backups and prevent an outage from occurring again. And perhaps, this shutdown is the push we all needed, too, in order to fully confront our internet habits and realize that internet is more than just a modern convenience; it is a part of life, and we must create not only the infrastructure, but also the mentality that accommodates it.

Whether we like it or not, the internet has become a central tenet of our lives, and we must treat it as such. We cannot continue to carry on considering the internet as a mere accessory of education or business or life, for that matter. It is the keystone holding each of those complex entities together. Ultimately, we must determine whether this proliferation is a positive or negative advancement, but first, we need to adopt a mindset that matches our technology. We must understand how fundamental technology is to our daily actions and how it provides an elusive sense of security. Only from there can we launch into conversations on how to navigate this reality. We have to interrogate this insidious occupier of our existence and strategically plan how we will approach it: will we build stronger internet infrastructures to prevent us from ever being without Wi-Fi, the way we were last week? Or, will we take advantage of this reality check to take a critical look at our over-use and over-dependence on a power that is ultimately greater than each of us? Can we adjust our actions to make ourselves a little less vulnerable and, in turn, more independent?