The Internet, we were told 20 years ago, was designed to survive a nuclear war -- so it should be hard to break, right? Technically, I don't think the net was supposed to survive -- just some usable fraction of the information stored on it. I doubt there would be much of an Internet after a full-scale nuclear war but maybe some servers would survive somewhere.
So let us proceed from the assumption that the Internet, vast and complex as it is, reaching virtually every nation on the globe, is fundamentally breakable. It's not fragile -- it simply anticipates obstruction and disconnection. We write this anticipation into nearly every protocol now, do we not? (As an aside, I remember many a technical argument in business applications programming companies where people didn't want to devote the extra effort to anticipating breaks in the data flow -- how the world has turned since then).
If Asyncronicity is so critical to the Internet's success as a communications medium -- requiring nothing more than the ability to pick up the pieces of email scattered across many servers or to resume a streaming feed after a little delay -- then what should it take to BREAK the Internet?
This is where Time once again comes into play. In my consulting work I often find people thinking in 2-dimensions. They place their content on the Web HERE and want traffic to reach it from THOSE DIRECTIONS. HERE is the point of origin and THOSE DIRECTIONS are the X- and Y-axis of a classic Cartesian planar model.
But traffic on the Internet occurs in 3 dimensions (possibly 4, but let me stay within the scope of 3 dimensions). My third dimension, Time, allows me to step over disruptions in the Asyncronicity as if they are not there. Time smooths all ripples in the data. You experience an event today, another event 20 days from now, and 200 events over the next 10 years. In-between those events hardly anything happens. Nonetheless, at the end of the sequence you have a 10-years history of traffic and activity.
So if a country, say Iran, disconnects its users from the Internet for a day, two days, or a week, are they really isolated from the Internet? Depending on how long the disruption is emails may still reach them (a 5-day wait is customary in many email systems). The news stories they could not read on Monday will almost all be there on Friday. The news groups will have been archived somewhere, even if the discussions have scrolled off the live servers.
It's almost like being able to cut off your arm, leave it aside for a day, and then reattach it with virtually no memory of not having it and regaining all your functionality. Figurative breakage may occur as a result of a new law being passed. Perhaps this law forbids people from linking to seriously disturbing information. Most people will abide by the law and NOT link to the information; but some people will defy the law and figure out ways to get the information online and to share it.
Pedophiles do that. So do terrorists. So do drug buyers and sellers. The list of people who share and find "forbidden" information on the Internet is endless. So the Asyncronicity withstands a change in communal morals and standards as codified (and enforced) by various laws. Like Mr. Universe says in "Serenity", "You can't stop the signal, Mal. Everything goes somewhere."
Maybe in order to break the Internet we would have to pass an international treaty -- adopted by all nations -- that says each nation will henceforth isolate its citizens from all other nations' citizens. This treaty, perfectly enforced, remains in power for 100 years.
Throughout that imaginary 100 years we can say that the Internet-that-was no longer exists. And yet if we repeal the treaty the day after the 100 years ends and reconnect everyone to everyone again, the records (well -- some records) of what transpired in the past 100 years will be there. So, again, Asyncronicity wins.
To defeat Asyncronicity you have to disassemble everything and destroy it: every server, every client, every storage device. Short of destroying the world, can we even do that? If half the Internet's component parts melted away today the Internet itself would still be there. If all but a single server failed forever, the Internet could be regrown from that single server.
In fact, we are constantly replacing dead equipment. I have lost count of how many personal computers I have used to access the Internet. I can still get to my emails and my Websites and many past forum discussions. But as a Webmaster I have had to change hard drives on my servers many times. Even so, I can see most of the content I published on the Internet in 1996, and nearly all of what I published in 1998. Only my emails from many years ago are lost to me -- but they may still exist in copies on other people's hardware.
I think the only way to truly break the Internet is to replace it with something else that is more appealing, more ubiquitous, and more useful in ways we cannot use the Internet for. That is not to say "the Internet is here to stay, let's celebrate it forver!" Rather, that's to explain why I take such a dim view of claims of THIS or THAT will break the Internet. Some things may change the Internet, but it will survive because Asyncronicity is stronger than deliberate action.
Over the past few months I have been blocking Web hosting company IP address ranges in my firewalls. There are millions of old Wordpress blogs out there that are being used to attack Websites, to infect them with malware, and who knows what else. And other tools are at work, seeking out proxy servers to relay their spam, their malicious SQL code, and other stuff. And there are crawling tools that scrape Websites, index and catalogue them with no intention of sending them traffic, and otherwise exploit the information on the Web for gain.
I won't be able to block them all but blocking hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of these sites has bought me peace of mind. My Websites no longer run so slow, except for occasional new attacks. In compiling this firewall list, though, I think of all the normal Web functions I am breaking. Legitimate Websites will no longer be able to connect with my own because they share an IP address with rogue software.
Despite this continuous blacklisting the Internet continues to do its thing. And what I do is just a reflection of what thousands of other Web admins are doing every day. So the Internet is becoming increasingly fragmented, but the network continues to exist and to function. The fragmentation cannot destroy it; it can only stretch the connection pathways farther and farther across an unimaginably large canvas of possible connection points. It's like stretching a piece of plastic in all directions at the same time. You can see holes open up here and there, and they grow larger, but the plastic continues to stretch and to somehow keep everything covered.
Fragmentation is weaker than Asyncronicity because Time is a fundamental component of the Asyncronous network. There is no Time component to Fragmentation. Without Time Fragmentation cannot match Asyncronicity. I think this is important because it suggests to me that no matter how much the Internet changes it cannot entirely leave its past behind. Although I noted in my essay "A Search In Time Is a Memorable Path" (October 2011) that we are constantly losing bits of the old Internet, some portions of it survive the continual shredding.
There are intangible aspects to the Internet, relationships between things, that exist in an endless array of ephemeral bondings. These connections may last only for microseconds but they last long enough for information to pass from one point to another point, and that transfer of information ensures that something will survive no matter what happens to the infrastructure of the network. Information flows along a viral metapath on the Internet. The moment someone looks at what you have written, whether in an email or on a Web page, a copy of the information is stored somewhere else -- and the life of the information is extended, sometimes altered.
And so I wonder what kind of catastrophe would be required to end all that completely. If we ever tried to shut down the Internet we just might find it's not so easy to do. Maybe we have not built SkyNet, but what we have built seems beyond our control at this point. The Internet may be mankind's most unbreakable construction. Not because it is so large but because it is Asyncronous the Internet may survive beyond our dearest wish to destroy it.
Time is on the Asyncronous network's side. We need to learn how to manage that. Until then, I'm not going to worry too much about what is broken. Sooner or later things will come back together again. Poor Humpty Dumpty never had it so good as this.