Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Outage outrage: Why can't we cope when the internet goes down?

Many Atlantic Canadians woke up disconnected Wednesday, as Bell Aliant dealt with an internet outage. So why is that such a big deal?

The digital world is entwined with our offline lives, like it or not, and it's hard to do without

It's the end of the world as we know it: the internet went down for many Atlantic Canadians Wednesday morning.

The world didn't end Wednesday morning, but for some Atlantic Canadians, it almost felt like it.

The internet — that lifeline of information or bastion of distraction, depending on how you look at it — disappeared for some Bell Aliant customers, as an unexpected Fibre OP outage darkened home computer screens across the region.

It reappeared some hours later, but not without customers venting their rage in the meantime, in all places, on the internet, via mobile devices.

So why couldn't we all just relax, keep calm and carry on, or whatever the cool meme is these days? Turns out, the answer isn't that simple. 

A small disclaimer: I have been called a Luddite before, and it's not entirely inaccurate. While I may work and lurk in the inner recesses of the CBC website during the day, I largely spend my off-work hours offline, missing with joy important emails and forgetting to wish people a happy birthday on Facebook.

So, when I saw the internet had gone down, my knee-jerk reaction was stop whining, and savour some enforced freedom from the screen.

Good thing there are experts on this sort of stuff out there to set my prejudices into perspective.

The website canadianoutages.com showed large areas of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and eastern Newfoundland affected by internet outages Wednesday morning. (canadianoutages.com)

Valid panic

Not everyone needed their internet first thing Wednesday to simply update a status. The digital world runs deep in our veins, in very essential ways.

It's how many of us check the latest weather, find out where the traffic jams are en route to work, make doctor appointments or get the phone number for your child's daycare.

So in the event of an unexpected outage our worlds really are thrown out of whack, and for good reason, says one expert in digital communications and culture.

"It's a moment where we realize how deeply integrated our lives are with online connectivity. Because we may just think, 'oh, I could survive without it,' and then when it goes down, we realize the many, almost unconscious, ways we turn to the web all day long,"  said Sidneyeve Matrix, a professor in media and film at Queens University.

"For the most part, I think it's very valid that when we find ourselves unplugged, we sort of panic."

And often, it's not as simple as turning on the TV or newspaper to get the forecast. Lots of people have cut the cord with cable or cancelled their daily subscription, and even if they haven't, there's an expectation that what's online is more accurate.

"We know that when we go to the web, there's value-added material, and the most updated, real-time reporting. And in an information economy, people get used to that kind of convenience and information flow, 24/7 news feed, really quickly," said Matrix, an expert I found via a Google search, then communicated with through email, before finally speaking with on the phone.

CBC meterologist Ryan Snoddon appears every night on Here and Now, but the most updated forecast is usually found on his blog. (CBC)

Dependence vs. addiction

It's easy enough to disparage someone bemoaning the outage by framing it in terms of an internet addiction — that so-and-so should just get offline and get a life.

And while internet addiction is increasingly being recognized as a real problem and possibly a mental disorder, that's a serious charge to levy.

It's very valid that when we find ourselves unplugged, we sort of panic.- Sidneyeve Matrix

"When we have to be disconnected, we may experience major discomfort. And then we may explain that by saying, this is about addiction. But the language of addiction may be overkill," Matrix argued.

Addiction hardly suffices when many people's internet use reflects the fact that daily or mundane activities — think, driver's licence renewals — have simply moved online.

"That's why I think the conversation about addiction is probably fairly misguided. Because I think that when we look at how people are using social media, and mobile media and online resources to manage our families and our jobs, then what's more important than that?" she said.

And while this may result in a dependence so strong that you can actually pay a program to block the internet for you — the crucial difference between that and an unexpected outage, lies in the choice, and control, to disconnect.

There's a key difference in unplugging willingly, rather than having it unexpectedly done for you. (GaudiLab/Shutterstock )

The way of our world

One notable facet of Wednesday's outage was that outcry came not just from young technophiles, but all walks of life, pointing to the seismic shift in the way we function. Again, no surprise to Sidneyeve Matrix.

"This is basically a mainstream communication tool. I don't think it's all that different from how a couple of generations back, we would rely on the telephone," she said.

Admittedly, the 'we' we're talking about here is a slim portion of the global population. As Canadians, most of us hold a particularly connected world view, although there are pockets of the country still without broadband access, and hurting because of that.

Many of us have the option to hop on a mobile device or take advantage of free public Wi-Fi to get an internet fix amid an outage.

And in that light, in the midst of complaining of inconvenience, perhaps it's better to hold our tongues occasionally and consider those who are unconnected, but would like to be, in order to better themselves and their circumstances.

Some people got a taste of that darkness Wednesday, and didn't like it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is a journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in Corner Brook.

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