But my experience led me to an interesting thought experiment: How might we live without the world’s largest note exchange? Or, in other words, what would the world be like today if the Internet ceased to exist?
The easiest starting point may be to just look back at life before 1990—a time of landline telephones, 9-to-5 work schedules, and VHS-rental stores. But that historical reality doesn’t really answer the question, because in an alternate history, we wouldn’t have known what we were missing. “The Internet has so permeated our lives that its influence is becoming impossible to see,” says the philosopher Clay Shirky. “Imagining today minus the Net is as content-free an exercise as imagining London in the 1840s with no steam power, New York in the 1930s with no elevators, or L.A. in the 1970s with no cars. After a while, the trellis so shapes the vine that you can’t separate the two.”
For the sake of this exercise, though, let’s try. As an example, let’s look at the life of Brian Lam, the former editorial director of the technology site Gizmodo. In 2011, Lam quit and moved to Hawaii to found the gadget-review blog The Wirecutter, a move that redefined his professional relationship to the Internet.
“As a business owner, I couldn’t do what I do today without the Internet,” Lam says. “My team and I would be forced to live in a big market, probably New York. Consequently, I’d have less access to the outdoors, no access to the global talent I currently employ, and a narrower perspective.”
But in some cases, he acknowledges, the digital age hasn’t been as kind to workers. Rather than use the Internet to offer their employees more flexibility, some employers may use it to more easily exploit them, demanding more work or longer days without paying overtime.
In addition to blurring (or obliterating) the lines between work and home life, the Internet has dramatically changed our cultural conception of patience. “Without it, we wouldn’t expect instant gratification as often as we do,” notes Michael Calore, a senior editor at Wired magazine. “Not just the ability to get an online answer immediately, or same-day delivery. Because of the Internet, the anticipation of waiting for things is largely gone.”
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When Steve Case co-founded America Online 30 years ago, just 3 percent of Americans were online (mostly academics). Before the web was invented, these early adopters spent less than an hour a week online (mostly email). Today, 85 percent of Americans use the Internet.
“We designed it to connect people with shared interests and ideas, to produce more durable offline relationships,” says Case, who’s now the CEO of the investment firm Revolution LLC. “We tried to level the playing field by reducing the cost to communicate and increasing efficiencies so that more voices and greater perspective could be found.”