January 7, 2012
For those of my readers who may be wondering what happened to Pam, over at the End of Empire newsblog, I received a hurried email yesterday morning that read, “linda on a phone internet out will post blog later your friend pam.” Though I’m happy to see she’s back online today, it did start me thinking about how we communicate with each other these days over long distances.
Personally, I’m probably a closet loner. I have an old computer with a modem and the phone it connects to. That’s pretty much it. I don’t even have long distance telephone service, figuring that anyone I don’t know well enough to keep in contact with by local phone service or via the internet can pay for the privilege of calling me long distance. Other than maybe going wireless and having a web cam so I could visit with family and friends from the convenience of home, I love the way I live.
Most young people today, with their ipads and iphones cannot imagine living this way, but I am old enough to remember when even families in many cities were part of a party-line telephone system. I think I was about ten when our family became middle-classed enough to afford a single-line phone. We got our news, morning and evening, through the local newspaper and in the evening (until I was twelve and we got our first television set) through the radio – via a fifteen-minute national newscast. We probably had long distance telephone service, but unless it was a family emergency, we wrote letters. And we thought ourselves quite modern for that day and age.
When I did the research for my novel, An Uncivil War – set here in Missouri during the Civil War – I remember feeling a certain sadness at how many families, as they moved west, lost touch with each other. And how isolated from the news of the day many families on the frontiers of American civilization were before the advent of telegraph and railroad services. Even with the coming of the transcontinental railroad and telegraph lines shortly before the Civil War began, few ordinary citizens had access, as these were used mainly to conduct business or the War. Away from the major cities, people relied on the Postal Service or, in an emergency, the kindness of friends or strangers who might be traveling to a town near their loved ones and would hand-deliver a letter. Yet, I suppose they thought themselves quite modern, too. After all, a slow postal service probably beat the signal systems or word of mouth of even earlier times.
I never was much of a letter writer (my mother used to enclose a stamped envelope in her letters to me, once I left home, and kid me by saying she hoped I would use it to let her know I was still alive.) Nor am I one to do a lot of visiting around. It just seemed so much easier to pick up the phone to do what talking and other business I had. Now, unless I visit “over the fence” with a neighbor or call my son, almost all my long-distance communication with family and friends is done on the computer, as is true with many of us these days, I suppose.
And, though I still get some of my news and information from television, most of it comes from wandering around on the web. So, like many doomers, I have wondered what would happen if our vast telecommunication system and the world wide web it supports went the way of the dodo as we continued down the back side of peak oil.
As nearly as researchers can calculate, the whole system – from making the computers, setting up and running the system, to individual use of the system – accounts for about 1-2% of global energy use. http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-08-02/energy-and-emergy-internet , http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/onepercent/2011/10/307-gw-the-maximum-energy-the.html Not too bad if you consider that transportation – personal, business and government – accounts for about 50% of energy use and 90% of oil use, worldwide.
If we are smart (and there’s no guarantee there), we will use the internet to cut down on much of this transportation usage as the two articles suggest. Back in 1989, when my mother turned 79, we held a big family reunion at my niece’s home. Family converged on her house from all over the region. Great fun, but adding up the energy usage of all those forty people in getting there and back to their homes, probably not something most of us will be able to do as energy prices continue to increase over the coming years. But I can see families having a “family reunion” conference call via the internet. Probably not as much fun, but better than losing contact all together.
Right now, we use the internet for shopping, news, entertainment, education, doctor’s visit in rural communities, and even voting in some places. As our postal and transportation systems suffer the effects of peak oil, I could envision more such uses to reduce energy and transportation costs. We often lament the effects of the internet on our lives. Yet much of that, as with television before it, is due to our own choices in how we use it. Sadly, I can see us squandering it on stupidity while we continue our wasteful uses of energy and other precious resources until collapse is inevitable. But, I can also envision us as a country held together by the internet through the troubled days ahead in much the same way the growing country was drawn and held together by other communication technologies in the past. I hope we choose the latter. I’d hate to see the day when the only thing I can get on my computer is a sign saying, “Internet out.”