After the Internet was shut off

James McGirk

A year and decade after the turn of the century, things looked dire in the United States of America, but not that dire: the economy was stagnant after an exuberant but lopsided decade of prosperity, job opportunities for graduates and social climbers had dwindled to a few openings changing bedpans for the large, parasitic over-class of aging boomers, and the gleam of enthusiasm following Barack Obama’s presidency had faded quickly. But the fact that *that* and a few years of hardship was all it took for open revolt among the most highly educated, entitled generation of Americans ever to be born would have been quite unimaginable at the time. That the change they got was not at all what they were expecting is one of the great ironies of our age.

The second clamor for change was born in the creative class; brought to term by the poets, as all good revolutions are, if not precisely not in the usual way. This revolution was born from a coalition with a notorious group of email spammers. Perhaps this requires a little explantation. Let us back up a little.

Since the introduction of fax machines and the Internet into Nigeria and other English-speaking third-world countries, mysterious missives would materialize in the inboxes of the industrialized world. These would purport to be from high-ranking bureaucrats, deposed princelings and other dubious figures, and ask recipients for permission to transmit a few million dollars of embezzled funds into their bank accounts in exchange for a hefty cut. If a mark agreed, he or she would be asked for a moderate advance of funds to cover transaction fees… This was known as a 419 scam, and, given the ludicrous spellings of their messages, these emails weren’t considered much of a threat, and indeed were something of a joke (at first).

Did America’s legions of unemployed writers and graphic design professionals reach out to the spammers, or if it was it the other way around? No one knows for sure, but America’s “creatives” were uniquely suited for online scamming, and approached their task with absurd zeal. After all, America's artists been marks in a far more insidious swindle than a Nigerian 419 scam. Hundreds of thousands were lured into borrowing money from the government to finance undergraduate and even graduate degrees in the arts, promised that making a living in a such a field was a viable option, given enough gumption, courage, and talent. There was a sudden drastic leap in the quality of scam emails received.

Scam emails became indistinguishable from regular correspondence, at times, legitimately more appealing than the real thing – rare indeed is the babyboomer who did not at least once fall for heartfelt correspondence from a dummy profile on dating site only to be plunged (willingly!) into a netherworld of blackmail and identity theft! Business over the Internet became impossible. The final straw came when the President’s own memoirs were leaked to a Blackberry hacker. The ever-online savvy former Senator chose the nuclear option. He pulled the plug. The Internet was switched off.

First to succumb to conditions in the “electronic dustbowl” were the contract white collar workers. The permalancers. A caste below the corporate drone, the permalancers had been dealt a raw deal in the New Economy, often dependent on the whims of a single client who appreciated their work enough to accept it, and pay a pittance for it, but wouldn’t hire them fulltime no matter how much “they really, really wanted to.” Of course after the plug was pulled these pitiful creatures often had the option of coming into the office for work. But the only benefit of working as a permalancer, being able to work at home, was lost. Without being able to graze in the kitchen for snacks or work with their feet up, blasting music and picking their gums, with no upside at all to suffering from the twin indignities of not having health insurance and having to pay an additional 15 percent “Self Employment Tax,” the permalancers rolled their receipts and 1099-MISC forms into torches and marched upon the glittering citadels of those who had spurned their advances: the corporate campuses.

The etymological connection to university life in the word “corporate campus” is quite deliberate. But this was in no way connected to the halcyon dorm life you might remember depicted in Animal House or even its latter-day equivalent P.C.U.

Just before the Internet went out, university admissions had turned into a blood sport. Acceptance rates at the top tier of colleges – the storied snooty ones, the only ones where recruiters offering wages that might justify the stratospheric tuition even deigned to visit – dwindled to the single digits. Valedictorians were being turned away from away from Cornell! It became a race to the bottom. Children were coached to grind torrents of work in preschool. Launch global charitable foundations by junior high. Win national competitions by graduation. And for what? To work even harder… though of course the recruiters learned to disguise this.

They offered the ‘elite’ a new type of job, one that replicated the campus environment, a concealed variation of the company town; one that installed baristas and gourmet buffet lines beside nap nooks and ping-pong tables. Cubicles were banished in favor of “working environments” that were open, and “fun” – veritable panopticons of good cheer and teamwork. Here was work disguised as play. As chummy and buzzing with activity as a termite mound. But the truth was revealed soon enough. The first month with no weekends and four overnighters usually did it to new employee. But by then it didn’t matter. Once you were in, you could never quit, because your student loans were lurking and once fired, no one could ever be hired again, anywhere.

So the permalancers flushed their pasty superiors from their corporate towers, and circled them in the courtyards below, their torches reflected a thousand-fold in the silvered glass. It was hard to hate these young men and women, who stood their rubbing their eyes from the paper smoke – after all they were barely different than the permalancers were, and for all the sociopathic video games and alienating iPod use everyone had grown up with, no one actually wanted to hurt anyone else. Certainly not these pathetic creatures, who so obviously were not the responsible parties. But the Permalancer Army couldn’t just go home either, after all, the military, police and firemen were beginning to menace them with hoses. And they’d come this far. So instead they invited the corporate drones to join their ranks. And all the analysts, associates, project managers and even a junior vice president or two assessed the risk, and ran the numbers, and they folded their blazers across their arms and joined the t-shirted ones at the picket lines.

What happens to a nation without its knowledge sector? At first nothing did happen. The next morning the permalancers began to jones for coffee. The grinders manned the barricades for days and days but eventually fatigue took its toll. They dropped off one by one. Everyone eventually all went home. Stocks remained untraded, a few online articles – ones commissioned by editors, and the search-engine optimized ones assigned by algorithm – failed to be written, copyedited or posted… then an IT network or two failed, but the Internet itself was already off and nobody noticed. Eventually the call centers got lonely. And as much as the bureaucrats and clerks despised paperwork and forms, when none of it came in, and the phone stopped ringing, well, the silence was kind of unnerving. Parties were dispatched to find out what had happened to their overpaid, often younger compatriots, the knowledge workers.

Whatever message the strikers relayed back to us has been lost to history. We decided we liked the quiet, and when they eventually began to bug us for money for rent and snacks and Nintendo games, we ignored them at first. And then they wanted to Internet back on, and so we gathered all those wretched kids up and sent them off to work on communal farms, and never ever looked back.