Agu Leinfeld: Let us have an internet-free day in Estonia

Agu Leinfeld
Agu Leinfeld Source: Private collection

Agu Leinfeld proposes having a day without internet every year in Estonia. A day when all companies, schools, hospitals, places of sale and state agencies would work without internet-based solutions.

We are a proud e-society busy implementing new technologies. New possibilities, like home delivery of groceries or renting an electric scooter, have become commonplace because we use them every day.

When those days start piling up, new technology becomes a habit. Once something becomes habitual, we stop thinking about what using such technology means for society.

New needs

Use of technologies usually comes with a new convenience, possibility, a benefit of some kind. But there is something else. Something that might not be apparent at first.

Every technology and development creates new needs. For example, we suddenly need to have several chargers. One for the car, one for the kitchen and one for the bedroom. One for the summer house just in case. We also need to have a few power packs ready.

And then the phone breaks. It makes no sense to repair it because it would cost the same as buying a new device, while that would require a whole new set of chargers.

I believe that almost every Estonian home has a drawer, basket or closet hiding a miniature junk yard of devices, accessories and cables. Technology many people have no use for.

This is but a simple example of the hidden effect of technology on a single device and a single person. What about hidden effects new technologies have on society in general?

Quick benefits and downsides

When implementing new technology, we are used to capitalizing on quick gains offered by new possibilities. It usually takes considerably longer for the downsides of new things to manifest in our daily lives and consciousness.

It is also interesting that while the benefits of new technologies are evident both on the level of individuals and the whole of society, possible disadvantages manifest primarily on the social level.

For example, a generation that lives glued to screens and is facing new medical conditions as a result of this lifestyle. Another burning topic that requires attention from us all is data privacy. Both in terms of over-regulation and failure to acknowledge its effects.

It is noteworthy that we tend to start looking for solutions to problems caused by new technology centrally, by first looking to the state.

Someone needs to regulate how people park electric scooters. Someone needs to do something so an unknown drone couldn't take pictures outside my bathroom window. Society is outraged, asking why is no one assuming responsibility

In truth, we must all take responsibility to also address the negative side of adopting new technologies. I believe it comes with the obligation to give some of the time, money, well-being or convenience gained back to society. To be better prepared for the negative effects of new technologies.

What can we do?

First of all, we must acknowledge the fact we must be able to function without technology as a society. It is important to make sure this would be universally possible – traffic needs to move without the internet, shops must be able to sell goods without card payments, cash register systems and warehouse management software.

Without conscious action, we will lose skills and capacity we never planned to lose. It will simply happen.

A state official must be able to listen to people's problems without a digital solution and a patient must have timely access to pharmaceuticals without a digital prescription. Special services must be able to respond and planes land even if there is no internet or mobile service. I would take this moment to commend air traffic controllers for already having an elegant solution in place.

I would propose an annual internet-free day as one possible way of boosting preparedness in society. A day when companies, schools, hospitals, points of sale and state agencies – the whole of society must make do without online IT solutions.

I'm sure our first reaction is that it is not possible. But this knee jerk reaction only serves to emphasize the need to address these concerns. Maintaining a basic level of functionality in society without online solutions must be possible. It is irresponsible to say, either as individuals or as a country, that we cannot make do without the internet and leave it at that.

Life will not grind to a halt

If at first we might think that life would grind to a halt without the internet, the solutions are nearer than they seem in many areas.

Let us take the example of a supermarket where surely nothing can be sold without a cash register system. In truth, a handheld barcode scanner attached to a laptop for registering purchases is enough. The clerk only has to write down the totals to keep commerce flowing. It will be slower and based on cash, but it will flow.

I'm more than convinced that carrying out such nationwide exercises is a major lesson that entails more than we can imagine. We are bound to surprise ourselves and discover that functional alternatives that work in the short term are out there.

At the same time, we should also expect to find that sorting out the aftermath of such days without internet will take months in some areas and that our technological dependence has reached a level where we must ask ourselves whether it's sensible.

What do we stand to gain?

First of all, we should keep in mind that many of our digital services are novel on the global scale. If our e-solutions, robots and products come with an offline setting straight away, unlike competing products from other countries, we will be one step ahead of those who follow our example.

As a second benefit, it would likely give many organizations an idea of the information resources at their disposal the full potential of which they might not have realized before.

Thirdly, such exercises might reveal errors and bugs in existing backup and restore systems.

I still remember a time when we made efforts to have digital documents and signatures be on par with written ones. By now, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme – we no longer consider architectural designs presented on paper to be as good as an electronic copy, state agencies only accept e-invoices. Perhaps we have been too bold in some of our choices?

We should not fill in our old wells before the modern waterworks is finished.

The agreement that the electronic form has the same power as paper followed a longer public debate. An accord to give up paper as an alternative is one I do not remember anyone discussing. It has simply happened.

Greater freedom

People and organizations considering alternatives and making preparations gives us greater freedom. One downside to digital technologies is that bringing them down using specific types of attack is neither complicated nor very expensive.

An attack with serious disruptive potential can be "ordered" for a few thousand euros. Our powerful e-state could easily be taken and held hostage by a teenage hacker.

Provided we stay our current course such situations will likely catch us off guard in the future. If we want to be a sustainable society trailblazer, we must also serve as an example when it comes to consciously practicing alternative solutions. We all must.

Estonia is already moving in the right direction. Recent years have seen greater awareness in terms of the need to be prepared for various emergencies.

People's ability to safeguard themselves and each other until help arrives is rewarded. After all, we cannot afford to have every major fall storm render several counties helpless due to power or communications outages or rats chewing through a cable crippling vital e-services.

The ability to operate without internet access is one part of society's preparedness for crises. A day without internet would have the best effect on those who see the world through screens most of the time.

In order to prevent a fire, every home must be equipped with working smoke detectors and an extinguisher. We must make sure our doors and windows are closed to ensure our own safety. At night, we need a reflector to be visible in traffic. No one else will invent or test alternative solutions to technologies for us.

Let us make a plan and start with a day without internet! Let us be better prepared for an increasingly complicated digital society and a more sustainable life.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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