It was a tsunami for the digital age, a collapse of the virtual world that radiated through much of Asia and beyond after an undersea earthquake late Tuesday off the coast of Taiwan.
People woke Wednesday to find themselves without e-mail or the Internet and, in some cases, without telephone connections, cut off from the real world around them.
The earthquake ruptured two of the undersea cables that are part of a communications fretwork that circles the globe.
Coming on the second anniversary of the Asian tsunami that took 230,000 lives, it was a reminder of the world’s increasing dependence on communications technology.
Financial companies and technology services suffered most directly, with banking and securities trading all but crippled. Operations from travel agencies to newspapers to schools struggled to maintain their routines.
“You don’t realize until you miss it how much you rely heavily on technology,” said Andrew Clarke, a sales trader in Hong Kong. “Stuff you took for granted has been taken away and you realize, ‘Ah, back to the old way, using mobiles'” — an old way that itself is not so old.
In this time of rapid change, it is easy to forget how quickly innovations have become necessities, from mobile phones to the Internet to e-mail to instant messaging on both the computer and telephone.
“I’m completely dependent on the Internet,” said Robert Halliday, an American writer based in Bangkok. “If the Internet goes down for half a day people can just stay in bed in terms of getting any work done.”
On Wednesday he was stymied in trying to get information for a review he was writing of a Romanian DVD. It takes a moment to realize what a task that would have been just a few years ago.
Indeed, the words “instant” seems to have lost some of its edge. It has become the norm, and anything else seems agonizingly slow. The word “global” has shrunk to the size of a computer screen.
When Halliday’s mother, a woman in her 80s, wants to reach him, she taps an instant message into her telephone from the United States. “All of a sudden,” he said, “there’s a message on the phone, ‘Oh, you should be here, the azaleas are out.'”
Without e-mail, Ken Streutker, a Dutch-Canadian actor and producer in Thailand, had no way to arrange an airport meeting with a friend who was flying in to Bangkok.
“Now I’ll have to stand there at the airport with the traditional handwritten sign and hope that someone notices,” he said.
Many enterprises found themselves paralyzed without the Internet.
In Beijing, Wang Yifei, an independent television producer, sent instant telephone messages when her Internet connection was down.
“I had a horrible day,” she said. “I’ve been complaining about this all day. This high-tech world of ours. It didn’t happen in the old days. In the end I can’t do anything.”
In Manila, Abe Olandres, who owns and runs a Web-hosting company, just about gave up. He said he planned to try a Wi-Fi hot spot in a coffee shop after struggling at the office all day.
“This is killing me,” he said.
For his customers, it may have been worse. When their service went down, they tried to reach the help desk, but it was down, too.
In Hong Kong, Niall Phelan, the creative director of APV, a media production company based there, said he usually received about 300 e-mails a day. On Wednesday, he said, he got none.
Without e-mail, he was back to the old-fashioned way of communicating, by telephone, which greatly multiplied his work.
“Usually, one e-mail is cc’d to lots of people,” he said. “But, with calling, you have to contact all six involved people individually.”
With their work day disrupted, he said, “Most people I spoke to in Hong Kong today are just twiddling their thumbs.”
He made the best of it.
“What I did today was eight hours of filing,” he joked. “I had a year’s worth of paperwork. If the Internet is still down tomorrow, maybe I will finish it.”
Even without the help of technology, work seems to have its own momentum.
Carolyn Mison-Smith, director of a language center in Singapore, found in the communications crash a concrete demonstration of the interconnectedness of the world.
“Cables all over the seabed,” she said. “I don’t know if your average dude appreciates that fact.”
“Who puts them there and how long does it take and how many kilometers is it?” she said. “If they’ve got cords going all over the seabed I think that’s fascinating. Who designs it all, who’s the engineer that designs it and who are the laborers who go down and do that?”