Even more interesting than the striking similarity between what Nin admonishes against and the present dynamics of the internet is the fact that she essentially describes Marshall McLuhan’s seminal concept of the global village… a decade and a half before he coined it.
The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. It eliminates the vice of procrastination, the sin of postponement, failed communications, failed communions. This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters. meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked. This feeling has become a rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision.
“When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves — incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably.”
Such is the nature of the reader’s ego: Whenever your favorite author comes out with another thoughtful, beautifully written, culturally relevant book, it’s potent and gratifying validation of your preference for his or her work and, by proxy, of yourself. This week, I have Steven Johnson to thank for gratifying my ego with Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age (public library) — an absorbing, provocative, and unapologetically optimistic vision for the society we have the capacity to build if we use the remarkable tools of our age intelligently and wisely. Driven by what Johnson calls “peer progressives” — a cohort of people who are “wary of centralized control, but [are] not free-market libertarians,” who identify as entrepreneurs but work mostly in the public sector, who believe in building “a new kind of institution, more network than hierarchy” — this new groundswell is using the power of networks as a problem-solving tool for civic society, and one of the finest nonfiction writers of our time has taken it upon himself to tell its story.
In the introduction, Johnson reminds us of something crucial Anaïs Nin observed more than 70 years ago — namely, the importance of understanding the role of the individual in making sense of mass movements:
Most new movements start this way: hundreds or thousands of individuals and groups, working in different fields and different locations, start thinking about change using a common language, without necessarily recognizing those shared values. You just start following your own vector, propelled along by people in your immediate vicinity. And then one day, you look up and realize that all those individual trajectories have turned into a wave.
One paradox of the digital age Johnson examines is the challenge of whether it’s “possible to believe that the Internet and the Web are pushing us in a positive direction, without becoming naive cyber-utopians.” To resolve the dissonance, he turns to Marshall McLuhan’s concept of “affordances” — the deeply engrained tendencies of each new medium, which shape the message it conveys in consistent and predictable ways. Among television’s key affordances, for instance, was the strong bias for the visual and spoken over the textual. Johnson reflects on Neil Postman’s golden-age-of-TV bestseller, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:
You do not need a ‘thorough theoretical understanding of the context’ to assume that the introduction of television will diminish the role of the written word in a given society.
On the web, however, these affordances get murky. It’s a medium that at once allows meticulous micro-customization — like, for instance, those Google AdSense ads that
“know” your search history and preferences, pushing you products and services increasingly more tailored to your tastes — and spews out endless, mass-produced spam. Johnson puts it wrily:
For every website that knows exactly what you want to read right now, there are probably ten penis-enlargement ads sitting in your inbox.
But, he points out, the web is after all software and, as such, it’s malleable and nimble enough to be able to thrive on these schizophrenic affordances:
Software interfaces are not fixed properties; they are possibility spaces, open to a near-infinite range of experimentation, which means that the defining affordances of the medium are more elastic than those of traditional media.
But this capacity for reinvention does not mean the Internet and its descendants are without affordances altogether. In fact, one of the Net’s affordances flows directly out if its shape-shifting powers. Because the software networks are more malleable than earlier forms of media, they tend to engage more people in the process of deciding how they should work. In the days of analog telephony or radio, the number of people actively involved in the conversation about how these technologies should work was vanishingly small. If we have too much of anything on the Internet, it’s engagement: too many minds pushing the platform in new directions, too many voices arguing about the social and economic consequences of those changes. A medium that displays a capacity for reinvention tends, in the long run at least, to build up a much larger community of people who anted to help reinvent it.
Ultimately, Johnson poses, then answers, one of our era’s most profound questions:
So what does the Internet want? It wants to lower the cost for creating and sharing information. The notion sounds unimpeachable when you phrase it like that, until you realize all the strange places that kind of affordance ultimately leads to. The Internet wants to breed algorithms that can execute thousands of financial transactions per minute, and it wants to disseminate the #occupywallstreet meme across the planet. The Internet ‘wants’ both the Wall Street tycoons and the popular insurrection at its feet.
Can that strange, contradictory cocktail drive progress on its own? Perhaps — for the simple reason that it democratizes the control of information. When information is expensive and scarce, powerful or wealthy individuals or groups have a disproportionate impact on how that information circulates. But as it gets cheaper and more abundant, the barriers to entry are lowered. This is hardly a new observation, but everything that has happened over the last twenty years has confirmed the basic insight. That democratization has not always led to positive outcomes — think of those spam artists — but there is no contesting the tremendous, orders-of-magnitude increase in the number of people creating and sharing, thanks to the mass adoption of the Internet.
The peer progressive’s faith in the positive effects of the Internet rests on this democratic principle: When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves — incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably. Yes, when you push the intelligence out to the edges of the network, sometimes individuals or groups abuse those newfound privileges; a world without gatekeepers or planners is noisier and more chaotic. But the same is true of other institutions that have stood the test of time. Democracies on occasion elect charlatans or bigots or imbeciles; markets on occasion erupt in catastrophic bubbles, or choose to direct resources to trivial problems while ignoring the more pressing ones. We accept these imperfections because the alternatives are so much worse. The same is true of the Internet and the peer networks it has inspired. They are not perfect, far from it. But over the long haul, they produce better results than the Legrand Stars that came before them. They’re not utopias. They’re just leaning that way.
What undersea cables have to do with Brooklyn squirrels.
Do you ever stop to think what happens when a web page, like this one, manifests as digital text and image on your screen to transmit ideas between someone else’s brain and your own across time and space — and how it all works, in practical terms? The very thought of this physical underbelly of our information ecosystem feels strange and uncomfortable, as if betraying our dichotomous culture of “virtual” vs. “real,” cyberspace vs. physical space. And yet, while we may ponder its cultural impact, its biases, and its economics, the internet — despite our metaphors of clouds and information superhighways, and our concept of a “wireless” web — is a thoroughly physical thing. That’s precisely the unsettling realization at which Andrew Blum arrived after a squirrel in his Brooklyn backyard nibbled through the cable connection of his internet, the internet, causing it to falter. Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet records Blum’s quest to uncover what few of us consider and even fewer understand — the jarringly tactile, material nuts and bolts of an intricate architectural system we tend to see as an abstract, amorphous blob.
If you have received an email or loaded a web page already today — indeed, if you are receiving an email or loading a web page (or a book) right now — I can guarantee that you are touching these very real places. I can admit that the Internet is a strange landscape, but I insist that it is a landscape nonetheless… For all the breathless talk of the supreme placelessness of our new digital age, when you pull back the curtain, the networks of the Internet are as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was.
From the vast data warehouses of major tech companies and giant labyrinths of undersea cables that bridge continents to the nano scale of optical switches and fine fiberglass, Blum reveals an internet that has “a seemingly infinite number of edges, but a shockingly small number of centers.”
Submarine cable map by TeleGeography, depicting more than 150 cable systems that connect the world.
He writes in the introduction:
This is a book about real places on the map: their sounds and smells, their storied pasts, their physical details, and the people who live there. To stitch together two halves of a broken world — to put the physical and the virtual back in the same place — I’ve stopped looking at web ‘sites’ and ‘addresses’ and instead sought out real sites and addresses, and the humming machines they house. I’ve stepped away from my keyboard, and with it the mirror-world of Google, Wikipedia, and blogs, and boarded planes and trains. I’ve driven on empty stretches of highway and to the edges of continents. In visiting the Internet, I’ve tried to strip away my individual experience of it — as that thing manifest on the screen — to reveal its underlying mass. My search for ‘the Internet’ has therefore been a search for reality, or really a specific breed of reality: the hard truths of geography.
What emerges is Blum’s three-way Venn diagram of understanding:
The networks that compose the Internet could be imagined as existing in three overlapping realms: logically, meaning the magical and (for most of us) opaque way the electronic signals travel; physically, meaning the machines and wires those signals run through; and geographically, meaning the places those signals reach. The logical realm inevitably requires quite a lot of specialized knowledge to get at; most of us leave the that to the coders and engineers. But the second two realms — the physical and geographic — are fully a part of our familiar world. They are accessible to the senses. But they are mostly hidden from view. In fact, trying to see them disturbed the way I imagined the interstices of the physical and electronic world.
Still, we seem drawn to the spatial and physical mystery of the internet, often visualizing it with the same egocentrism with which medieval man visualized the universe. Blum points to The Internet Mapping Project, in which Kevin Kelly asked ordinary people to sketch how they conceive of the internet, constructing a kind of “folk cartography” and exposing the internet as what Blum calls “a landscape of the mind.”
An entry from Kevin Kelly's Internet Mapping Project, soliciting hand-drawn depictions of the internet.
The networked world claims to be frictionless — to allow for things to be anywhere. Transferring the map’s electronic file to Milwaukee was as effortless as sending an email. Yet the map itself wasn’t a JPEG, PDF, or scalable Google map, but something fixed and lasting — printed on a synthetic paper called Yupo, updated once a year, sold for $250, packaged in cardboard tubes, and shipped around the world. [This] map of the physical infrastructure of the Internet was itself the physical world. It may have represented the Internet, but inevitably it came from somewhere — specifically, North Eighty-Seventh Street in Milwaukee, a place that knew a little something about how the world was made.
To go in search of the physical Internet was to go in search of the gaps between fluid and fixed. To ask, what could happen anywhere? And, what had to happen here?
But Tubes is far more than a technical anatomy, revealing instead the broader implications of this seemingly ubiquitous parallel world that two billion of us inhabit, in one form or another, on any given day. In the epilogue, Blum transcends the physicality of his quest to ponder the philosophical:
As everyone from Odysseus on down has pointed out, a journey is really understood upon arriving home. […] What I understood when I arrived home was that the Internet wasn’t a physical world or a virtual world, but a human world. The Internet’s physical infrastructure has many centers, but from a certain vantage point there is really only one: You. Me. The lowercase i. Wherever I am, and wherever you are.
Brain Pickings has a free weekly interestingness digest. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week's best articles. Here's an example. Like? Sign up.
donating = loving
Brain Pickings remains ad-free and takes hundreds of hours a month to research and write, and thousands of dollars to sustain. If you find any joy and value in it, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:
You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:
Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps supportBrain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated.