14 – #WEB

With the wire, all of humanity collapsed into a single point. For those with radio and television, half a planet represented less distance, in lived experience, than the goings-on half a mile away. We began to know – and care about – things we had never seen, people we would never meet. With the wire, life began to assume a distinct quality of virtuality; some things became truly important to us, without ever touching us.This virtuality had been with us since the advent of language – when someone could place their ideas into our minds, continued with writing – which freed those ideas from bodies, preserving them against time, reaching a pinnacle with printing – which replicated ideas so broadly, everyone could be touched by them. With each advance, the boundaries of sharing extended, from a single person, to a city, to a culture. With the wire, those boundaries disappeared, and the planet assumed the dimensions of the city.

The city shares everything it knows about anything it finds interesting, from gossip to business to politics to natural philosophy. Some of what the city shares with itself speaks directly to the wire: it’s nature, design, and improvement. A culture wired together shares what it knows to improve its wiring. The point-to-point of the telegraph quickly mutated into the hand-switched fabric of the telephone exchange. The true innovation of the telephone is not the transmission of the voice, but the network which connects any two telephones together. The telegraph stitched the world into a cohesive whole, but the telephone connected any two points in space, bringing them together through the action of the network. More than simple connectivity, the telephone fostered collaboration, sharing between minds, across space, giving the individual voice global reach.

The fabric of the telephone network, first powered by vast numbers of human ‘switchboard operators’, yielded eventually to mechanization, wire working to improve wire. But these switches grew too big, too power hungry and complex, forcing a studied search for a solution. The scientific method – and the judicious application of funds – led to the hybridization of the wire with the digital capabilities of the computer. Just as the wire created the preconditions for the digital, so the digital later relieved the overburdened wire. These first ‘computers within the network’ (routers, as they’re known today) took signals from one part of the network and replicated these signals within another part of the network. The network is by definition a replicating machine, and a computer network is its amplification into a flexible, responsive and resilient replicator.

These digital networks, connecting computers – these newest telephone switchboards were actually computers – joined the discrete, two-way ‘holes in space’ into a larger unity. Every point now could simultaneously connect to every other point, recovering to the original unity of the wire. But this new unity needed no center, no master switchboard, through which all messages must pass. Every point could reach every other point, directly.

These points began to connect, and as they did, each point of the network explored its corresponding companion in connection, learning about it, recording that knowledge, and then sharing that knowledge when it connected to another point. The entire network began a process of self-discovery, an investigation of its shape, scope and capabilities. This sharing led to the improvement of the network. A culture networked together shares what it knows to improve its network. Some of these improvements concerned sharing – sharing about sharing – and with that, the World Wide Web was born. The Web created a platform for sharing, in an effort to provide the growing collection of documents within the network within a universal framework, making it as easy for people to share a book, photo, or song as they could share a conversation.

Once anything can be shared with everyone everywhere, the automatic next question is ‘with whom do we share?’. This layer of individual desire sits across the physical manifestation of the network, an intersection of relationship and capability. Once we can share, we become choosy in our sharing, and we begin to share about the ways that we can refine that sharing to suit our particular needs.

This is the core of the idea behind digital social networks – services such as Friendster, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. These tools marry the capability of the network as a replicator to the relationships which we all carry within us. But these digital social networks, powered by computers and amplified by the reach of the network, carry us far beyond the limited set of connections we bear in our minds and bodies.

Just as the city took us beyond our biological limits, out of the tribe and into vast populations, so now digital social networks propel us beyond the comfortable boundaries of relationships, gathering us in new configurations of community. Facebook is a city of the mind; where we could not know everyone in the city, neither can we know everyone we connect to on Facebook – not in the same intimate way our tribal ancestors could. Yet we can now maintain relations with vast numbers of others, a different kind of knowing, neither intimate nor distant, but somewhere in between. This ground feels as new to us as the space within the city walls must have seemed to our ancestors.

Digital social networks amplify our social capabilities. Just as the telegraph, radio and television amplified our eyes and ears, giving them global reach, so now our web of relationships – the defining characteristic of our species – spans the planet. We connect and share with tools modeled from the contour of our minds, but which give us vastly more power. We are only in the first generation of these tools, using them to share what we know in an effort to make these tools better. A social network shares what it knows to improve its social network.

Humanity has always been a network of minds, connecting through the technology at hand. We have always put our minds to work to improve our connectivity. That has brought us to the threshold of universal hyperconnectivity.

 

 

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