Ideas Bank (Wired UK)
As Arthur C Clarke has never let us forget: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But when it comes to the greatest technological advancement of all — the one that consumes every moment of our waking lives and has only begun its transformation of global society — it’s time to pull back the curtain. I’m talking, of course, about the internet. Not in the form that momentarily manifests on your screen, but the actual global colossus of physical wires and machines — that thing we’ve increasingly come to call “the cloud”. The trouble is that the fantasy of “the cloud” creates an obfuscation that threatens the health and future of the real, physical network.
At some unnoticed moment between our dial-up modem’s last primal scream and the evening we first laid a smartphone beside us on the nightstand, we were subjected to an infrastructural lobotomy. The internet became a universal human right and, therefore, more of an idea (however transcendent) than a physical thing. The specifics — short of our own router, blinking unreliably behind the couch — slipped away. We stopped thinking of the internet as an actual physical network and gave in to the notion of it as something untouchable and indistinct.
To lose sight of those specifics is to lose control. Each time we move another piece of our digital lives into the cloud, we give up a little more responsibility for it. Google will sort and track your email (but won’t tell you where it’s kept). Apple will cache your music library. Facebook will store — in perpetuity and, apparently, for free — your photographs. There are powerful conveniences in this, to be sure, but there are dangers too. At the least, we risk an accidental violation of privacy. At worst, we recognise that our thoughts and relationships are no longer fully our own. When an authoritarian government cuts off its citizens’ access or when an ISP decides to start capping your bandwidth, the range of the internet’s possibilities becomes constrained. There’s a conversation to be had about all that, but there’s a basic knowledge that has to come first. We need to recognise that the internet has parts, before we can understand its potential. The thing to remember is that the internet exists. It is made of places you can visit — real buildings. I know, because I’ve been there. I’ve felt the exhaust of London’s most important router, and gripped the end of a cable that crosses the Atlantic.
There’s an analogy to be made with the sustainable food movement. A decade ago, food came from the supermarket. Today, as we walk down the grocer’s aisles we’re greeted with maps, charts and pictures of smiling farmers. We gain some satisfaction in knowing where our things come from, but more importantly that awareness itself is the outward display of internal changes. We couldn’t talk about new ways of producing food until we knew how and where it was produced in the first place.
The same goes for the internet. To imagine a future for the network that isn’t only blisteringly fast but also brazenly free requires knowing something of its existing structure — knowing where our internet comes from. At the moment, though, the frictionlessness of its interconnections — the myth of the cloud — lets us ignore the specifics. The cloud carries us through the day in a mild ecstasy of message chirps and finger-smudged screens. But the biggest technology of all, the one that defines our days more than any other, should no longer be relegated to the realm of the hidden and incognisant. To cede knowledge of those specifics is to cede control. If the internet seems like magic, realise that we’re not the magicians, but the children, standing in awe of the illusion. As Neal Stephenson put it, writing 16 years ago in this magazine: “Wired people should know something about wires.”
Andrew Blum is a New York-based journalist and the author of Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet (Viking)
June 15, 2012