The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Bob Stepno § The structure of journalism today / 2014-03-10 18:42:32

Show me the internet

In a fit of curation and ingenuity, Noah Brier whips up a gallery of visualizations of the internet. And no, it wouldn’t be complete without The Net, circa 1995. Wow.

Noah points to this piece over at The Baffler which poses the same question—what does the internet look like?—and ends with this bit of disenchantment:

The problem isn’t really that we don’t know what the Internet looks like. It’s that what it looks like is so horribly ugly: not a glistening Tootsie Roll pop, not an open freeway, not a shimmering clear pool of chlorinated water nor a siren-littered sea, not even a chiseled movie star, but giant, hulking factories dotting the landscape of the Pacific Northwest and the Eastern Seaboard, covering old landfills, sprawling, like dozens of Costcos smashed together, stacked with metal and diesel generators and powerful cooling systems, crossed by power lines that deliver 2 percent of the world’s energy to the so-called cloud, where your tax returns and credit card statements cross paths with Medicare files and corporate budgets and your old love letters and the photos of Jennifer Aniston’s newest boyfriend.

So, I totally disagree.

I think the internet is the screens. Without the screens, who cares? Without the screens, it’s just a bunch of derivative-trading-bots talking to each other. The screens make it interesting—they’re the magic portals, the magic mirrors. My visualization of the internet ignores the server-farms and the network spaghetti. Instead it’s a mosaic of all those screens, some on phones and some on laps and some on walls, but more and more of them over time, all getting bigger and brighter.

Yeah, actually, I think my internet might be the Transparent City.


…at least that’s what it is for us Eloi. From the Morlocks’ perspective, it’s diesel generators and power lines. Isn’t it—isn’t it both?

Hmm… I don’t know if I buy it. If anything, the data-center internet is the Eloi internet, not the Morlock internet. It’s inhabited by the rarified few—the people with the keys to the kingdom.

But I don’t think it really is the internet in any significant sense. Or, how about this: a picture, or even a super-detailed technical schematic, of a data center does not help you understand how the internet works or feels!

Plus, I have to be honest, I just didn’t like Christine Smallwood’s tone at the end of her piece. It felt dishonest—more going for effect that really trying to answer the question she started with.

It’s true, the analogy is a tortured one. So I’ll try another: you don’t need to understand the chemistry of internal combustion to richly experience the automobile. Switching lanes, negotiating roundabouts, parallel parking–much less choosing the paint scheme on your mini–none of it requires knowledge of timing belts or catalytic converters or even how to change your oil (increasingly, one effectively can’t monkey with these things; the era of the open-source automobile is over). But in the end that engine is still chugging away, having its impact on air quality, geopolitics, and the climate.

I think the Internet of brightening screens should improve as our knowledge of what happens on the engineering deck increases. In that we’re fortunate: the best way to learn about the workings of the Net is the Net itself.

I think my reaction is along the lines of Matthew’s but less poetic and less articulate:

. My visu al iza tion of the inter net ignores the server-farms and the net work spaghetti

I fear that we–all of us, except the few and far between hardcore hardware engineers–ignore all this far too easily. There’s this illusion that laptops and servers and bandwidth are zero carbon, zero footprint. Ooh, look at me, I don’t use paper, I’m so green. It might be better, but we really have no idea, no intuition for the scales of power involved. I once went to a green tech panel at Stanford with Vindo Khosla, The Governator, & Sun’s Scott McNealy, and all the flash and dazzle of the first two (sexy energy startups! movie star governor!) just put me to sleep (literally)), while Scott McNealy’s duo-tone pedantry about server farms, power-transmission-loss, and coooling inefficiencies struck me as the most real, new, relevant information being discussed—-opaque but impacting far more than the easily implemented pipe-dreams of a few geeky boys.

I have just driven myself batty searching the Snarkives for a quote one of you blogged from Yglesias, but it was talking about how the real challenge of our generation is getting the bulk of humanity into decent living conditions without ruining the world. The thing about “broadband yes, toilet no,” is that it ignores the connections between the broadband and the toilet.

I’ll stick up for Robin here: the screens are hugely important. But they’re also part of a range of interfaces for digital content.

For instance, I could say with equal conviction, “without the buttons, who cares?” And both the screens and the buttons are more varied than you might think.

We have my laptop keyboard, a cash register, a cellular phone, a cable-box remote… We shape this world by seeing and touching it. That’s what makes it a real, manifest medium.

Maybe an analogy can be drawn to the radio. Radio waves, and the radio spectrum, clearly exist prior to any attempt to use that spectrum for communication. (In this sense, radio may be deeper than the internet, which doesn’t have the same kind of latency, but it’s the same principle — we begin with the science.)

Then we have a technological superstructure — broadcasting antennae, stations, and a legal one — who has rights to which parts of the spectrum under what geographies. And finally we have an interface, whereby we can communicate with sound. Only at the end does it become a medium.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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