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Reach Out And Touch No One

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The Internet blackout in Syria has resulted in a few people taking advantage of the Speak2Tweet service, last really put to use during the last major disconnection, Egypt’s. It’s not really newsworthy, so you may not have read about it. I listened to a few messages anyway.

They were a poignant reminder of the fact that we build communications networks for a reason, and occasionally I feel that we’re losing sight of that reason. It is not as meaningless as it sounds to say that we built the means of communication so that we would have a means by which to communicate. People build things for other reasons; the Pyramids weren’t built so you could get a great view from the top, or to vary the desert’s rolling landscape with a few sharp points. It’s not always obvious what something is built for, and if you hadn’t been there from the beginning you might not guess that the Internet was built as a way for a human to connect to another human.

Strictly speaking, of course, it’s a way for two machines to connect. But they connect for a reason, and that reason is inevitably human — it isn’t “machines all the way down.”

But the explosive expansion in capability of which we are in the midst has made things indistinct. Some things are sent from no one to no one, or hoarded somewhere never to be seen. That’s normal, and the tools we’ve developed are incredibly powerful. It’s making the world smaller, but is it making us as humans closer?

Of course, that’s one of those ridiculous, unanswerable trend-piece questions that appears in the Sunday Times or on the impulse buy shelf at the airport bookstore, so let me be a bit more concrete. The Internet, which is to say the collective efforts involving the Internet as their primary method of movement, is focusing too much on replicating or streamlining existing things and not creating new ones. Instead of fashioning a thunderbolt, we’re greasing the lightning that’s already there.

A better mousetrap

When I think of things that fundamentally changed how people connect, I think first of written language, then the telegraph, then the photograph, radio, and to a lesser extent the telephone and television. Essentially the introduction of reliability of representation and instantaneous transmission. The Internet has not even begun to make the kinds of changes that resulted from the introduction of those technologies — because the Internet has been treated as a digital means of accomplishing those things.

What can people do today, that they couldn’t do 50 years ago, albeit a bit slower? In truth, the difference is not in what we can do, but who can do it.

Listening to a kid in Syria talk about freedom helped drive that in for me today. At the other end of this apparatus of LCDs, copper wire, fiber bundles, switches, routers, and hard drives, there was a boy in a war-torn country talking into his phone, probably terrified that his house will be hit by stray bullets. And I was suddenly cognizant of both the ways in which the Internet has empowered him and us, and the ways it hasn’t. It makes me wonder whether the Internet really is a transformative technology, or merely a catalyst.

If it is solely a catalyst, it is certainly one of the most powerful and important catalysts of all time. And such an incredible change justifies the highest esteem, even if it is essentially quantitative. But if it is transformative, tell me, what has it transformed?

I realize accusing the Internet of not living up to the potential of the telegraph may strike some as ludicrous. But I feel that we’re allowing the sheer size and potential of the Internet as a system to answer questions that it really can’t. A child may indeed now cry for help in Syria and be heard by millions. But if the result is the same as if he had cried out to an empty room, what does he gain by it?

It may be the most versatile means of communication ever devised, but it is still just a means of communication. You can download the Constitution, but you can’t download a more perfect union, any more than you could broadcast it or tap it out in a telegram. Better tools are necessary, but not sufficient, for building a better world.