Drifting away from the empty net

text by Sander Manse (1991, NL)
illustrations by Ann Linn Palm Hansen (1984, DK)

Sander Manse is a designer and writer. He is set to explore the potential of theoretical research and writing within the design practice. In ‘Drifting away from the empty net’, he wonders if it is possible for the Internet to die. And if so, what could possibly take its place? He traces the history of the web and discovers a rich, multidisciplinary world of knowledge that can still be of relevance today.

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Introduction: “A Communications Primer” and more than one internet

     A dear friend of mine asked me: “If Charles and Ray Eames would have lived today, what would they be doing?” It’s not an easy question to answer. I do believe they would not be doing furniture like they did then. But what to do instead? I came across one of the beautiful early informative films they made in 1953 called A Communications Primer. It was commissioned by IBM and explains the mechanisms of information technology and state of communications theory at that time.
     In the credits they thank Claude Shannon, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener for their advice on the film. These three names might not be that well known today, but they were the geniuses who worked on the theoretical and mathematical foundations of digital computing and information technology. Take Norbert Wiener: in the 1940s he was thinking about information networks, and related them to mechanisms in physics and biology. Ideas that have been crystallised, worked out and used by the ones who developed the basic structures of the internet.
     Charles and Ray Eames, who still serve as the archetype product designers today, whose values and attitude we still admire, were making a film in ’53 about something that was going to change every aspect of our lives in the decades to come. And this thing, the subject of communication technology, is mostly immaterial. They saw the potential and wanted others to get involved in exploring its possibilities. They wanted to connect the ideas of the mathematicians doing their work at MIT and the practices of architecture, planning, design and the arts.
     That was in ’53, so what if they were living and working today? The everywhere internet and software is slowly entering our hardware: the same hardware the Eameses where comfortable dealing with. When does the material stop and something like “the internet” begin? Maybe this is one of the questions they would ask themselves. Or maybe the internet itself is already a material.
     I can look back now and dive into the history of information technology and I can guess how the internet grew into what it is. Let’s draw out a plan or a route that ideas might have traveled along to reach a person, object or network. Now if the internet was born in a specific time (being a product of history), in a specific place, would it also be possible for it to die in the future? Maybe. Maybe it will fade after having realised its full potential. And maybe it disappointed a bit in doing so. The last shiver of the soon-to-be-dead net would be the movement of the online world leaking into reality, making the impossibility of its absence real.
     When the internet would die somehow, what will remain of it? What does it mean for the internet ‘to die’? What would it take to get it killed? There is a common misconception that the first layout for the internet, ARPANET, was set up by the United States Department of Defense to secure their information technology through decentralisation in case of a nuclear war. In fact this was not the aim, but a very useful side effect. Maybe it is impossible to kill the internet.
     Or maybe, as Hito Steyerl wrote “The internet is probably not dead. It has rather gone all-out. Or more precisely: it is all over!”. She continues with a beautiful dazzling report on how the internet has moved offline, and she leaves us with the question: “If circulationism is to mean anything, it has to move into the world of offline distribution, of 3D dissemination of resources, of music, land, and inspiration. Why not slowly withdraw from an undead internet to build a few others next to it?” This triggers me to think, why do we think of the net, as the ultimate entity, and why isn’t there another one?
     Back to A Communications Primer, which starts off with a simple diagram of communication systems, including a transmitter, channel, receiver and noise that interferes with the channel and can distort the message. Noise, in the case of the internet, is the lack of connectivity. A noisy or dead internet would mean many servers, cables, personal computers, devices and services connecting with each other without a single bit traveling between them. A dead internet is a network without interaction, feedback or any sort of dynamics. A dead net is a network without growth.
     Charles and Ray Eames wanted to excite the general public for the possibilities of communication and information in the future. They wanted to break down barriers between disciplines. They wanted fellow designers to start using these channels, before they started to use them. This call for involvement is still relevant. Like when the web was coming to life during the internet boom, the general technology of connectivity was growing in uncanny directions. As for today, the internet is entering unexplored areas, exploiting the fact that there are neither laws nor codes to regulate these spaces. Manuel DeLanda wrote: “The Internet, to take the clearest example first, is a meshwork which grew mostly by drift. No one planned either the extent or the direction of its development, and indeed, no one is in charge of it even today.”
     What interests me in the potential withdrawal of the web is the void it will leave in the real. Concerning the marks and inscriptions it has made on the products that surround us, the blending of the virtual world of networks and the physical world of products into the ‘supranet’ (1) or an ‘internet of things’ is already happening. Products are intensified with RFID-chips, microprocessors and sensors. This is how they will form networks on their own, communicating between themselves, us and other things. The self-driving Google car just drove its first miles on the public roads of California. At the same time Apple is selling a watch that measures your heartbeat, which it connects to your iPhone, which is connected to your cloud server, which is connected to… I’ll come back to that later.
     When the web is rendered into solid things, and solid things get their presence on the web, will this mean the internet as we know it will be played out, will retire, and eventually die? When products start communicating with each other, sending data to us, to servers and to other products, will we still need a big internet to keep track of them? Maybe clusters of small micro-nets work better. Maybe the information will flow directly to us. A small network will produce less noise. A lot of products shouting out to us will produce data, big data. How should we deal with this?
     For me, all of this suggests the possibility of more than one internet. I want to find out how these developments of the actualisation of the virtual are taking place. What parties are investing and participating in extending the net as we know it? If the Eames office would make a movie about information technology today, who would they go to? Who would be in their end credits? Still a bunch of MIT professors? Larry Page? Elon Musk? Philosophers? Coders and hackers?
     On the one hand, I see this drifting, these horizontal movements (2), people discovering the possibilities of the web similar to how a liquid spreads out in a landscape, or how oil floats over water, limitless, restless. At the same time I distinguish vertical movements (3) , the process of growth where economic power and politics are involved in realising and sustaining an imposed structure. Planning ahead, filtering, regulating. Along this axis companies descend from the virtual cloud to material ground. For the vertical, think of ice instead of water. Growing in the sense of building, constructing a skyscraper, digging a mine, supporting with scaffolding. These ideas are slightly linked to the economical strategies of horizontal/vertical integration (businesses expanding by encompassing their supply chain, or by taking over similar businesses), but they concern more than just economics.
     Besides the vertical and horizontal growth, diagonal movements are likely to happen as well: the horizontal can be structured, supported and sustained and grow vertical, pretty much like water can turn into ice or minerals can be crystallised when they are exposed to certain circumstances for a certain period of time. I’d like to think of the web as water slowly turning into ice, thinking of products as ice cubes forming a network, liquids flowing in between, connecting them through channels, or connecting with each other through little lakes of melted water.
     Where are we now in this process? How liquid is the web? Shouldn’t we sometimes progress vertically before ideas vaporise? Shouldn’t we sometimes bend vertical movements sideways, melting it back to liquid again, rethinking and reshaping its solid identity? We think of the internet as a completed project, a finished thing, but this would be a mistake. There is more to do than just polishing its surface. What are the forces driving the web? For how much longer will we be stuck with only one internet?

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1. Horizontal movements: growth by drift

     What feels so good about the internet is that it pretends there are no borders, thresholds or limits, while browsing through the branches of Wikipedia subcategories, flowing through a stream of YouTube suggestions, scrolling through the endless fabric of the tumblr feed. The stream continues to flow, with its repetitive cycles and shifting current. On the web you can meet someone a curler from Brazil, someone who’s afraid of chemtrails or just some guy spamming his own cheesy rap productions in the comments of popular YouTube videos. Over twenty years of internet and this is what we do, its what we are part of.
     A short history of the virtual community: as early as 1993 Howard Rheingold describes his experiences of being part of a virtual social community made possible through dial-up internet connections (4) . He was part of “The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link”, alias The WELL. On the WELL, people could exchange thoughts through a bulletin board system (based on a centralised server) and participate in discussions. This was a many-to-many network, where everyone was a reader, writer, editor and critic at the same time. (5)
     There is a line that can be drawn from the optimistic spirit that catalysed the internet boom in the time of the WELL to the communalist counterculture that took place in the States in the 70‘s. It is very well described by Fred Turner. He constructs a timeline where the internet- enthusiasts from Wired Magazine (1990s), the first social community WELL (1985) and the communalist network established through the Whole Earth Catalogue (1970s) are linked together. I want to extend this chain of ideas further back into time, all the way back to the work of Norbert Wiener, who advised the Eameses on their movie.
     I will get into some more details on this stream of events, ideas and people. To start with, the founder of the WELL, Stewart Brand, was also the man behind the magazine The Whole Earth Catalogue. Same spirit, different medium. The magazine (carrying the slogan Access to Tools) functioned as a guide for the people who went to live in communes in rural America, helping them with finding the information needed to run a self-sufficient community out in the country. The catalogue did not actually sell any products; it only stated where and how you could acquire them.
     Most importantly, in the first edition of The Whole Earth Catalogue, Brand asked for input from the readers, to provide and share more knowledge on the themes that the Catalogue was dealing with. After the first issue, it transformed from a ‘one to many’, to a ‘many to many’ platform of information exchange. This is how it grew from 61 pages in 1969 to over 400 pages in 1971. So here we have: “Access”, “The Whole Earth”, many to many, all on one platform. Sounds like the internet adrift.
     Eighty percent of the available content from the catalogue were books. Books about Buckminster Fuller, ecology, whole systems, industry and craft, nomads, self-learning machines… Books! Next to an early $4,900 Hewlett Packard programmable calculator, farming tools and seeds. One of these books was called “Cybernetics – or control and communication in the animal and the machine”, written in the 1940s by none other than Norbert Wiener. His book is in the catalogue for a reason: it dealt with the workings of whole-systems and feedback loops, which also fuelled the social theories admired by the communalists counter-culture.
     I quote from the first chapter: “If the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries are the age of clocks, and the later eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries constitute the age of steam engines, the present time is the age of communication and control.” (6) He states information technology will be the force that will all drive changes and developments in the times to come, like the steam engine was the force behind the industrial revolution and the division of labour. I would not interpret control in a political sense, but in a mechanical sense: the way we control for example our machines, our products and our environment and our access to it.
     Communication and control: information and regulation. This book was written in the 40s and Wiener discusses self-replicating machines, self-learning mechanisms and non-linear feedback in relation to evolution theory… He associates the operation of binary digital computers with nerve structures in organisms (and this image also pops up in the A Communications Primer). He thinks about self-reproducing mechanisms, homeostasis (stable states) in machines and animal bodies. He brings together engineering, mathematics, physics and biology. The cross-disciplinary approach which also drove the Eameses to make their movie.
     “Communication is that which holds any organism together”, as the calm narrator of A Communications Primer tells us. How do large groups of independent systems enter collective synchronised behaviour? How can a group of products communicate with us and with each other? Do we give a self driving car a map of the area and some information on how to move through this map, or do we load it with certain preventive feedback systems and allow the machine to make mistakes and learn driving by itself? And what if we have a group of products, which would learn continuously by operating in the real world at the same time, and share their learnings with each other, and with us? These questions, introduced by Wiener, are more relevant today than ever before.
     With the power of computer simulation scientists were able to study the patterns of dynamical systems. Our knowledge about the topics Wiener touched on is expanding fast. In biology, these simulations could visualise the processes of evolution in detail, revealing the feedback systems as described by Wiener (7) . With analytical software and massive data-clouds we are able to reveal these processes in the behaviour of digital networks like the internet. For example, a recent study shows how memes or tweets spread across the web: “(…) the competition between memes turns the social network into a so-called critical system, i.e., a system close to the critical point of a phase transition. In such a state, minor disturbances lead to avalanches of events that drive the system to a new phase, e.g., one in which certain memes go viral.” These mechanisms of critical systems can also be found in the dynamics of competition of evolving species and the neural activity of the brain. So Wiener was onto something: biological processes and our idea of the internet have a lot in common.
     His view on information technology is slowly being rediscovered, there was a conference to reassess his work last year. He never received massive attention, mostly because he refused funding from the military or big corporations who wanted to exploit his ideas on automation (establishing his work in a vertical direction), so his ideas were not (yet) crystallised into products. Next to that he was surpassed in popularity by an engineer named Claude Shannon (also billed in the Eames movie). Shannon was a man of equal brilliance whose views were more conservative and more practical.
     Nevertheless, we will need the ideas of Norbert Wiener in order to allow products to drift away from the internet and grow into networks themselves. Why? Because after years of unfolding horizontally, the web is starting to move vertically. This is a good and a bad thing. It will allow a lot of companies to reach out and set foot on material ground, producing real products. At the same time, these developments are channeled by economical processes existing in only one discipline called entrepreneurship.
     Usually, such a discipline is not driven by horizontal forces like curiosity or wonder to explore the unmapped territories of intelligent sensors, geo-tagged products or inter-communications between devices. It is driven by other longings, as I will explore next. Moving only vertically means exhausting and impoverishing an idea, diving deeper or building higher on the same fundament, weakening its basis and poisoning its ground. A vertical movement is not triggered by curiosity but by the wish for stability of an established entity.

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2. Moving vertically: imposed growth

     In a vertical sense, the internet is not finished yet. It has not covered the entire world. There are still billions of people on this planet without internet connection. Halfway through 2014, ‘only’ 42% of the world population was using the web. Does the entire population really need the internet, or do the companies providing internet connections need people to connect? I believe this part of the world population will only need or demand internet when it will be integrated in matter, in stuff, in usable products.
     The “Internet.org” project by Facebook (and seven mobile phone companies) aims to provide internet access in poorly developed areas in Africa. The plan is to cover the internet ‘dead zones’ with drones to reach the poor disconnected inhabitants. When this project started off in India it was heavily criticised for violating net-neutrality, because the websites it offered people to visit were limited and selected by Facebook itself. In the meantime Google is busy with developing high-altitude balloons that form an aerial wireless network to cover remote areas and supply them with internet, which can also function as a recovery network after a disaster (or war). Goal is to reach the 5 billion people who still live without an internet connection.
     When there is something called “internet.org”, and there is Google thinking of a physical network system that can connect every rainforest, every desert and maybe even the ocean (8) , isn’t it time to stop talking about the Internet, and proceed with ‘an’ internet? When connectivity is part of a business model, how much of the drift described by Manuel DeLanda is still thriving the web to spread out across the globe?
     These capitalistic ventures are imposing a limit to the net, and thereby creating multiple versions of it. Because there still is, besides the segmented internet of Google search results or Facebook recommendations, a possibility of the ‘free web’ that moves by drift. It remains under the surface, only accessible with encrypted connections. The Deep Web: the hidden internet where all users remain completely anonymous, visiting websites on untraceable servers, empowering an invisible economy running on BitCoin transactions.

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     One of the more famous and successful deep-web websites was Silk Road, an online black market where all kinds of illegal drugs were available for anyone to buy. On Silk Road, information about products (in this case, drugs) was presented in a fully transparent way. The knowledge and feedback of the users created a giant encyclopaedia of different exotic types of drugs and their effects and side effects. It created a network of reliable sellers. This is a drifting network of products. Products being sorted by an online system.
     So besides products funnelling information into the internet, the internet is also sorting and segmenting information about these products. Google is a sorting machine that filters out information and, in that way, the objects related to this information. But Google is not that much adrift: it creates fields and assemblages of objects that are glued together because of similar search patterns. Companies can buy their way up into the top of the search results (following a vertical movement). Not only a company like Google acts as a sorting device, also governments do. Although they are very slow in imposing laws and regulating internet traffic, they do have the power to for example protect copyrighted content, and in this way providing a space for a market of online movie distribution (as opposed to peer-to-peer networks providing free, illegal downloads).
     I was talking with a friend about this speed of start-up companies profiting from unregulated internet territories, versus the slowness of governments that have to respond to this. She told me she saw a documentary in which they interviewed the founder and CEO of findthebest.com. This is an online research-engine that allows you to compare everything from colours, colleges, cell phones to paintings, dog breeds and Supreme Court justices. It is less radical but has a similar wish for transparency like Silk Road.
     I watched the interview and saw the CEO, called Kevin O’Connor, talking about his company and his profound and blind trust in capitalism: “it’s about helping people to find what is best for them. Exposing bad products. Bad products and bad companies should die. That’s why capitalism works. Good companies and good products should thrive. So yeah, it’s a little bit of political… It’s difficult for me to separate politics and economics.”
     So here is a very capitalistic way of imposing a sorting device on products, with an unconditional trust in the mechanisms of the free market. Does the transparency of “findthebest.com” allow people to make the ‘best’ decision? When relating certain products, the parameters you can use to compare them are limited. When I search for a certain company I see a question popping up in the side bar, asking if I own that company and if I want to claim my online presence by improving my listing. If I buy my place at the top of the list on this website, does that make my product any better? Is the internet a vehicle to find ‘the best’? I don’t know. What I do believe is that the internet can act as a machine that produces choices.
     “Findthebest.com” is an example of the many utopian ideals chased by the optimistic entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. Open source knowledge, ambitious coders and the positive vibe of the young start-up economy are politically and morally empowered by an almost fundamentalist belief in the free market. So here, the government is an obstacle, interfering in a vertical chain (channeling their pathway to expansion and growth). “If I was developing a drone company I’d go to New Zealand. If I was developing a medical device company I’d go to Europe.” Different places, different regulations. Vertical growth does not even limit itself neither to nation states or social groups nor to laws, regulations or conventions. It only chases a potential market or target group.
     Vertical growth is all about the efficiency, market value, expansion, extension, and inflation of a single thing. Forces that fuel this process are channeled and intensified. For one thing, it concentrates on a single niche. It can never be interdisciplinary.

Conclusion: liquids, solids, vapour and dust

     I think it is possible for the internet to die. But it will not be such a dramatic event. The internet as we know it, will slowly disappear. Instead, multiple versions of the internet will grow. Possibly, there will be micro-networks of communicating things: people, institutes, organisations, products, houses, cars, planes, lungs, windows, sounds. All of which could later be indexed by a macro-network. But first it is important to let these micro-networks evolve by drift. Such a new space should not be entered with social prejudice or towering expectations from investors. The next age of information technology discovery should be truly liquid again.
     But, as much fun as horizontal drift can be, when a liquid doesn’t solidify or crystallise it will slowly vaporise, and we will be left with an empty net. Also, crumbling or tearing down a solid product of vertical growth leaves you with only dust. We need diagonal movements to gently melt the solid and softly crystallise the liquid. A diagonal movement always involve a cross disciplinary approach: science, psychology, biology, physics collaborating with coders, hackers, software developers, brought together by investors, entrepreneurs, designers, architects, thinkers and writers.
     I still wouldn’t know what the Eames would be working on if they would have lived today, but I do now we might need a movie from them again. Some time soon. Because if they lived today, they would not be stuck to one thing. They would be all-over.

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NOTES

1 Simon Hayward, Ken Dulaney, Bob Egan, Daryl C. Plummer, Nigel Deighton, Martin Reynolds, “Beyond the Internet: The ‘Supranet”, Gartner Research Report, 2000

2 Pretty much according to the Deleuzian concept of smooth space, horizontal movements are formed by interlocking connections, without boundaries or a pre-determined form. For Deleuze this relates to how nomads live in the desert or how felt is formed by interlocking fibres. For me a horizontal movement is an economic concept explicating the force behind (or reason for) a product to be manufactured.

3 Vertical movements relate to the idea of striated space. I see all processes of realisation of products as a mixture of smooth space being striated and the striated being smoothened out.

4 Howard Rheingold, “The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier”, 1993

5 Before the San Francisco-based, Silicon Valley-oriented WELL, there was another social communications system called USENET, set up in North Carolina, built on the basic principles of the American department of Defence initiated packet-switching network ARPANET, which many universities were allowed to join. ARPANET formed the technological backbone of the internet.

6 Norbert Wiener, “Cybernetics – or control and communication in the animal and the machine”, 1948, p.39

7 Stuart Kauffman, “The Origins of Order. Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution”, 1993

8 Smooth space being stratified here, see Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 1988, p.552