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Most people who use the Internet don't even have a basic grasp of how it works. This isn't surprising: most people who turn on a light switch have no clue about the engineering, or indeed the scientific principles, that enable them to stay up long after sundown. And of course it goes without saying that the Internet represents a technological achievement of such complexity that it dwarfs almost any other in recent history. But it's not just the recreational users who don't get it. Arguably, if someone's only contact with the digital world is ordering from Amazon and reading their newspaper online, it doesn't matter much if they don't understand the technology that allows them to do so. They just do it. After all, an X-Factor viewer might not be able to explain to you how the broadcasting industry works, but that doesn't mean they can't enjoy bellowing at their TV screen and giving you a detailed appraisal of this year's runners-up. The thing is, though, that the Internet is absolutely not just fancy television, and actually it's my contention that it does matter. The Internet matters to all of us — that's why I'm writing this book.
The gulf of understanding between the technologically literate and the technologically illiterate has profound consequences. Most of those who are responsible for, say, writing and passing the legislation that governs our world have no more grasp of how the Internet works than our friend who checks the Telegraph online for the sports headlines. And since the Internet is changing every aspect of our lives at an accelerating pace, it really is a problem when our political leaders, or our pundits, artists or businessmen, don't get it. They make bad assumptions, pass unenforceable laws or invest money in unworkable solutions to the wrong "problems." And they are regarded as profoundly out of touch with the new reality by those who are busy crafting it.
This is not to sneer at those who do not yet get it — the digital environment often looks and feels dauntingly complex, and some of the philosophical, social, political and economic consequences of living in a networked world are hard to take in, especially for those of us who were not brought up with them. That's the aim of this book: guided exploration, in the hopes that it may help us all to feel a little more comfortable. You do not need to brace yourself for an avalanche of technical information. Even a little knowledge of the underlying structures that make up the Internet goes a very long way.
The origins of what we now call the Internet were designed for the U.S. military. The brief was to build a communications network between military bases that would withstand nuclear attack. Hundreds of physical locations needed to be in touch with each other. To connect them in a loop was out of the question, since an attack on any single base would take out the whole system. The obvious alternative (connecting every point to every other point) required impractically vast quantities of materials. The solution was ingenious. Every message that needed to be sent was to be broken down into "packets" of information, as if a letter were cut up and each piece posted in one of twenty different envelopes. The packets would be sent, not direct to their ultimate destination, but to the nearest available computer in the right general direction. Eventually, all the packets would arrive, by various different routes, at the end point, where the message would be sorted back into its correct order and opened. It's as if you decided to send a letter to your grandmother in Penzance by walking out your front door in Newcastle and asking passers-by if they were heading south and if so, would mind passing on a line or two of your message. By various hops, it would eventually all make it to Cornwall — at least in theory!
Thing is, the theory worked. The great advantage of this system was that because the packets of information weren't following any set route, if a bomb took out points D, E and N they could still make it from A to Z via myriad other paths. The process might slow down, but the information would still arrive. And if a couple of packets failed to turn up and the message could not be reassembled, the end computer simply messaged the originating machine and asked it to try again. The brief was fulfilled: anyone connected, even by a single link, could access all the other points on the network.
In that single fact is contained the spark of the revolution that has transformed our lives. So long as your point of connection is hooked up to your local network, which is in turn connected to the regional one, which is in turn connected to the national one, which is then hooked up to the transatlantic cable, you can video conference with your friends in San Francisco, Beijing and Buenos Aires in real time. At hundreds of thousands of stages along the way, individual computers called routers will make a decision about the best direction in which to send your packets of data.
The fact that this works is almost miraculous. It certainly feels that way to the end user — or at least it does when we remember to notice it. The Internet was planned by hundreds of engineers, scientists and visionaries working over the past fifty years. It took extraordinary amounts of work, idealism and determination to develop it to the point at which such everyday miracles as three-way video conferencing in three different time zones are possible.
And yet, for all its incredible sophistication, there are still weak points in the architecture of the Internet. Whole regions remain cut off from the global network. Bangladesh is connected to the rest of the world by just three fiber-optic cables. Before the World Cup in 2010 brought an urgent need to install more infrastructure, South Africa was connected via a single cable. Where this is the case, a region is very vulnerable to "unplugging" of the sort ordered by the Egyptian authorities during the popular uprising that overthrew President Mubarak.
But while these bottlenecks make restriction relatively simple, in engineering terms intervention is not a subtle procedure. A crucial thing that most technologically illiterate people fail to realize is that you cannot censor the Internet along national boundaries without applying draconian measures. The technical capacity to monitor — i.e. to decode and read — all the flow of information through those fiber-optic cables does not exist. You can turn it on and off like a tap, or set it to trickle mode, but you cannot filter its flow for individual elements. And since the Internet treats any kind of block (including attempts at censorship) as damage, it simply looks for an alternative route and sends its packets of information off in another direction. It is virtually impossible to prevent the flow of information, and this is true both on a technical level and also, as we will see, on a cultural one. A surprisingly high proportion of Western politicians have not grasped what their Chinese opposite numbers have learned through practical experiment: there is no such thing as light-touch censorship online. Nation states can only restrict what appears on the Internet within their jurisdiction if they are prepared to be draconian, and even then they will be only partially successful.
The censorship issue offers a good case study for talking about how people's lack of understanding translates to wrong-headed attempts to intervene in the digital world. Codes of voluntary agreement among Internet service providers appear to offer an alternative way to control content, one far more palatable to governments of a liberal disposition than turning off the tap, à la Egypt. For example, in the U.K. all providers have agreed to block child pornography sites, if they are brought to their attention. While no one in their right mind would disagree with the attempt to protect children, it's worth noting a couple of problems with this sort of voluntary agreement. Firstly, there's the fact that no service provider has the capacity to automatically block such a site in the first place if they don't already know about it, because to do so they would need to be able to accurately assess and filter all the information they pass along for its content. But information does not whizz around the Internet in easily viewable images or readable text. It travels in tiny packets of code. The sheer volumes of code make the process of deciphering all of it on some hypothetical master-reader completely impossible. To understand why this is so, it might help to remember that in order to be able to identify child porn you would need to be able to identify every other single thing that the code could conceivably be and eliminate it from your enquiries.
It is not the case that you cannot intervene in relation to online content, but you cannot do it by network censorship. The way to close down child porn sites is through police work: enforcement and entrapment. That fact is difficult for people who do not understand the architecture of the Internet to grasp. It has resulted in a lot of the sort of unworkable legislation that liberal regimes tie themselves up in when they are trying to enact their values from the unfortunate position of technological illiteracy.
The other problem with voluntary agreements is that they are not subject to any disclosure of information legislation, so we have no idea what other sorts of content is on the list of things the authorities do not want us to access. Child porn is at the extreme end of the spectrum, the nuclear option in the Internet censorship discussion — nobody's going to argue that we have a right to access it. But even if we personally are fine with trusting our rulers to decide which other things we can and cannot see, the Internet collectively is absolutely not fine with it. As we will see in later chapters, the Internet treats restricted access and closed data sources as a challenge, even a call to arms. This is another point where the divergence of opinion between the networked, techno-literate generations (i.e. those who've grown up using the Internet) and the hierarchical non-literate ones (those who haven't) is most acute. For anyone who lives their life on the Internet, it is considered rude when someone denies you access to something. The Internet was built and is still creating itself though a principle of collaboration. If you post something online that is restricted access, you are rejecting that collaborative instinct. You should not be surprised that your content is likely to be targeted by hacktivists — online activists who use their hacking skills to gain access to the very data that you've tried to lock away.
The key concept is that you cannot control the way people use the Internet without "doing a China" and that has been of only partial success, even for the Chinese. When the market acts as a censor, as it does when it restricts German Harry Potter fans' access, it is even less successful, because it is nowhere draconian enough to do the only thing that is in any way effective: turning off everyone's access to everything. Content-providing corporations, national governments and all the other old-guard elites that, in my view, are rapidly becoming extinct keep waiting for some new piece of legislation or technology to save them, to roll back the last twenty years. The fact is, that isn't going to happen. Once we all accept that, we can stop wasting our energies on panicking about the impact of the Internet and get on with reimagining our world. It's exciting and empowering to make that shift from hierarchical to networked thinking. If you are still feeling either panicky or confused, this book is full of suggestions on how you can learn to love the Internet.CHAPTER 2
When it comes down to it, the math is relentless.
Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, the microprocessor firm, wrote a paper in 1965 describing a curious observation. Every year, for the seven years since the invention of the integrated circuit, the number of components used on a microchip had doubled while the price remained the same. This trend, he thought, might go on for another decade. By 1975, when he revised his prediction to every two years instead of every year, he had been proved correct.
Moore's Law has left its engineering background and entered the modern culture, and while there are various technical caveats and simplifications that might send a chip designer into nerd rage to read this, it is now more generally held to be the following: computers double in power every two years. Or, for the same power, halve in price.
While not a law as such, the observation has been true since 1958, and doesn't look like letting up any time soon. It is because of Moore's Law that the rest of this book is possible, and we need to understand its ramifications before we continue.
Firstly, Moore's Law makes planning very difficult. Imagine you have just been made Prime Minister. With good luck and a following wind, you might expect to be in Downing Street for eight solid years. But the technology policies you put forward in your first year in office will be based around technology that will be laughably obsolete by the time you leave. The mobile phone on which you took the congratulatory calls during election night will have been replaced by something sixteen times as powerful, and the most expensive phone on the market on day one will now be given away for free.
For buildings and city planning, Moore's Law presents an even greater challenge. If you consider a new building might have a usable lifespan of fifty years, the technology used within it as the wrecking ball is swung will be thirty million times as powerful as today. How, then, do you take this into account when you are designing the fabric of the building?
The long-term increase in computing power is breathtaking enough for a desktop computer, but consider the reverse effect. We are planning cities today that will one day hold technology more powerful than we've ever seen, smaller than we've ever seen, and so cheap as to be almost free. The idea of a supercomputer the size of a pack of playing cards in the shops for less than a few hundred pounds and made by the million might sound like over-optimistic science-fiction. Or at least it would have done five years ago, before Apple brought out the iPhone. Cities of the twenty-first century, as we'll discuss in a later chapter, may well be designed around the mobile phone in the way that cities of the twentieth century were designed around the car. Either way, it is our duty to ensure that the permanent infrastructure we lay down today takes into account the stuff we'll be putting into it tomorrow. That stuff is subject to Moore's Law.
So it also goes for our careers and our schooling. An eleven-year-old will see a sixty-four-fold increase in computing power by the time she leaves secondary education. A career executive taking twenty years to reach upper management will be greeted by a technological landscape half a million times as powerful as the day he started. In a knowledge economy, this relentless thrust forward is the only constant we have, and as information technology touches ever more aspects of our lives, Moore's Law becomes contagious. What were once fields of human endeavour untouched by Moore's Law are now sucked into its upward spiral: the military, farming and culture of all forms are now shaped by the logarithmic graph.
The relentlessness of Moore's Law need not be tiring, however. It does provide an opportunity for slacking off. Let's say you have a job processing a large amount of data, enough so that if you start with today's technology it might take you six years to complete the task. If you were to sit on a beach for a couple of years, however, and then start with the (twice as powerful) technology available then, the whole task would take only three years. Even with the time spent working on your tan, you'd still finish five years from now, a whole year sooner than if you started today. Thinking of digitizing your entire CD collection? Wait a bit, and it'll be over sooner.
Moore's isn't the only law that describes the pace of technological change. Kryder's Law, named after the research engineer Mark Kryder, says that the amount of data you can fit onto a magnetic disk of a given size will double every year. In high-street terms, that means that every year a portable hard-disk drive of a given size will halve in price, or the same amount of cash will get you twice as much space. The effects of this are perhaps more striking than Moore's Law. There are easily guessable values for the amount of storage you would need to never have to throw away any photograph you took during your life, for example, or to store everything you ever read or watched or heard. You can work out quite simply the storage needs for every piece of music ever recorded, and Kryder's Law then simply points out the day when such an amount of storage will be affordable. As I write, one terabyte of storage, enough for around 200,000 songs, costs around fifty pounds. In ten years' time, the same price will give me storage enough for 100,000,000 tracks. A box the size of a hardback book containing, say, the entirety of Hollywood's twentieth-century output is technologically, if not socially, foreseeable without any effort. So too is a book-sized box containing every book ever written. In technological terms, we just have to wait.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Approaching the Future"
Copyright © 2013 Ben Hammersley.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
THE SOCIAL GRAPH,
THE SEMANTIC WEB,
ONLINE DISINHIBITION EFFECT,
THE BOYD LOOP,
OPEN GOVERNMENT DATA,
AMATEUR SPACE TRAVEL,
STUXNET AND SONS,
HIGH-FREQUENCY ALGORITHMIC TRADING,
THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF FORGETTING,
REBIRTH OF DISTANCE,
LIVE PERSONAL-BEHAVIOR SHARING,
THE QUANTIFIED SELF,
PERSONAL GENETIC TESTING,
NANOTECH AND OTHER MIRACLE TECHNOLOGIES,
DIPLOMACY IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY,
THE ECHO CHAMBER,
HUMAN FLESH SEARCH ENGINES,
THE NICHE FACTOR,
DIGITAL RIGHTS AND WRONGS,
THE FUTURE OF MEDIA,
REMIX CULTURE VS. COPYRIGHT LAW,
OPEN COURSEWARE AND COLLABORATIVE LEARNING,
DIGITAL AND ALTERNATIVE CURRENCIES,
THE RETURN TO CRAFT,
THE INTERNET OF THINGS,
THE DARK NET,
WHY MONITORING ONLINE MESSAGES IS NOT THE SAME AS WIRETAPPING,
CARBON AND THE DIGITAL ECONOMY,
FAILING GRACEFULLY, OR WHY EVERYTHING IS BETA NOW,
WHY INFORMATION OVERLOAD IS ALL IN THE MIND,
THE LONG NOW,
JUST ENOUGH DIGITAL,
THE ZEN OF DIGITAL LIVING,