Monday, August 27, 2007

invisible thingyness

There's some chatter in the blathersphere at the moment concerning what the internet is now. Russell Davies suggests it's is more of a thing now and less of a service. Mark Cuban has rubbed a few people the wrong way saying the internet is dead and boring.

I have a cocktail of opinions:

1. Current discussions don't seem to acknowledge that there is no absolute perception of the internet. In parts of the developed world, for instance, when the only way you can "use" the internet is by walking five miles and paying a week's wages for it, then it's definitely a 'thing'. To a Hoxtonite blogging in a hotel bar, the internet is taken for granted.

2. There needs to be some distinction between 'the internet' and its applications and sites. "The internet" itself doesn't need new innovations, just as air does not need new innovations in order for new ideas to thrive in the physical world. Maybe a clever coder can tell me otherwise.

3. I see the internet almost as another sense/dimension: An empty channel for information exchange - defined only by what passes through it. I'm sure Mark Cuban wouldn't call "sight" dead and boring. We might however, agree that the novelty of seeing has worn off - at least until we see something new and incredible. (The term 'internet access' is a bit peculiar now too, as it's not really the internet we are accessing - just as looking at a picture isn't eye-access)

I disagree with Cuban's argument in its headline form, although I appreciate that the fabric of our lives isn't being constantly re-woven (perhaps gradually dyed) with current innovations. However, there are some very exciting and playful new experiments being explored.

Onto the sticky bit.
Davies made two comments that initially appeared to contradict one another, but which probably do work together after all: 'it's more of a thing' and 'soon we won't mention it at all'. I've been racking my brain over this question of whether the internet is solidifying or becoming more invisible. And actually, I think both are true...

I disagree that the internet is more of a commodity (in the west) because wireless is on its way to blanketing the developed world - and Russell is right, we won't be mentioning it at all soon. AOL etc will milk the last few years of charging for "unlimited downloads!!!"

But the concept of 'thingyness' - to quote Michael Frayn - takes us into philosophical places that my brain is too tiny to go. I'll just paddle lightly:

The internet was arguably more of a 'thing' at the very beginning, when we needed to reduce a seemingly abstract idea to a pocket-size concept. At that time it was interpreted by many as 'the thing you do email with', but a thing none-the-less.

It would seem to make sense that as the number of things we do with the internet increases its thingyness should become less tangible. It's now many things! But maybe the point is that in the beginning it was the internet's infinite 'possibilities' that led us to make it a thing and now it is its infinite 'uses' that overload our brains and require us to distil it once more.

So the internet is 'the great invisible thing' (that won't be going into Wikipedia any time soon) - a technological apparition, both everywhere, nowhere, tangible and limitless. Helpful? Maybe not, but this invisible thingyness leads neatly onto a thought I had recently:

The internet is like water.

Broadband is running water.
Dial-up is a well.
Wi-fi zones are expensive bottled water: irritatingly convenient but a bad use of money.
Internet cafes are warm, bottled tap water.

You only notice water/the internet when you don't have it.

In the developed world, you don't ask someone if they have running water - you assume they do and use it without thinking "I just used this tap (laptop/iPhone)".
In parts of the developing world you might expect that running water is less common and that the well could be a long walk away.

The metaphor falls down (ok, amongst other places I'm sure) when you consider that we need water to survive. Although people in the west would argue this is true of the internet. But I think it's an interesting metaphor to attach the internet's invisible thingyness to in order to temporarily relieve us from the metaphysical.

Oh - and the internet also shares water's boiling point of one thousand degrees:

And when the world is one big wi-fi zone? Well maybe then we can all stop talking about the internet completely. It would be very sad however, if this happened before the same could be said for running water.

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