When you try and describe the internet (and, for that matter, the Web) what metaphors do you tend to use? Is it a “series of tubes” to you? A place? A river or ocean? Something organic, living, evolving? None of the above? All of the above?
As I began to write this, I thought I’d ask Twitter a question. If you were to try and describe the internet in just one word, what would that word be? And so far, in the first five minutes, the responses have been: magic (twice), progress, illuminating, love, freedom, information, foundations, people, organism, knowledge, data, flow, connection, catalyst, mellifluent. And internet!. Everyone’s using the hashtag #iiow (internet in one word) if you want to go check it out.
So many things to so many people, all at the same time.
So I thought I’d let what’s left of my hair down and classify the internet, tongue firmly in cheek, as if it were a series of quarks.
As with quarks, imagine that the internet comes in six flavours: Up, Down, Strange, Charmed, Top and Bottom.
We’ve spent a very long time getting used to the Down internet. Governments and Hollywood and RIAA and your friendly neighbourhood control freak love the Down flavour. Everything flows down, one direction only, controlled, measured. Just the way things used to be. All very shipshape and Bristol fashion, reminiscent of the broadcast-command-control world. Some people think the internet should be like that, and for some time now we’ve seen attempts to regulate the internet as if it were a centrally controllable broadcast network. But that’s over.
As soon as people realised that the internet was bidirectional, that there was an Up internet, all hell broke loose. The broadcast mindset didn’t like it one little bit. Newspapers and wireless radios and television sets were one-way mechanisms and the very idea that anyone could “publish” was at the very least sacrilege, perhaps even treason. Censorship was going to be a real bitch, as was copyright and for that matter most forms of intellectual property rights. Blogs and wikis mushroomed, YouTube came along. The edge was empowered.
So there was Up and Down. At first the only things that went Up and Down were made of text, and small pieces of text at that. So nobody cared. Then, as years went by, images and sounds got into the act. And the pieces got bigger. Some of the publishing industries began to get concerned. Then the images began to “move” and the sounds started concatenating, and music and video began to flow up and down. Now the publishing industries really cared, but it was too late.
We’re just entering the worlds of Strange and Charmed.
The Strange internet is where we start “moving” physical things across the internet. How long before I can share an out-of-circulation super-scarce vinyl album by scanning it and then “faxing” it over the internet so that it’s printed by the recipient on a 3D printer? Nearly six years ago, I read about bioprinters that could “print” cells, in effect create muscle tissue. Meatjets. More recently, just over a year ago, I heard about people “printing” aromas: the age of the smelly printer had arrived. Connect the 3D printer, the meatjet, the smelly printer to the internet and soon we will be transporting stuff that we can smell, touch, even eat, rather than just listen to or read or watch. The Strange internet awaits us.
Spooked? Don’t worry, the Charmed internet has also begun to show up. A few days ago, I came across the term thumbkiss for the first time, to describe what happens when two people some distance apart “kiss” by pressing their thumbs on their mobile phones simultaneously and being able to “feel” the kiss through the vibrations initiated by Pair, the application that brought us the thumbkiss. We’ve had airkisses before the internet; it takes a world of affordable and ubiquitous connectivity and compute/storage power to bring us the thumbkiss. The whole idea, “charming” as it may be, reminded me of something Alex had told me about a couple of years ago, the Good Night Lamp. ” A family of connected lamps that lets you communicate the act of coming home to your loved ones, remotely”. So we’re already at a stage where we send emotions and feelings and warmth and love across the internet.
The Top internet has been gathering strength all this while, all about the power of many, about none of us being as smart as all of us. Connected sideways and many-to-many rather than up or down, collective in intelligence and collective in action. We’ve been seeing the power of the Top Internet topple governments, change corporate strategy, hold up irrational lawmaking. The Top internet is about collectivism, about smart mobs and virtual communities and friend graphs.
The Bottom internet is all about the data, the metadata, the models, the structures, the standards and the protocols that make the other five internets happen. Open data. Closed data. Big data. Small data. As we continue to add collection devices and sensors to the internet, we begin to solve problems of the paradigm we live in, the paradigm our children and grandchildren will make their own. New tools that allow us to collate that data, suitably identified in time and space and overall context, to teach us more about we congregate and how we migrate. How our food and energy and water congregate and migrate. How our diseases and criminals and terrorists congregate and migrate. How ideas and cultures and values emerge and grow and move.
The internet. A series of quarks.