Wiring our Visual Language

For those of us old enough to remember when long distance phone calls were a big deal and international calls had that terrible lag time, we also remember that that the land line we were using was hard wired to the wall. And so it wasn’t a far stretch of the imagination to extrapolate that our friend was on the other end of that wire, using a similar phone, tethered to the wall. When I asked my mom how we were speaking to our relative on another continent and she explained that we were connected by a long wire across the ocean, I was in awe, but it wasn’t hard to conceive since every single person using a phone was somehow, physically wired to the end of the line.

Our perceptual concepts were already formed so our language could naturally form around it.
When AT&T ran those funny “reach out and touch someone” commercials, they made sense back in the physically wired world.

If we’re to keep the image of the land-line phone, the wire-less world we’ve evolved to today is only on this end of the wall. Everything behind that wall is still wired and physical. We’ve freed ourselves to become completely mobile, but the infrastructure is just as physical as it always was, and has grown to keep apace. The difference now is that we don’t have the perceptual symbols around our infrastructure and so we can’t really form any language around it.

One way to think about our visual perception system is that it forms symbols of things allowing us to quickly recognize objects while in motion, in different shapes, angles and so on. Or, even when they are temporarily obscured or hidden, we can still retain the symbol in our mind and know that it exists even though we can not see it. If I were to hide my apple behind your computer, you would still hold the image of the apple in your mind and believe that it existed.

When we made those long distance calls years ago, we held the image of the phone line connecting the two ends, even though we couldn’t see it, because we saw our end, and we knew our friend was on the other end.

What visual symbols and language do we have today for our Internet and communication? How do we know that we’re connected? We use the amorphous term ‘cloud’ to vaguely describe real physical servers in which we store our data. We speak of wireless yet we are all wired to one another: over 1/2 million miles of subsea fiber cables connect our continents, moving terabytes of data around the globe every second (satellites account for about 1% of traffic). We are literally more connected to each other than ever before and we can’t even see it.

Seeing the Internet

On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell makes the world’s first telephone call and famously utters into the phone: “Mr. Watson, come here — I want to see you.”
What a telling choice of words.  Not only does it establish the existence of the first hard-wired line separating physical presence from simulated presence, but Mr. Bell chooses vocally emphasize that separation to his caller, in what is perhaps the first instance possible.
Most of us probably remember the pain and misery of dial up (why modems had to make that screeching noise, I will never understand). The Internet infrastructure was built on the back of the telephone infrastructure.  As the need for speed outpaced the capacity for copper wires, we started building out fiber optic and wireless networks, and laying Internet Submarine Cables to connect the continents. No more dial up. No more dangling ethernet cords.  No more visual wired reminders of the physical link to the network. After a while, the Internet just exists, seemingly by magic.  And when the reference to the hard wire is out of sight long enough, a new norm is established: the Internet is invisible. We are not wired to it any longer.
Now, the dimension of the Internet is evolving from static to dynamic, from pages you arrive at and interact with to an Internet that interacts with your every move on the fly, that learns who you are and what you like now, and then spits back suggestions for things you will like based on aggregated and analyzed Big Data that sits on massive servers somewhere.  It is an Internet that has become an extension of us, an augmentation of our physical world into our simulated world and then reaches right back down. The line between physical and digital has almost completely vanished.
The breakneck speed with which we are progressing seems to comply with Moore’s law, which states that processor speeds, or overall processing power for computers will double every two years. I think that this applies to our cognitive ability to process this technology as well.  Our interaction with technology has changed so drastically, even just since the advent of smartphones and tablets, and we adapt ourselves in every way, at the same pace.  We adjust to and re-establish the new baseline reality with every step, which gets increasingly disconnected from the hard wired, grounded, physical Internet. And as we progress, socially, culturally, and technologically, the devices that we will use to interact with the internet will progressively disappear (think Google Glass , Smart Cities and skin input technology).  As such, we will loose the physical connection to the Internet on this side of the of the fiber.  We’ll be living in pure simulation, to reference Baudrillard.
If we’re all living in a world where each of us wears some sort of Google Glass type device or lcd contact or whatever, and each of us experiences our own personalized augmented reality with no uniform, shared externalized reality, how will we know what the other person is seeing, and furthermore, if the other person is even really there, or if it’s just total simulation. We won’t. Without a consistent, shared, external, objective reference point, we will spin in simulation vertigo.
The rules and foundation for the new Information Age are being written and formed right now, with or without our knowledge or consent, and they will have the same reach and impact as the Internet, with all of its pros and cons. This is our chance to see and understand the physical connection between our real and simulated worlds as it is being built, so that we can make decisions and choices rooted in reality.  This is our infrastructure and network, we made it grow.  Let’s make visible the wires and mechanisms that tie us to one another, so that we know that we are connected and grounded in reality, that we are tethered to one another and to the ground, and not floating in virtual worlds. And, if we seek to have a transparent digital world, it starts with having transparent infrastructure.

(Originally posted June 5, 2013)