Wires Of New And Old
Viewing technological change as a linear progression from point A to point B often results in a determinist world view, where comparisons of efficiency are made in an arbitrary fashion, without careful consideration of the paradigm in which a particular technology exists.
Wires have run across the world for a long time. Before Alexander Gramham Bell implemented analog signaling, a close cousin of digital communication was used: Morse code. While modern Americans may consider themselves as unprecedented, boundless and trans-national, previous Americans were not stuck and fixed to wherever they lived. In reality, a network of wires and people is not particularly novel; if anything, the Internet is also a step backwards. We started with the beeps and blips of Morse code, and moved on to the analog sound signal of Bell's telephone. But then we partially reverted, pausing in a chorus of modems and faxes pretending to be voices. The regression completed, we return again to the blips and beeps, this time across pure digital wires. On the horizon is the human voice translated into digital to be carried by the more basic format, the Internet telephone.
Where is progress here? What is changing is not what people are saying, trying to say, or even what they can say. What has changed is how the saying is encoded, how it is encapsulated, and how it is processed. Never before has information been collected and stored like grain, in such undifferentiated masses.
While Bell's telephone reached out directly to our mouths and ears, the digital format is exclusive; everything must be broken down to its most basic numeric representation before it can be included. With Morse code, the reinterpretation of the signal was left to the human, and only one kind of code was used. With our wires, there is a vast pluralism of codes. There is TCP/IP, SPX, IPX, Appletalk, Ethertalk, UUCP, FTP, Kermit, HTTP, and a myriad of others, replacing Morse code over and over again. While Morse code just encoded words, we encode sounds, texts, programs, and simulations, all sent side by side, seamlessly. We rarely even know how things are being coded and decoded. While a Morse code operator had to know the "protocol", there is some force at work with our wires so that no knowledge of them seems to be required, they fade from our view and hide far behind the clean mask of interface.
We are quickly becoming denizens of the interface. This world of encoding and decoding is not one of thinner boundaries, nor of closer distances. People talk about instant access. Access to what? When someone "accesses" a picture of the Mona Lisa, they become part of a unique operation in which the Mona Lisa is transmuted from a mix of old paint to a handful of 1s and 0s, then sent across wire and sprayed over a screen of pixels. The end user is not accessing the Mona Lisa. The end user is not even accessing a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. In fact, "accessing" does not describe the action at all. The end user and the Mona Lisa are involved in a process in which the relationship between them is totally fabricated.
The modern paradigm is one in which data processing imitates tangibility, and ultimately seeks to replace it entirely. It seems that we are in a never-ending quest for a seamless processing of the Mona Lisa. So seamless, that it can be mistaken for the genuine article. Much speculation is done on whether machines one day could be human and conscious, capable of talking with us and empathizing with us. The real question is whether we will believe it. The process only becomes seamless when it has our total faith. Technology alters who we are, and what our society is, by asking us, as individuals and as a community, to believe it, to imagine it as real.