The idea of a house may be a better fit for the Internet right now than a book full of web pages. Since Windows 8 has officially appropriated the navigational capabilities of the tablet, any computer using a mouse seems archaic. And mice don’t belong in homes. Searching the web now feels more like going from room to room. You can descend to the basement, if you want, or go to the attic–or the clouds–and store anything you’re not using. You can push your finger to the screen and even see what’s at the back of the house.
However, while we can borrow this new metaphor, keep in mind, any “Internet house” will be one of many sitting in a vast wide-open world to travel, to sightsee, and to conquer.
Computer games like Sim City and all its variations, World of Warcraft, and Galava (Lunar Wars and Cyber Nations) have all long embraced exploration and colonization, building, mastering, and finally owning. Arguably the strongest iteration so far of this Columbus metaphor is the mega-famous LEGO-like Minecraft, the sandbox indie game by Swedish programmer Markus “Notch” Persson. It’s actually a step back in graphics–with as much grace as an Atari. Unlike Q-Bert or Frogger, though, where the game is played either on one unmoving 2-D screen or by levels, Minecraft players collect materials, assemble them, and build however they want in a vast open world. Including Hell.
That’s the fun side. The not-so-fun side is the hyper-real Internet real estate market of web hosting and resale. Websites such as Hostgator and Dreamhost are virtual real estate marketplaces where you pay so much a month–usually in the hundreds, when the transaction is complete–to rent property to sublet to others for their personal web sites. Sound weird? After all, this isn’t the new frontier, where as with the American West people resorted to trampling on each other to stake their claim in a limited area of land. Web space is technically as big as you want to make it. This begs the question, of course, after the 2008 sub-prime mortgage housing crisis, if we can get into so much trouble in a real estate bubble, what a about virtual estate bubble? A virtual real estate bubble, since its borders are infinitely open, has a lot longer to blow up–maybe as long as a black hole.
In many ways, though, the old idea of a giant ocean to navigate and cast your net might still seem the most appropriate metaphor. After all, this is the new age of many a new Columbus (and we’re exploiting the right Indians this time via outsourcing). Exploring the Internet is not really as cool to me as exploring space or traveling to new continents, but it’s what we have.
Oh, inverted world! When God first created the world, he parted the waters. He made men and women from the dust of the earth. After the expulsion from the garden, when we first started exploring, God spoke to us through a single divine light of inspiration. We looked up into the heavens and found our image in God. Then the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost like a dove and we all spoke in tongues. In the age of exploration, we set sail and circumnavigated the globe. Our vision turned from upward to the horizons and then all the way around the globe until–having no where else on earth to go–our first vision was inverted into the depths of our subconscious. Freud was the result of having nowhere else to explore but the neighborhood psychotherapist’s office. We wanted to ask God why we were suddenly so bored with ourselves. Then Jung showed us we hadn’t after all lost our spiritual side, and all the little business cubicles we’d crammed ourselves into could actually be transcended. Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious is our modern Pentecost, where, through the deepest mining of our interconnected unconscious, we find ourselves all gathered again in communion. Without ever leaving home this time.
William Blake’s print of God reaching down to earth, his fingers in the shape of a compass, illustrates this exchange. His compass is on the earth, which mankind then circumnavigates to create our own perfect sphere equal to the one that envelopes our white-bearded benefactor. We envelope ourselves in our own bubble because we were made in his image.
And the way back up is down.
Dante said Hell has nine levels. For technophobes, there are at least four in an overlay network: 1. the site layer (the part we see) 2. the optical layer 3. the SONET/SDH layer, and 4. the IP layer. The Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) model has seven layers, stacked (from highest to lowest) this way: 1. Application, 2. Presentation 3. Session 4, Transport 5. Network 6. Data Link and 7. Physical. Developers and designers and cryptologists can travel through these layers and probably find their way back up pretty easily without a Virgil.
Space travel–our ascent to Heaven– limits itself, sadly, mostly to satellites, which mirror back to us our familiar world–and how (virtually) marvelous we look. Google maps show us our own street. We will soon be able to watch ourselves watching ourselves by googling ourselves in an infinite ennui.
What interests me now, however, is the idea of creating a decentralized network that isn’t open to the omnipresent eye of Google. This is difficult, I think, for most people to imagine, but why is the existing Internet our only choice with cybernetically connecting people? Well, it isn’t. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…
This could already be happening for all I don’t know–Hacker heaven. But what I imagine is this: any group of friends and family within which each member can connect his or her computer one by one to each other until the group has a substantial network from which they can then build and design a new face for–and without Mark Zuckerberg getting to make the law. Nobody else on the Internet has to know about the other Internet necessarily. It could be like a secret passage in a large house. And this is a house that could have endless secrets–not just another, but many other Internets–not world-wide webs, but family-sized accommodations, which of course you can leave to go visit relatives. If enough private networks had built their own decentralized Internet, they could start connecting with each other’s networks–like visiting a friend’s home. Or they could still meet up on the regular web, like meeting up at the bar or with the kids at the neighborhood park.
So a house is bigger than a book of pages, but as it turns out is still only a small part of this giant universe we live in. I’m getting bugged hanging round the same old supervised social media sites and want to find a new place. But I know that I am only retreating into the inverted infinity of fractal microcosms, each its own open world to settle into. For now, anyway.
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
– Alfred Lord Tennyson
We shall never cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
– T. S. Eliot