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A humorous historic perspective on the internet

DARPANET, NSFNET—noticing a trend? And if you’re not satisfied with how fast your Net connection is, think again—your text messages zoom around about sixty thousand times faster than they did back in the days of these dozers. Anyway an especially smart guy named Vint Cerf (now there’s a name straight from a science fiction book) and some of his computer-oriented pals came up with a way for all these networks to talk to each other. A common language.

He probably wanted everyone to call it the “VINTERNET”, or maybe something super-nerdy like “TCP/IP Protocol” …oh wait, he did call it that. But no one wants to say “can you send me that via TCP/IP PROTOCOL?” because that answer’s always going to be “do what?” So people started calling it the “Internet.” Or the Net. How did it work? By cutting all information into little packages, and addressing each and every little package.

Sounds simple enough, but from Vint Cerf working all this out to Jane Shmoe ordering her first pair of stockings from Amazon.com? We’re talking about 20 years. From those stockings arriving to Jane reminiscing about them on her online video diary? Another 10. That’s now. Is that really the whole story? TCP whatever and then you have the Internet? No. Because the way the Net talks will change, but it will still be the Net. And however much it’s going to change, and change the world, it’s probably going to run on one much more basic idea than TCP etcetera. An idea that got pretty well worked out, oh, about 301 years ago.

When you argue with your cable company about how slow your Web pages are uploading? You’re talking bits. Megabits. Kilobits. Bits. That’s where it started. Germany. Way, way back in the day. THE BiT OK. Once upon a time, there was a mathematician with the biggest hair in all of Germany and possibly in all of the civilized world. His name was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In 1705 he published a paper about “bits,” and from that moment, the Internet was probably all just a matter of time. Lebniz had this notion (pretty much useless back in 1697, mind you) that you could reduce any math to just ones and zeroes and it would still work. No more one two three four, but on, off, on on on, off off. Forever.

Of all the inventions that had to happen for your phone to give you e-mail access, or your car to show you a live updated traffic map to the megamall, this is the biggie, this is the one that hasn’t changed one bit—ouch, I mean one iota—since its invention. It’s the basis of all modern computing. By the time Vint Cerf was figuring out a way to cut information into packets that knew where they ought to go, binary logic was rote memory from his first computer science class.

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But now here’s the philosophical part. And Leibniz would have wanted it this way. Because he would say he didn’t invent binary numbers, he would say he discovered them, like an explorer discovering an island. And historians would back him up—other people had figured this out before, like thousands of years before. But it’s pretty safe to say that he’s the one the guys who built the first computers were reading. The thing is, he thought he’d discovered something truly fundamental about the universe, like fire, or electricity… And maybe he did. Think of it this way: “Computers” as we think of them might just be a flash in the proverbial pan of history, compared with the Net.

The Internet is taking over a lot of the duties computers used to have—your life is virtualizing as we speak. Your phone does most of the things you used to need a computer to do, and your computer will soon need the Internet to even function. Think about games for example. First you could play all sorts of games on your computer, but then the Web introduced multi-players games like Texas Holdem, and millions of players have used a titan poker bonus code to play online poker for real money. But nowadays people are using their phone to play these games, and they can enjoy that from almost anywhere as they do not need an Internet connection.

In fact, it was when cell phones switched from old-school “analog” (the digital age’s equivalent of shouting really loud) technologies to digital that they started working a lot better, and the line between the “Internet,” your “phone” and “a computer” got a whole lot blurrier. Everything is going online and the idea of being offline, at any time, will get more distant and strange with every passing month…or day, really. It won’t disappear, but the context will change.

Imagine a world where “I saw it on the Internet” is as archaic as “I lit the room using electricity.” Right? The Internet will soon be this fundamental. Our context is shifting, our perspective is in radical flux. We’re in the middle of something that by any measure is just getting started. Thinking about Leibniz, with his wig collection and his exquisite handwriting, filling up a thousand quill-ink pages on “bits,” might give a little perspective on the Net—or it might make you woozy. Or both. But Leibniz’ “bits” were the first flag on the information moon. They mark the beginning of the new territory, the information-space where everything that can be turned into bits, will be. Thank you for reading. We now return you to the history in progress.

Mobile games

Today, you can go to Helsinki, Finland, to catch a glimpse of the future of the “mobile surveillance” playing field. An erudite ex-Nokia researcher by the name of Jyri Engeström has recently assembled a small team to develop a mobile social software startup: Jaiku.

Jaiku takes over your phone’s buddy list and default screen and presents unprecedented levels of personal mobile disclosure. Seated on a blanket in the grass during a rural picnic, Engeström excitedly demonstrates a working prototype—his buddy list, with greatly expanded information: “By glancing at my phone, I know a lot of things about my close friends.” Engeström begins to read from his screen: “I know Teemu is on his way home from work in a part of Helsinki called Haaga.

He’s probably on the bus because there are many people around him.” Engeström knows this because Jaiku reads local Bluetooth device signatures to see if other people (friends or strangers) are in the vicinity. He continues: “Mika has been home from work for about an hour and his girlfriend is out. And they can see that I’m working on my laptop at our summer place in Fiskars.”

Keeping tabs on your friends is, in a way, a more intimate parallel to government Big Brother surveillance: “sousveillance,” researcher Steve Mann calls it. Engeström explained the appeal of this level of personal information sharing: “I think rich presence is a good thing because it makes you feel closer to the people you care about. For instance, I don’t see my mom as often as I’d like, but now she knows that I’m OK, and I feel good knowing she can see what I’m up to even if I don’t call her every day.”

With this software, your buddy list knows where you are—they might join you if they’re able. Friends might ask you to run errands for them as you’re on the road. Your location and status provides a constant performance, and a constant invitation to others.

Everyone in your buddy list knows where you are, and even a bit of what you’re doing: that’s the sort of awareness present in today’s massive multiplayer online games. In environments like World of Warcraft, players can see their list of friends, where they are in the world, what their immediate status is. With a layer of fiction added on top, software like Jaiku could turn all of mobile life into that kind of virtual environment: a multiplayer online game you play—just by living. Instead of waiting in line at the pizza parlor, you are preparing to do battle for the liberation of Hibernia. Instead of driving home from school, you are carrying an important telegram for the galactic trade ministry.

Why bother? Because without that layer of fun, real-time information disclosure could seem invasive, or even creepy, at least at first. Abstraction and metaphor would allow people to experiment with their personal data trail without being too specific. If the game takes place as you’re using your device, then you accrue experience and items just from moving and communicating. If the game caught on, you might find yourself going out of your way to boost certain statistics—“I’m showing up as a member of the Santa Monica gang; I better put some more time in Echo Park.”

Or maybe your avatar isn’t you, but your pet instead. Picture a Tamagotchi in your mobile device where your creature is fed passively through the data you consume and process. If you frequent a certain restaurant, your data pet would be fed that food, and so it would dress like that cuisine (a sombrero, lederhosen, salwar kameez). If you attend a Mos Def concert, your data pet would be seen listening to his hip-hop collection. As these data pets take on your characteristics, you can send them out into the world to mingle with other avatars. Picture your souvenir-laden data pet bumping into other data pets: checking out someone’s data pet to see where they had been, and doing a bit of surrogate data pet show and tell.

So much of what we do with technology is social. That time people spend on MySpace, e-mailing, chatting—it’s become the primary way in which we stay connected. And the level of intimacy is constantly evolving. Already you can see a kind of casual exhibitionism on photo-sharing sites and social networking sites: “Here I am eating this crazy food.” “Here I was so drunk visiting our mutual friend.” With systems like Jaiku, and the games that could be built on top of this type of surveillance, moving around and making calls could literally be transformed into a type of performance piece.

It may be awhile before we are technically able to share all this real-time data through our mobile devices. Some services still seem to have enough trouble with picture messages, let alone constant status updates. Besides, this kind of active online life drains batteries and eats through data-plan megabytes. And it’s not clear that all folks will be comfortable with this level of personal disclosure, at least not without some strong privacy controls that take time to learn and deploy. Technical and privacy barriers aside, software like Jaiku shows us what mobile phones are for. Remember when phones used to belong to houses? You called someone’s house and hoped they were there. Then there were phones in cars! Now we have phones on people, and we’re likely only to become more connected.

The result? With a mobile device, you are already part of a braintrust: one of many experts scattered around the globe, waiting to solve problems. Think about it—you can contact so many other people who have their phone in their pockets: priests, politicians, performers, professionals. Some farmer in the Philippines could drunk dial you right now and ask for relationship advice. What good can that do? Warren Ellis had an idea: he wrote the comic book Global Frequency, where all manner of folks around the world carry special mobile devices so they might be called in to solve global problems.

You might not be a nuclear physicist, ready to defuse a bomb, but you could play one on your mobile phone. Using technology like Jaiku, we can build Global Frequency-type games: shared objectives for teams of people. With these kinds of games, we learn to solve problems, and prototype the collective future: where we are plugged in to each other wherever we are.

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