For the last decade, we have been hearing about the profound changes that are either implied, occurring or foretold by the advent of the Internet. Ten years later we still continue the job of separating the wheat from the chaff of this chatter. What has changed in the intervening ten years? What was once grounds for skepticism is now almost everywhere a article of faith. But do we (most, some, any of us?) actually understand what the Internet is, let alone why it is widely believed to have changed everything, forever?!
This is not the Internet?
Imagine an image to go along with this caption. The surrealist painter, Rene Magritte, famously undid received epistemological wisdom with what appears to be an absurd, silly and/or witty little painting he made of a pipe, under which he inscribed the motto: Ceci n’est pas une pipe (this is not a pipe).
There are many ways of interpreting this masterwork of surrealism, but I want to concentrate on the one I find most clever. Magritte’s image shatters one of old Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous dicta, “a picture must have something in common with what it depicts.” Wittgenstein was referring to words and their referents in articulating what has come to be called the picture theory of language. What does it mean to say that a pipe is not a pipe? Of course, it could mean that the image is not same as the thing. It could also be understood to call to our attention that language is always present in our experience. There is no “pure” experience, because the mediation of language can always challenge or undermine the “given” reality, revealing the deep instability of the notion of reality itself.
Back to our blank canvas and to our imaginations. What, then, do we put in to this image that we have captioned, “This is not the Internet.” It is, I think, an instructive puzzle, because it reveals that we do not have anything like the definite object of a pipe in our mind’s eye when we try to picture the Internet to ourselves. The are lots of ready excuses we could make for this difficulty. It is a complex or compound object: it components too numerous to easily represent. But is this really the problem? Or is it simply that we don’t know what the Internet is? The answer, I think, is, that both of these things are true.
We understand that the Internet is not a simple object and we (at least many of us who use it) have a rudimentary understanding of what constitutes the more complex object: wires, routers, switches and computers. We also understand (though we don’t think about it much) that while these things describe many of the necessary elements of the truth of the phrase, this is the Internet, they fall quite short of what we mean when we use the word in common enough sentences, like “the Internet has changed everything.”
So, what is this powerful force that we ascribe to the Internet or increasingly to “the web”?
A colleague recently put it to me that the Internet is a machine. “What else could it be”?, he asked rhetorically. I saw immediately that he was right, but not, I think, in the sense used by journalist Nicholas Carr in a recent article about Google. I also saw that while my friend was right, his answer also begged the question: If the Internet is a machine,what kind of machine is it?
My answer, upon some reflection, is that the Internet is a social machine, by which I mean it is a machine for making things social. In “We Have Never Been Modern“, French sociologist of science, Bruno Latour, says that the core distinctions that characterize modernity, between the human and natural worlds, art and science, passion and reason, are in fact quite unstable in practice. An examination of ideas like deforestation and black holes suggests that these conceptions are hybrids of the concepts that are supposed to be separated by the divide of modern thought. I believe that the category of the social is just such a hybrid: neither entirely human nor entirely “natural”, the social is an artifact of a techne. Without making a long digression into Greek philosophy, suffice it to say that the social is something we make rather than something we discover.
So what? you say. What’s the big deal?
Well, for openers it means that the social is something we design, although it is equally clear that social designs are designs for emergence (whether they intend to be or not).
The big deal, I’d like to say, is that we have never been social before: not like this. Now, there are many senses in which that is not true, of course, but I do not mean this in a broad and sweeping sense, but rather that we have not been social in a set of rather precise ways. Markets have not been social: this is the true insight of Chris Anderson’s concept of the long tail. Knowledge has not been social: see Wikipedia, Google and a host of other examples. Intelligence has not been social: see any platform that uses collaborative filtering or user input to generate value, from Digg to Twitter.
Of course, we have had elements of the social in all of these areas before, but never before at the scale of the Internet, with its immediacy and the power of network effects. If you think these are trivial, consider how these things were used to raise money for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The astounding thing about this feat was the speed at which funds were raise and by what small increments.
So, if I have helped to answer the question of what kind of machine the Internet is, it now remains for us all to figure out what it is for.