Where the Internet Gets Real

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Local is the frontier of truth at the dawn of our Digital Age.

The internet showed up in our house in 1995. When that happened, I mansplained to my wife that it was a global drawstring through all the phone and cable companies of the world, pulling everybody and everything together—and that this was going to be good for the world.

My wife, who ran a global business, already knew plenty of things about the internet and expected good things to happen as well. But she pushed back on the global thing, saying "the sweet spot of the internet is local." Her reason: "Local is where the internet gets real." By which she meant the internet wasn't real in the physical sense anywhere, and we still live and work in the physical world, and that was a huge advantage.

Later I made a big thing about how the internet was absent of distance, an observation I owe to Craig Burton. Here's Craig in a 1999 interview for a Linux Journal newsletter that I sourced later in this 2000 column:

I see the Net as a world we might see as a bubble. A sphere. It's growing larger and larger, and yet inside, every point in that sphere is visible to every other one. That's the architecture of a sphere. Nothing stands between any two points. That's its virtue: it's empty in the middle. The distance between any two points is functionally zero, and not just because they can see each other, but because nothing interferes with operation between any two points. There's a word I like for what's going on here: terraform. It's the verb for creating a world. That's what we're making here: a new world. Now the question is, what are we going to do to cause planetary existence? How can we terraform this new world in a way that works for the world and not just ourselves?

In Linux Journal (see my article "The Giant Zero, Part 0.x") and elsewhere, I joined Craig in calling that world "the giant zero". Again my wife weighed in with a helpful point: the internet has no gravity as well as no distance—meaning we are not only placeless when we're on the net, but that prepositions such as on (uttered earlier in this sentence) were literally wrong, even though they made metaphorical sense. See, most prepositions express spatial relations that require distance, gravity or both. Over, under, through, around, beside and within are all examples. The one preposition that does apply for the net is with, because we are clearly with another person (or whatever) when we are engaged with them on (can't help using that word) the net.

Anyway, her main point about gravity's absence on the internet was that we eventually would learn to adapt to it, much as astronauts learn to adapt to the weightlessness of life in space. She also noted that adaptation for a whole civilization takes time, and living on the internet in the meantime requires a wariness akin to broken field running while naked, except that there's no field and we're not running. We are, however, naked, unless we use protections to conceal our private spaces and activities. While most wizards (for example, Linux Journal readers) are good at that, most muggles are not.

But all of us are still vulnerable to cons, and those are easier to perpetrate on the net—or with the help of it—than off of it.

To explain what I mean, recall "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog", first uttered in the 1993 New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner. Bob Mankoff, the magazine's cartoon editor at the time, said it "resonated with our wariness about the facile façade that could be thrown up by anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of html".

Think about that: a facile façad.

Building these has become a big thing in the past few years. So big, in fact, that lying is strategically opportune nearly everywhere on the net, largely because there's no "where" there.

Note: to make my main points, I'm bypassing technical details such as latencies and ways to tell roughly (or even exactly) where in the world an IP address is. The fact remains that the experience of using the net is fundamentally a placeless one.

Scott Adams, who does the Dilbert comic strip, explains why, and how, in his latest book, called Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don't Matter. That world is the same internet where nobody knows you're a dog. Or if they do know you're a dog, they don't care that you're a dog—or that you're lying. On the internet, you can build such a facile façade that people—lots of them—actually like what you say, and agree with it, whether you're lying or not, or maybe even because you're lying. They just like your act.

But here's a thing: you can't play that dog with your neighbors, or in a firefight, or anywhere in the physical world where facts do matter, and life depends on them. Facile or not, façades don't work there.

So, a local real-world corollary to Scott's book might be Play Nicely: Putting the Internet to Work Where Facts Matter Most. Which is locally.

There are lots of examples I can point to, but I'll keep it to three.

The first is a simple service that showed up at our house in the Bay Area back in 1995: Craigslist. While Craigslist now works in dozens of countries and languages, it's local in every one of them, and it works the same simple ways, with plain and simple HTML that loads in an instant. It's also human. On Craigslist, people easily can tell when a seller is a dog, or trying to sell one.

I had my own experience with that when my old car died last year and I went looking for a new one. A guy I contacted on Craigslist tried to sell me a bad car. His façade was facile, but it fell down when we took the car to a mechanic who told us it was a dog, and so was the guy.

Right after that, I bought another car on Craigslist from an honest seller—and sold my old car on Craigslist as well. No dogs involved.

My second example is what's being done for water in some of Africa's arid regions. Water is hard to find, and it can sometimes be hard to trust when people do find it. In many of these places, there are also few if any sanitation facilities, and grazing animals can contribute waste to the few streams that flow. So the only sure way to get safe water is to drill a well deep in the ground.

To gather facts about the quality of that water, people are using monitors from a company called SweetSense, which sells monitors that measure real-time water quality. Data from the monitors is gathered and visualized on a platform by another company called mWater, over a smartphone data connection. This gives everybody concerned an easy way to monitor water quality in real time. The result isn't just safe water, but better sanitation practices, better irrigation systems and so on. My point is that there's nothing fake in this system: no facile façades or dogs selling dogs. It's just about what people do with tech where they live, and for each other.

My third example is what happened in January 2018, in Montecito, California, which is one zip code away from our home in Santa Barbara. After a massive wildfire in December burned all the vegetation off the mountains above Montecito, big rains hit, washing down half a million tons of mud and rocks, destroying almost 200 homes and killing 23 people, two of whom were never found.

Immediately after that happened, Montecito was evacuated, and access to it was blocked to everybody other than rescue, law enforcement, utility workers and other officials. A few local media folks were let in, but the shock was so massive that it was hard for anybody to make full sense of it. After all, nothing like this had ever happened in recorded history, which around there goes back to the 1700s. But still, in times like this, we all do what we can.

Because I know some geology, and not much was being said in any media about how a mountain face could slop across a town, I published a long blog post titled "Making sense of what happened in Montecito". In it, I explained why these kinds of events are called debris flows (rather than mudslides or landslides), and listed all the addresses of all the structures (mostly homes) that local officials said were destroyed. (The county produced an excellent map, but the addresses were under mouse-overs.) That way, owners, friends and relatives could find those addresses in a search engine.

Visits to my blog jumped from dozens per day to dozens of thousands. Far as I could tell, nearly all those visits were by local residents or people who cared personally about happened to Montecito.

My point here is that I did what I could, as did all the other locals posting their own forms of help on the net. Together we scaffolded up a shared understanding of the event and progress toward full recovery.

As it happens, I started writing this column in Santa Barbara, continued writing it in New York, and am finishing it now in Córdoba, a beautiful city in southern Spain. I was brought here to give a talk on exactly this subject, titled "The Future of the Internet Is Local". In the audience were local officials, businesses and organizations. I framed the talk with a historical perspective: the internet we know—the one with e-commerce, ISPs and graphical browsers—is about 1/1000th the age of Córdoba. We are still at the dawn of life in a non-place that is absent of distance and gravity, but which we still use and experience in the physical world.

The first rule of every new technology is what can be done will be done—until we realize what shouldn't be done. This has been true for everything from stone tools through nuclear power. And, now it's true of digital technology and the internet. We'll never rid the net of lies or facile façades, any more than we'll rid hammers of their ability to kill somebody with a whack on the head. But we can and will get more civilized about it. And my wife is right: local is where that will start.

Doc Searls is editor-in-chief of Linux Journal, where he has been on the masthead since 1996. He is also co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto (Basic Books, 2000, 2010), author of The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), a fellow of the Center for Information Technology & Society (CITS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an alumnus fellow of the Berkman Klien Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He continues to run ProjectVRM, which he launched at the BKC in 2006, and is a co-founder and board member of its nonprofit spinoff, Customer Commons. Contact Doc through [email protected].

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