Where There's No Distance or Gravity
The more digital we become, the less human we remain.
I had been in Los Angeles only a few times in my life before the October day in 1987 when I drove down from our home in the Bay Area with my teenage son to visit family. The air was unusually clear as we started our drive back north, and soon the San Gabriel Mountains—Los Angeles' own Alps (you can ski there!)—loomed over the region like a crenelated battlement, as if protecting its inhabitants from cultures and climates that might invade from the north. So, on impulse, I decided to drive up to Mount Wilson, the only crest in the range with a paved road to the top.
I could see from the maps I had already studied that the drive was an easy one. Our destination also was easily spotted from below: a long, almost flat ridge topped by the white domes of Mount Wilson Observatory (where Hubble observed the universe expanding) and a bristle of towers radiating nearly all the area's FM and TV signals. The site was legendary among broadcast engineering geeks, and I had longed to visit it ever since I was a ham radio operator as a boy in New Jersey.
After checking out the observatory and the towers, my son and I stood on a promontory next to a parking lot and surveyed the vast spread of civilization below. Soon four visiting golfers from New York came over and started asking me questions about what was where.
I answered like a veteran docent, pointing out the Rose Bowl, Palos Verdes Peninsula, Santa Catalina and other Channel Islands, the Hollywood Hills, the San Fernando Valley, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Santa Anita Park and more. When they asked where the Whittier Narrows earthquake had happened a few days before, I pointed at the Puente Hills, off to the southeast, and filled them in on what I knew about the geology there as well.
After a few minutes of this, they asked me how long I had lived there. I said all this stuff was almost as new to me as it was to them. "Then how do you know so much about it?", they asked. I told them I had studied maps of the area and refreshed my knowledge over lunch just before driving up there. They were flabbergasted. "Really?", one guy said. "You study maps?"
Indeed, I did. I had maps of all kinds and sizes at home, and the door pockets of my car bulged with AAA maps of everywhere I might drive in California. I also added local and regional Southern California maps to my mobile inventory before driving down.
My obsession with maps, and my dependence on them, comported with what a shrink at a party once told me about obsessive compulsive disorder, aka OCD: that it accounted both for most mental illnesses and for nearly all of humanity's great achievements.
While the achievements in my case might not have been great, obsessively reading maps got me into geography, geology, astronomy and much of the rest of what I know about nature and technology.
What got me interested in maps was radio. My interest there was less in radio's entertainment value than in how signals worked. That began with wondering what was happening under the blinking red lights on towers that stood in the swampland between our house in New Jersey and the New York skyline. Nearly all New York's AM stations broadcast from towers in those swaps, mostly to take advantage of both cheap land and salt water (which AM signals love). My idea of a good time was to ride my bike down there and visit with engineers staffing the transmitters (which these days require scant human attention).
I examined signals mostly with my Hammarlund HQ-129X ham radio receiver, connected to a 40-meter dipole antenna. (I also had an 80 and a 15, and all were strung to trees in our back yard like a giant spider web.)
In addition to what I learned from beeping in Morse code to hams as far away as Sweden, I logged more than 800 AM stations (roughly eight per channel) and jammed a sewing pin for each one into a big map on a bulletin board.
With the help of broadcast engineering manuals (full of maps), I learned about ground conductivity (affecting AM range along the ground), skywave propagation (affecting distance reception on AM and shortwave), directional signals (aimed by multiple towers on AM and fancy antenna designs on shortwave), and—most important—by the inverse square law. That law explained why the strength of a radio signal (also of sound and light) was inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source, which meant signal strength declined across distance roughly on an asymptotic curve.
Later, as I dug into TV and FM signals (which use the VHF and UHF broadcast bands), I added fun learnings about other stuff broadcast engineering can teach, such as the dielectric (or capacitive) properties of atmosphere and how those contribute to tropospheric bending of signals. Thanks to "tropo" over the Pacific Ocean, on most days, I can watch TV and listen to FM signals from San Diego and Tijuana—here in Santa Barbara, 220+ miles away.
But mostly I don't. To explain why, I submit this conversation I had with my younger son, who was a teenager when we walked back from a (soon to be doomed) Radio Shack store in New York. We went there to buy a kitchen radio for an apartment we were renting, but the store had no radios. Although not verbatim, this was how it went:
"Radio is dead", he said.
"Why?", I replied.
"Because it's obsolete."
"I mean, look: what is the point of 'range' and 'coverage'?"
"I mean, what's the point of a station fading away when you leave town?"
"Those are features, not bugs. Geography limits range. So do transmitter powers and the inverse square law. Also, you don't want stations interfering with each other."
"But all the stations in the world are all on the internet. You can get them on your phone and none of them interfere with each other there. On top of that, there's music streaming and podcasts."
I'm with him on that now. Nearly all my consumption of what we now call "content" is through glowing rectangles connected to the internet. So he and I are alike that way, but we're not alike in our knowledge of the physical world. Mine is informed by experience with maps and analog tech. His is informed mostly by what he gets through his own glowing rectangles.
Marshall McLuhan said all technologies are extensions of our bodies and minds. He also said they shape us after we shape them, and that all new technologies "work us over completely".
Glowing rectangles have replaced paper maps in my life, along with radios and TVs. While losing
those has changed how I understand and navigate the physical world, what I've gained, along with
everybody else connected by the internet, is residence in a habitat absent of gravity and
distance. Sure, there there are propagation delays on the net (such as those shown by
traceroute commands), and connections can get sphinctered in places (or filtered fully, as they
are in China). But our experience of being present in the networked world is one of absent
distance and of placelessness (and hence of gravity).
We can't help attempting to reify this virtual world with metaphors borrowed from the physical one: sites, domains and locations, for example. But they're misleading. We really don't "surf" or "visit" or "browse" those places (which aren't). We request files, which get copied onto our screens, without any sense of a distance having been traveled. Yet we collectively imagine that these are real sites, and real property, and that we are somehow mere visitors allowed by their owners to trespass on them. And, because of that assumption, many liberties are taken with our private digital selves by the operators of those sites and by the third parties they also bring in. These are privacy abuses we never would welcome or allow in the physical world. But they are normative in the virtual one.
The networked world we have today has been with us only a little more than two decades. That's very little time in which to start operating in fully civilized ways.
My wife, who (far as I know) was the first to observe that the internet gives us a second world without gravity or distance, insists that we can adapt, much as astronauts learn to live and work in a zero-gravity habitat. She also believes we are very early in the process of understanding this world, even as all both occupy it and continue to build it.
My point with the Mount Wilson story is that none of us are even close to having equivalents of the tools we use for understanding the physical world. Even the map metaphor is misleading. Where and how we live in the networked world is too different, too other, too singular. Like the universe, there are no other examples of it. There is just one of it.
Even if the networked world seems to start breaking up (as we're already seeing with China), at a deeper level that world arises from a simple protocol, TCP/IP, that isn't going away soon.
And even if TCP/IP gets replaced, the genie it liberated from the digital bottle won't stop giving everyone with a decent connection the experience of being together in a world without distance or gravity.
We also won't stop wanting to live in what John Updike (in the 1960s!) called "the age of full convenience". We can get full convenience only from networks that are completely free (as in freedom) and open to whatever.
We never will fully understand nor explain that world, any more than we ever will fully understood or explain the physical one. But we have much farther to go than we've come so far here on terra firma, especially since we're still terraforming it. And one of our jobs here is doing for this new world what maps did for the old one.