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The Cloud, and useful illusions

A couple of folks were kind enough to ask me for notes and slides from my talk at Ars Electronica’s symposium on The Cloud today. Here’s partial complicance:

My talk was mostly abridged from a long talk I gave at the Berkman Center earlier this year, called Mapping a Connected World. There’s slides and a partial bibliography for that talk, and links to audio and video here. For folks who loved the mapping of airline routes, there’s a link to that project and lots more in that vein on this post on infrastructure and flow.

David Sasaki and Isaac Mao asked us all to produce artist statements for the catalog. Mine is online here, but the text follows below the break.

More posts tomorrow, summarizing excellent talks from Anders Sandberg and Stephen Downes. For now, I need beer and schnitzel. See you tomorrow.

“Mapping the Cloud”, Ethan Zuckerman

In the distant past, when the Internet was without form and void, before the days of Twitter, web 2.0 and graphical browsers, there was Usenet. It was a vast, rowdy community of conversations, where the tens of thousands of people connected by the early Internet talked about everything from esperanto to espresso.

One April morning, a message arrived on the network from a computer named “Kremvax”. It began, “Well, today, 840401, this is at last the Socialist Union of Soviet Republics joining the Usenet network and saying hallo to everybody.”

Arriving in the late days of the Cold War, the message provoked a flurry of reactions. Some welcomed the unexpected new users to the net, others expressed their hope that the Soviets wouldn’t use Usenet for propaganda. A skeptical few noticed the date on the message and realized the post was an elegant April Fools joke.

The joke was funny because it was eminently believable. Usenet users were used to conversing with people all around the world – the advice on brewing a great cup of espresso might come from Texas or from Tokyo. And, despite the fact that the Internet wasn’t far from its past as a US military research project, there were no restrictions on who could connect a computer to the Internet. It was technically possible that someone had connected a phone line between a computer that was connected and a machine in Moscow.

Usenet gave users a very real experience of a larger, more connected world. It made it possible to imagine a world one step more connected, where a online space would permit encounters between cold war rivals. It made it possible to imagine a form of cosmopolitanism not yet present in the physical world.

This type of imagining can be useful, and it can also be deceptive. We need to imagine a more connected world before we work to make one possible. But we need to be careful that this imaginary cosmopolitanism doesn’t fool us into thinking we live in a world where barriers of language, culture and national identity have vanished.

Like many of the infrastructures that hold together our connected world, the Internet disguises distance. Just as airplanes allow us the useful illusion that New York and London are as close as Vienna and Innsbruck, the Internet allows us to imagine ourselves co-present with people halfway across the globe. (This is an easier illusion to maintain in a comfortable apartment with a high-speed connection than from a cybercafé in Freetown, Liberia, paying a dollar an hour for a painfully slow connection.)

It’s a useful illusion because it enables new and productive behaviors. It turns my living room into the world’s largest record store, a library filled with scholars jointly writing an encyclopedia, a coffee shop filled with friends I’ve known for decades and those I’ve never met. The danger is in embracing the analogy too thoroughly. When I forget that we’re not physically in the same place and assume that my colleague in Nairobi will understand the reference I make to US politics or the local sports team, I’m reminded that the death of distance is just a useful illusion.

We’re now invited to partake in an exciting and useful new illusion – the Cloud. The Cloud promises us that it no longer matters where our bits live. Instead of focusing on the complex, intricate infrastructure that makes the Internet work, we’re asked to trust that our email, our photographs, our memos and love letters are somewhere out There, somewhere safe, being watched over by “machines of loving grace”.

While this all sounds hauntingly familiar to those of us who remember the age of mainframe computing, it’s a useful illusion because it encourages us to behave as if our bits are part of a larger whole. They’re not just my vacation photos from Denmark – they’re part of a global collection of photos of Copenhagen, helping the Filipino student studying Hans Christian Andersen or the Danish urban planner, mapping her city, to better understand it. With little effort, and sometimes with less intention, we find ourselves as collaborators in thousands of global projects.

This sort of sharing can feel good and rewarding, encouraging us to look beyond our local orbits for ideas, support and solidarity. Or it can feel involuntary and coerced. Every time I search, every time I place a link to a webpage on my blog, I help Google tune its search algorithms a bit more precisely. I benefit from an improving search engine, but can’t help wondering if I shouldn’t get a stock dividend as well.

The Cloud invites us to ignore the infrastructure that makes everyday miracles – reading my email on my phone in Accra, Ghana – possible. But before we accept this useful illusion, it’s worth a close look at what we’re choosing to ignore. There’s a complex web of electrical lines, telecommunications cables and cellular towers that makes my email reading possible. The single, overcrowded cable that connects West Africa to the global internet helps explain why there’s not a lot of video from Accra posted on YouTube – while Ghana’s 3G mobile phone system is faster and more powerful than the system I use in the US, the connection to the internet is so tenuous that uploading videos from my phone is prohibitively expensive. Look at the map of electric connections and it becomes clear why there aren’t a lot of bloggers in rural Mali – there’s not a lot of electrical power to power the towers or allow bloggers to charge their phones.

Humans have a fascination with mapping infrastructure. Atlases from the 19th century are filled with intricate spiderwebs of railroad tracks and the gentle arcs of oceanic shipping routes. At the end of the twentieth century, we drew impossibly complex maps of the Internet, maps that ceased to be useful for any sort of navigation, but showed an intricacy that evoked spiderwebs, snarled yarn and connected neurons.

Mapping infrastructure tells us what’s possible. We discover the road that leads to the small mountain town, the airplane service that connects the island nation to the rest of the world. But these maps can be deceptive as well. While they show us what’s possible, they’re not very informative about what actually happens.

Imagine the street map of a city. Those streets show you the locations where a taxi might go, picking up and dropping off passengers. Now imagine another map. This one emerges over time, and it’s drawn by taxis trailing lines of light behind themselves. We’d see patterns emerge very quickly – from the train station to the business district, from the business district to the airport. We’d see patterns we might not expect, from poorer neighborhoods to hospitals, carrying patients. And we’d discover that some parts of town remain unmarked – the taxis could go there, but they don’t, perhaps because no one wants a ride, or perhaps because taxi drivers don’t want the passengers who live there.

The map that would emerge – a map built by artists at Stamen Design of the city of San Francisco – isn’t a map of infrastructure, but a map of flow. The designers used the GPS system in taxicabs to watch the movements of taxis over the course of a day and combined their paths into a map. The resulting map shows us how taxis actually move in the city, the neighborhoods where traffic ebbs and flows, the parts of town where taxis never go. While the street map – a map of infrastructure – show us what’s possible, a map of flow shows us what actually happens.

Maps of flow aren’t very common yet, but they are exceedingly useful. Knowing if the road out of the city to the weekend house is packed with traffic or empty is critical information before leaving town. Knowing how pedestrians move from the train to their workplaces is critical for the shopkeeper who wants to place his cafe in the right area. But while infrastructure stays put – making it easy to map – flow is always changing. Mapping flow is a form of surveillance.

If we map the infrastructures of communication, we discover that it’s possible for people in almost every nation to connect to the internet. We discover that the internet connects big cities, but not many rural areas; that people in east Africa are connected by satellite dish, not by undersea cable, that farmers in Nigeria can call relatives in Lagos or in London. What these maps of cables don’t tell us is what actually happens, who speaks to whom, who reads what, who shares what.

When I read the morning newspaper twenty years ago, I had two choices – the thin local newspaper, and the thick New York Times, both available at the corner store. Today, I can read the Daily Nation from Nairobi, the Mail and Guardian from South Africa, the Manchester Guardian, the Times of India or the Shanghai Daily. If I’m willing to stretch my language skills, or trust online translation services, my options expand further. And if I include the hundreds of millions of bloggers, twitterers, message board posters, videomakers and podcasters, my options expand exponentially.

But most days, I read the New York Times, my local paper, the blogs of a few friends I know well. And, in this, I’m like most people in the world. I’m connected to an infrastructure that allows me information, opinion and perspective from vast swaths of the globe. I can read bloggers from Borneo, or watch television from Bulgaria. But the media I actually encounter – the flow of my attention – is local, focused on my home community and nation and on my particular interests.

When we track attention in a connected world, we look at infrastructure and flow, as we might with airplanes. The map of infrastructure shows you that there’s a series of flights that connects Linz and Lilongwe – the map of flow shows you that virtually no one ever makes that journey. Most flights take off and land in the same country. Most people read, listen and watch locally, nationally, more than globally.

It’s okay. It’s a fundamental human tendency. We’re not used to living in this massively interconnected world. As Kwame Appiah observes, a dozen generations ago, very few of us would have encountered people of another religion or race. It’s only very recently that we’ve all had the opportunity to become cosmopolitans, and only within the past few years that we’ve lived in a world where it was possible to know what someone in Samoa was thinking and feeling moment to moment. Our instinct is to pay attention to the familiar, to follow the suggestions of people we already know, to flock with those who look and think like us.

But just because the tendency to choose a smaller world is a basic human frailty doesn’t mean we should accept it. The infrastructures that hold us together bind us, inextricably. Our problems are global ones – pandemic, global warming, terrorism – and so are our solutions. If we can imagine healing and bettering the world, we are imagining connecting with people across the globe to build solutions and find different ways of living.

The Cloud encourages us to imagine a world where infrastructure doesn’t matter, where ideas and solutions can come from anyone and anywhere. Perhaps this is the useful illusion that frees us from old ways of thinking, lets us embrace solutions that come from halfway around that world, that we might have rejected had we known its provenance.

I fear that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll discover that the flow of ideas through the Cloud isn’t as frictionless and global as we might hope. The steep, sheer barriers of language render much of what’s posted online incomprehensible to us, the Chinese blog posts and the Spanish-language videos. On a polyglot internet, there’s more to read everyday, but less each of us, individually can understand. We’ve made great strides in making it possible for everyone to write online, releasing our words into the Cloud, but we’ve done far less work ensuring that we can read and understand what each other has to say.

In a world where many, if not everyone, can write online, we need editors, gatekeepers and filters more than ever. We’re experimenting with new techniques to sift through the Cloud and discover what interests us. We build tools that let us see what pages our friends find interesting, that let groups of people vote for what should be featured on the front page. With many eyes, we can see a broader stretch of the cloud. But ultimately, our view is as broad as that of the people we ask to help us navigate. If we flock together with like-minded fellows – as humans tend to do – we risk missing the serendipity of the critical recommendation from Nepal or Nigeria.

The Cloud tempts us into thinking that we are more global than we actually are. When we imagine a Cloud of bits from everywhere, divorced from physical reality, we can forget that infrastructure doesn’t yet extend to every corner of the world and systematically excludes places that are poor, unfree, disconnected. We are tempted to forget that our attention tends to flow towards our co-linguists, our countrymen, our friends, and that we must to consciously, continually challenge ourselves to break away from our flock and experience a wider world.

Shortly before the first World War, radio pioneer Marconi predicted that radio would make war impossible, because we’d be able to hear and understand the voices of people of other nations and would realize the futility of attacking and destroying them. Nine decades later, internet enthusiast John Perry Barlow predicted a world without borders, where states no longer mattered, where humans would organize themselves in a new, egalitarian way through the Internet. Barlow and Marconi made poor predictions, but they were both excellent prophets. The prophet’s job is not to tell you what will happen, but what could happen, if you work to make it happen.

The Cloud is a prophecy. It’s a beautiful dream of the future where we find ways to connect every corner of the world. It asks us to overcome the challenges of language, to break out of our usual orbits and familiar flocks and discover new, global, connected solutions to new, global, connected problems. We need to imagine this future so we can build it. But we must remember what we’re imagining and what’s real. We must continually challenge ourselves and not merely embrace and celebrate a useful illusion.