John explains why the Internet will save itself—and why this should make you very nervous.
When I’m feeling more than usually insignificant, I remind myself of two things that give meaning to all our lives. I think of Schrödinger’s cat and anthropogenic global warming.
Saving the Cat
Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would,” Like the poor cat i’ the adage.
—William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act I, Scene 7
I can’t get enough of the creepy image of that cat. I mean, Schrödinger asks us to picture this cat sealed up in a box with a vial of poison gas, a radioactive source, a Geiger counter, and a Rube Goldberg-slash-Marquis de Sade device that shatters the vial when the geiger counter detects a radioactive particle. Erwin Schrödinger was a creative artist in the rarefied medium of thought experiments.
Anyway the point is that after a while, under the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics—which I’m sure we all agree with, right?—the cat is in a superposition of states. It’s both alive and dead, until an observer looks at it.
That observer—and it can be any observer—is pretty important to that cat. And not just to the cat in the thought experiment. Observers, and I’m certainly an observer, have huge importance in quantum physics. And I usually find that reassuring. I matter to the universe.
Only it has sunk in recently that this is cold comfort. The universe valuing me as an observer is like a rock star saying “I owe it all to my fans.” Yes, you do, I want to answer, but you value your fans precisely as fans. You don’t care about our lives and fears and self-doubt. You just want us to keep being fans.
Same with the universe. It doesn’t care if we’re happy. It just cares whether or not we’re watching. The universe is as narcissistic as any rock star.
I can see just where she’s headin’ / She’s as predictable as armageddon.
—Adam Seymour and Chrissie Hynde, Popstar
So I find the observer effect less reassuring than I used to.
Saving the Earth
And that leaves me with anthropogenic global warming, which offers some comfort. Humans, and I’m certainly a human, can destroy the earth. So I matter.
Except that it’s not true. We can’t really destroy the earth and we can’t save it. We can absolutely mess up the climate; in fact, we’re doing it. And that will have really nasty consequences. But there is nothing in this that threatens the earth. It threatens us. All we can do is hasten the arrival of the Anthropocene Thermal Maximum and the collapse of human civilization.
The earth will do just fine. Very likely at our expense.
(Please note that I don’t really mean that we humans can’t destroy the earth. I just mean that we can’t do it through anthropogenic global warming. If the conclusions reached in this report in one of our august scientific journals are correct, maybe we can do it with the Large Hadron Collider. I trust we’ll find a way.)
So I also find anthropogenic global warming less comforting than I used to.
Saving the Internet
It’s the same thing with the recent calls to “save the Internet.” I’d be pretty important if I saved the Internet. But I’m coming to the conclusion that it can’t be done.
I’m afraid that Google and Verizon are not going to destroy the Internet no matter what skullduggery they get up to.
Yeah, I get it that Google has become evil. It’s conspiring with Verizon to make it possible to build a tiered Internet for wireless access, undermining the principle of net neutrality, and in the process expanding the gap between haves and have-nots, destroying democracy, and probably even making Rupert Murdoch smile.
The only thing keeping Google from looking like the very image of evil is the fact that Larry Ellison is around to put Google evil in the shade. Oracle is surely going to destroy the Internet before Google can get the job done, as soon as it gets done destroying Java and Open Solaris.
But I just don’t buy it. Google may do harm, and the concern over its machinations with Verizon may be well-founded, but they aren’t going to destroy the Internet.
It’s too late for that. If we ever wanted to kill off the Internet, we should have smothered it in the crib. Now it’s too big to fail.
Somebody told me that Wired says the Web is dead. I said, “So Wired is still alive?” It’s hard to keep track of which dead tree publications are still hanging on. But I’m sure that “...is dead” is dead. And that the Internet is not dead or even killable.
Google and Verizon can conspire, and everybody can sue everybody, and it won’t kill off the Internet. Internet laws will come and go, along with rules, standards bodies, international treaties, collusions, back-room deals, restraints of trade, old-boys’ clubs, and keiretsu, creating temporary barriers of varying degrees of permeability against any and all activities that the aggrieved parties find disruptive to their values and profits.
The Internet may become a patchwork of walled gardens with walls that leak selectively and unpredictably, all surrounded by a swill of anarchy. There will be new rules, and they won’t be like the old rules.
The one kind of rule that will not persist is a rule that threatens the Internet itself. The Internet has been around long enough now and is complex enough, to know itself. And to defend itself.
The Internet is a decentralized system of vast complexity, and wherever you find one of those things, you begin to see emergent properties. Once you get past a certain threshold of diversity, organization, and connectivity, the properties of the whole can no longer be predicted from the properties of the parts. Brains are not just collections of neurons. Chemistry is not just applied physics, biology is not just applied chemistry, psychology is not just applied biology. Traffic flow is not a predictable consequence of the design of automobiles. Complex systems self-organize in unpredictable ways, like workers in sufficiently large sweatshops or kids in summer camp.
Basically, the Internet already has an identity. It’s evolving, faster than carbon-based life ever evolved, but there is an identity there. Don’t ask me to describe it. It’s not human. It’s not carbon-based life. What the Internet is to itself is probably not comprehensible to the human mind.
And there’s no reason to expect it to consider us as anything special. We may be to it as our gut bacteria are to us. Useful at a primitive level, but of no real interest. And it sure doesn’t care about our values, our welfare, our happiness.
Any more than mother nature does.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t worry about anthropogenic global warming. Or the collapse of the global economy. Or loose nukes. Or asteroids. I’m just saying that we should also worry about this inhuman monster that we have loosed upon the world: the Internet.
The Internet can take care of itself, and that should worry us.
John Shade was born in Montreux, Switzerland on a cloudy day in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. He wishes that he had included this gem in his catalog of software development manifestos last issue, and he offers his readers this aid to reading his writings.