Episode One Hundred and Thirty Eight: The Exoskeleton of the Internet; The Web Created the Modern Camera; Data Has Replaced God

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Today I am in San Antonio, more work for NOSTROMO BLACK. I’ve done that thing where I had all the good intentions for getting outside and exploring, but the traveller that I am, I didn’t really look at what the weather was going to be like here, and didn’t really dress appropriately. It’s hot outside. Well, it’s Texas, too, but that’s what happens when you become the kind of person who just gets handed itineraries and goes where you’re told to go. This used to happen at the agency a lot – I would find myself shepherded from place to place by people, project managers, account people, assistants. From meeting room to meeting room, from home to cab to airport to production office to conference call. Now it’s more of the same, but with a leaner infrastructure around me. But still: home, airport, TSA-PRE, eat something, sit and read, get on a plane, arrive somewhere else.

But I was saying: I had all the intentions of going out and exploring the Historic Riverwalk District and instead I hid inside my air conditioned hotel room, idly reading bits of the internet (now I know a lot more about inflight entertainment systems, for example) and trying to juggle more flights around. And an admission: I have been putting off writing today’s newsletter episode because even though I said I wouldn’t look, there’s been a dropoff in readers over the last few episodes, and it’s not that I really *don’t* care that much, more that I’m trying to work out what I want to write about. And on (one of the) plane(s) today, I worked out what that might be, and I suppose I’ve been procrastinating about it.

My room-service steak was done too well, too. I bet you hate me right now.


Three jumping-off points today, three quotes from articles or interviews which were the right kind of push to trigger off a cascade of patterns in my brain that I can clumsily try to talk about through my fingers. Three simple pieces.

Listening: The Captain America suite from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

1.0 The Exoskeleton of the Internet

“We live in the exoskeleton of the internet”[1] – Michael Mann, on his new film Blackhat, at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con.

Think back to when you were small. It’s easy for me at the moment because I can get down on my hands and knees and crawl around with my toddler, but think back to when the world was really big, you were really small and you were essentially just a little dot on it. If you’ve read the pop-science books, you’re the ant on what you think is a 1-dimensional string world – you can go forwards and backwards, but not anything else. You’re not even a flatlander.

This has got to be a bit confusing. We barely understand the physical world that we crawl around on. A crater suddenly appears and then a bunch of us have to huddle, get together, before emerging, tentatively, to explain that maybe it’s arctic methane release[2], which I suppose is a thing now?

Anyway. The internet is now seen by those who create popular culture as a thing that reaches out into our world, moreso than as described in the haxploitation of 1992’s Sneakers[3] when Cosmo, the movie’s villain, declares: “the world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money, it’s run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data. It’s all just electrons,” to which our hero Marty replies: “I don’t care.”

Turns out, we don’t really care *that* much.

But we’re these people-shaped things, crawling around, inhabiting something that we’re building. How many ant-hill analogues can we make, anyway? Are our cities ant-hills? Is the internet? And then that curious turn of the phrase where we *inhabit* the internet’s exoskeleton as if the internet is this thing that exists that needs a suit, armour, some sort of physical wrapping, and we inhabit its wrapping. As opposed to us creating and enfolding the internet around us, creating our own exoskeletons.

No, you see – when Mann says that we live in the exoskeleton of the internet, it means that he thinks the internet *is* a thing, and that we’re its force multipliers, not the other way around. I think it means that in Mann’s head, the internet is some sort of quadriplegic information-borne, static *thing* that is now working out ways to control the meat puppets. Or that the internet is controlling the bits that the meat puppets just crawl over and around.

The internet is the first organ of an alien god, and we’re just parasites sitting on top of it, mining it for bits of useful information that it’s discarded.

[1] http://collider.com/blackhat-comic-con-panel-recap/
[2] Arctic Methane Release
[3] Sneakers (film) – Wikiquotes

2.0 The Web Created The Modern Camera

I owe Mr. Powazek an apology because he asked me to do a buddy-check on the piece that phrase comes from[1] before he published it and because I am a terrible person, I never got around to it.

There are so many good parts to pick out of Powazek’s piece on the evolution of photography on the network. I say “network” on purpose – Powazek begins his piece on talking about digital photography, the kind separated from the chemicals and paper, never mind the transmission of digital photographs across closed or open networks. And never mind photos on the web, now we have photos on mobile apps. But the key across all of these was photography on the network.

And then there’s this phrase: “everyone is now a photographer. Every phone has a camera, and glasses aren’t far behind, like it or not” to which the only tweak I would’ve suggested would be to change the *everyone* to *everything*. Drivers take photos (and video). Houses take photos. Drones take photos. Satellites and people with backpacks take photos. But you don’t need a human being to depress a shutter – even monkeys know that.

Anyway. Powazek writes, “the web created the modern digital camera” because without the web, there weren’t that many great reasons for a photo to become digital: you’d have to get them developed first and then scanned in, or get a negative scanner or – and I remember doing this when I was producing a school newspaper – get them on a fancy Kodak Photo CD[2] which even, I think, came with their own proprietary image formats for a while, and old enough to not even be an InterCapped noun and instead two separate words.

Photo CDs were symptomatic of the non-networked culture, the same kind of productivity era of computing that let us do “things* like desktop publishing and word processing and client management like create an Access database to manage sales prospects for Northwind.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing to possess, and it’s hard to see how you could’ve bootstrapped the photosharing culture that we have today. You needed all three elements: capture, display and distribution, to truly get to a new product category, and the web provided display and distribution. (Of course, you can unpick distribution even further: enough people needed net access for photo sharing to work, and there were corresponding phase changes at points of unmetered access, consumer broadband and mobile).

Powazek’s second wave, of course, is rooted in what Flickr did for photo-sharing. So much of what we have around media sharing is built around principles that Flickr popularised. And maybe Yahoo! didn’t properly execute upon or continue those principles, but the permalink and access controls were popularised and became things and concepts that people understood. In some respects, photosharing products like Facebook showed what it took to become more mass (better distribution, a simpler product offering) but at the same time lost community features. And then Facebook itself was taught about what it meant to share photos with Instagram, one of the waves of mobile-first companies that really understood what capturing and distribution meant when the camera was wired to an unwired network.

When Powazek says that the web created the modern camera, I think he’s touched on something incredibly important. That it says a lot about the web and that it says a lot about how incumbents need to deal with change: the web and the modern camera destroyed Kodak and Polaroid. Those companies and experiences are practically gone now. But it says as much about how we should think about the capture, distribute and display loop works in other media, for other products. Because it’s going to keep happening.

[1] The Third Wave of Photo Sharing
[2] Kodak Photo CD

3.0 Data Has Replaced God

A throwaway line in Mat Honan’s latest, a profile of Stewart Butterfield and Tiny Speck’s Slack[1] , the latest Butterfield/Henderson collaboration (and I apologise that I’m doing a disservice to the others involved in bringing about what’s traditionally attributed to that duo).

This line was pointed out by Nick Sweeney, and it has nothing to do with Slack at all, which is worth a whole ‘nother newsletter episode (at the very least) – but I’m having some trouble with that because I don’t work at or participate in an organisation that uses Slack. But anyway.

No, the line is this, in a para about Butterfield looking at sales conversions in a spreadsheet:

“[D]ata has now replaced God in the Far American West. We worship it and fear its revelations. All that matters is how much something is: how much it’s used, how much it’s viewed, how much it costs, how much it pays, how much it grows, how much it shrinks, how much it is returned to again, how much it is abandoned.”

Not just the Far American West, but everywhere in the West now, I think. And if not just the West, then, well, everywhere. Because information – data – is accreting, like so many toxic pools, like a kind of similarly invisible agglomeration like the carbon in our atmosphere, something that’s potentially dangerous to us and altering the human environment in ways that we can’t yet perceive in the present, but will profoundly affect how we live our lives in just a few decades.

We might be spewing CO2 out into the world and not worrying about it so much, and we’re doing the same with data: producing it, collecting it, assuming things about it, but there’s no reason to do anything about it right now because it turns out that data production, consumption and tracking is stupendously lucrative. It makes us and it breaks us, it tracks us, it defines us, and half the time we don’t even know what it means. It is big, it is deep, it is long, it has tails. It is short, it is fast, it is sifted through by algorithms that we either do not understand or were designed by something else entirely, or by committee. It is legislated for in public, collected in private, analysed in secret, warehoused in opaque locations.

Data is everywhere and you pray to it before your FICO score is revealed, you make offerings when you sign terms and conditions, you worship at its alter not just every Sunday but with a smartphone in your hand or your pocket, with your social security number, with even the swing of your arm and your gait you generate more. It is all there. It sees everything. We are made in its image, it reflects ourselves back at us, imperfections and Google searches for wart removal treatments because it knows that we have those, too.

You think we create things that we intentionally don’t understand so we can ascribe meaning and intention to an uncaring universe? Data will do that for you. Data will promise you that it can tease out meaning, that trendlines can be observed, that predictions can be made if you offer in the right way. Just track a little more. Just check this box. Just enter your birthdate. Just wear this bracelet. Just share your eating preferences. Just say whether you’re a smoker.

We’re vomiting this stuff out and it used to be something you could touch, a questionnaire you would fill in in a magazine, a letter you’d write, a form, but now we’re literally swimming in it, an ether of electromagnetic waves of Buzzfeed quizzes, of Facebook asking you where you went to high school, of LinkedIn asking you what skills you have.

Yes. Data has replaced God.

[1] The Most Fascinating Profile You’ll Ever Read About a Guy and His Boring Startup

San Antonio. I hope you’re cooler tomorrow. Tell me how wrong I was.