A Tale of Two Computers

Part-way through Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, we learn that Earth is not a planet, but a giant supercomputer built by a race of hyperintelligent aliens. Earth was designed by a predecessor supercomputer called Deep Thought, which in turn had been built to figure out the answer to the ultimate question of “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Much to the annoyance of the aliens, the answer turns out to be a cryptic and unsatisfactory “42.”

What is 7 times 6?

We concluded the previous essay with our own ultimate question of “Inequality, Surveillance and Everything.” The basic answer we offered — “the best way through it is through it” — must seem as annoying, cryptic and unsatisfactory as Deep Thought’s “42.”

In Adams’ tale, Deep Thought gently suggests to the frustrated aliens that perhaps the answer seemed cryptic because they never understood the question in the first place. Deep Thought then proceeds to design Earth to solve the much tougher problem of figuring out the actual question.

First performed as a radio show in 1978, Adams’ absurdist epic precisely portrayed the societal transformation that was gaining momentum at the time. Rapid technological progress due to computing was accompanied by cryptic and unsatisfactory answers to confused and urgent-seeming questions about the human condition. Our “Inequality, Surveillance and Everything” form of the non-question is not that different from the corresponding non-question of the late 1970s: “Cold War, Globalization and Everything.” Then, as now, the frustrating but correct answer was “the best way through it is through it.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide can be read as a satirical anti-morality tale about pastoral sensibilities, utopian solutions and perfect answers. In their dissatisfaction with the real “Ultimate Answer,” the aliens failed to notice the truly remarkable development: they had built an astoundingly powerful computer, which had then proceeded to design an even more powerful successor.

Like the aliens, we may not be satisfied with the answers we find to timeless questions, but simply by asking the questions and attempting to answer them, we are bootstrapping our way to a more advanced society.

As we argued in the last essay, the advancement is both technological and moral, allowing for a more pluralistic society to emerge from the past.

Adams died in 2001, just as his satirical visions, which had inspired a generation of technologists, started to actually come true. Just as Deep Thought had given rise to a fictional “Earth” computer, centralized mainframe computing of the industrial era gave way to distributed, networked computing. In a rather perfect case of life imitating art, IBM researchers named a powerful chess-playing supercomputer Deep Thought in the 1990s, in honor of Adams’ fictional computer. A later version, Deep Blue, became the first computer to beat the reigning human champion in 1997. But the true successor to the IBM era of computing was the planet-straddling distributed computer we call the Internet.

Manufactured in Taiwan

Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson noted the resulting physical transformation as early as 1996, in his essay on the undersea cable-laying industry, Mother Earth, Motherboard.1 By 2004, Kevin Kelly had coined a term and launched a new site to talk about the idea of digitally integrated technology as a single, all-subsuming social reality,2 emerging on this motherboard:

I’m calling this site The Technium. It’s a word I’ve reluctantly coined to designate the greater sphere of technology – one that goes beyond hardware to include culture, law, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. In short, the Technium is anything that springs from the human mind. It includes hard technology, but much else of human creation as well. I see this extended face of technology as a whole system with its own dynamics.

The metaphor of the world as a single interconnected entity that subsumes human existence is an old one, and in its modern form, can be traced at least to Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), and Herbert Spencer’s The Social Organism (1853). What is new about this specific form is that it is much more than a metaphor. The view of the world as a single, connected, substrate for computation is not just a poetic way to appreciate the world: It is a way to shape it and act upon it. For many software projects, the idea that “the network is the computer” (due to John Gage, a computing pioneer at Sun Microsystems) is the only practical perspective.

While the pre-Internet world can also be viewed as a programmable planetary computer based on paperware, what makes today’s planetary computer unique in history is that almost anyone with an Internet connection can program it at a global scale, rather than just powerful leaders with the ability to shape organizations.

The kinds of programming possible on such a vast, democratic scale have been rapidly increasing in sophistication. In November 2014 for instance, within a few days of the Internet discovering and becoming outraged by a sexist 2013 Barbie comic-book titled Computer Engineer Barbie, hacker Kathleen Tuite had created a web app (using an inexpensive cloud service called Heroku) allowing anyone to rewrite the text of the book. The hashtag  #FeministHackerBarbie immediately went viral. Coupled with the web app, the hashtag unleashed a flood of creative rewrites of the Barbie book. What would have been a short-lived flood of outrage only a few years ago had turned into a breaking-smart moment for the entire software industry.

To appreciate just how remarkable this episode was, consider this: a hashtag is effectively an instantly defined soft network within the Internet, with capabilities comparable to the entire planet’s telegraph system a century ago. By associating a hashtag with the right kind of app, Tuite effectively created an entire temporary publishing company, with its own distribution network, in a matter of hours rather than decades. In the process, reactive sentiment turned into creative agency.

These capabilities emerged in just 15 years: practically overnight by the normal standards of technological change.

In 1999, SETI@home,3 the first distributed computing project to capture the popular imagination, merely seemed like a weird way to donate spare personal computing power to science. By 2007, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk4 had added human creativity, communication and money into the mix, and the same engineering approaches had created the social web. By 2014, experimental mechanisms developed in the culture of cat memes5 were influencing elections. The penny-ante economy of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk had evolved into a world where bitcoin miners were making fortunes, car owners were making livable incomes through ridesharing on the side, and canny artists were launching lucrative new careers on Kickstarter.

Even as the old planet-scale computer declines, the new one it gave birth to is coming of age.

In our Tale of Two Computers, the parent is a four-century-old computer whose basic architecture was laid down in the zero-sum mercantile age. It runs on paperware, credentialism, and exhaustive territorial claims that completely carve up the world with strongly regulated boundaries. Its structure is based on hierarchically arranged container-like organizations, ranging from families to nations. In this order of things, there is no natural place for a free frontier. Ideally, there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place. It is a computer designed for stability, within which innovation is a bug rather than a feature.

We’ll call this planet-scale computer the geographic world.

The child is a young, half-century old computer whose basic architecture was laid down during the Cold War. It runs on software, the hacker ethos, and soft networks that wire up the planet in ever-richer, non-exclusive, non-zero-sum ways. Its structure is based on streams like Twitter: open, non-hierarchical flows of real-time information from multiple overlapping networks. In this order of things, everything from banal household gadgets to space probes becomes part of a frontier for ceaseless innovation through bricolage. It is a computer designed for rapid, disorderly and serendipitous evolution, within which innovation, far from being a bug, is the primary feature.

We’ll call this planet-scale computer the networked world.

The networked world is not new. It is at least as old as the oldest trade routes, which have been spreading subversive ideas alongside valuable commodities throughout history. What is new is its growing ability to dominate the geographic world. The story of software eating the world is the also the story of networks eating geography.

There are two major subplots to this story. The first subplot is about bits dominating atoms. The second subplot is about the rise of a new culture of problem-solving.

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[1] Neal Stephenson’s essay on the world of cable-laying, Mother Earth, Mother Boardis still a must-read, almost 20 years later. His idea of “hacker tourism” is something everybody should try as part of becoming technologically literate.

[2] Kevin Kelly, My Search for the Meaning of Tech, 2004.

[3] The most famous of many projects that utilize idle computing time on individual personal computers to perform complex tasks. In this case, analyzing radio signals from space for signs of alien life.

[4] Reassembling the Social: An introduction to actor-network theory, Bruno Latour, 2007.

[5] Kate Miltner, Srsly Phenomenal: An Investigation Into The Appeal Of Lolcats, MSc Dissertation, London School of Economics, 2011. See also, this Huffington Post review.