the blind watchmaker – mammoth // building nothing out of something

the blind watchmaker

[A manhole near Halifax marks the Canadian arrival point for one of the eleven major cable lines carrying the bulk of trans-Atlantic Internet traffic; photographed by Randall Mesdon; from this excellent Wired slideshow on the physical infrastructure of the internet; the text accompanying that show is by Andrew Blum, whose forthcoming book on said infrastructure promises to be one of the most interesting books of, um, whatever year it will be released in.]

Daniel Hillis has an insightful answer to the World Question Center’s question of the year, “How has the Internet changed the way you think?”:

It seems that most people, even intelligent and well-informed people, are confused about the difference between the Internet and the Web. . . . The Web is a wonderful resource for speeding up the retrieval and dissemination of information and that, despite Wolfe’s trivialization, is no small change. Yet, the Internet is much more than just the Web. . . . By the Internet, I mean the global network of interconnected computers that enables, among other things, the Web. I would like to focus on applications that go beyond human-to-human communication. In the long run, these are applications of the Internet that will have the greatest impact on who we are and how we think.

Today, most people only recognize that they are using the Internet when they are interacting with a computer screen. They are less likely to appreciate when they are using the Internet while talking on the telephone, watching television, or flying on an airplane. Some travelers may have recently gotten a glimpse of the truth, for example, upon learning that their flights were grounded due to an Internet router failure in Salt Lake City, but for most this was just another inscrutable annoyance. Most people have long ago given up on trying to understand how technical systems work. This is a part of how the Internet is changing the way we think.

I want to be clear that I am not complaining about technical ignorance. In an Internet-connected world, it is almost impossible to keep track of how systems actually function. Your telephone conversation may be delivered over analog lines one day and by the Internet the next. Your airplane route may be chosen by a computer or a human being, or (most likely) some combination of both. Don’t bother asking, because any answer you get is likely to be wrong.

Soon, no human will know the answer. More and more decisions are made by the emergent interaction of multiple communicating systems, and these component systems themselves are constantly adapting, changing the way they work. This is the real impact of the Internet: by allowing adaptive complex systems to interoperate, the Internet has changed the way we make decisions. More and more, it is not individual humans who decide, but an entangled, adaptive network of humans and machines.

Hillis pictures human society as a cybernetic organism, in which individuals are but interchangeable constituent parts. We’re watching, in the memorable phrase from Ken MacLeod’s awkward-but-fascinating Star Fraction, the emergence of the blind watchmaker. One of the most striking things about this is the way that this reality — so intangible, so hard to understand in concrete terms — interacts with physical and visible reality; the exchange of light within servers in London and New York may determine who has enough to eat and who does not in remote villages. Increasingly, the physical infrastructure of the internet is not limited to server farms, wi-fi routers and trans-oceanic cables, though those direct infrastructures remain critical and yet poorly understood. Everything is becoming the infrastructure of the internet, or the internet is becoming the infrastructure of everything, and at either point the distinction between and order of the two collapses and becomes irrelevant.

1 Though I suppose I should note that my impression is that Varnelis has grown increasingly pessimistic about the realization of those opportunities.

Barring widespread societal collapse, managing patterns of emergent decision-making, which may be shaped even if they cannot be controlled, will likely become an increasingly central task for society, and so is incredibly fascinating as an architectural problem, as architecture is fundamentally more interesting when understood in terms of decisions than in terms of forms. My suspicion — though I remain interested in experiments such as the EDAW/AECOM merger which attempt to compensate for increasingly complex conditions by building increasingly complex design processes — is that this trend is another nail in the coffin of totalized design, another reason that we’ll never see a successful attempt at the sort of fully rational planning processes that last century’s modernists sought to deploy. Tomorrow’s architects have, as Lebbeus Woods recently said, “no faith in grand architectural plans to make a better world and especially not [the] best of all possible worlds”. But, as Kazys Varnelis noted in a piece mammoth recently quoted, this is more an exciting opportunity for new roles, design processes, and practices than it is an object of worry1.

[Hillis link via Alan Jacobs’ Text Patterns]

2 Responses to “the blind watchmaker”

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