The internet really isn’t that great… Comparatively

New York

Cathedral in Milan

Milan Cathedral. Picture by Jiuguang Wang.

Don’t tell my insurance-company, but sometimes I engage in one of these hazardous new-age activities known as “thinking”. When I get around to doing this, I often find myself thinking about how great the internet is. After all, it is so young, contains just about all the information anyone would ever want, and allows almost everyone to communicate with anyone regardless of where or who they are. An idea can be turned into a million dollars in a week, the barrier of entry is so low that a 13 year old with an idea, some skills and the willingness to put in the effort has the opportunity to create the new Facebook or Google. However, the other day something weird happened. I started thinking about something else. I started thinking about everything that isn’t the internet.

Really. Look away from your computer. There are probably some buildings close to where you are sitting. In fact, you are probably sitting in one. See those power-lines? Think about the power-grid! Imagine the organisation that has gone into designing it, the effort and thought that goes into making sure it is supplied so that your computer can function.

Public transport. Imagine how many wheels are in motion at all times, literally. How well all of it is organised most of the time. Skyscrapers are being built. Drawings, no, visions are created. Visions that may some day become reality. It would be impossible for one human being, even given an entire lifetime, to realise the dreams of the architect. But when a lot of people work in a coordinated way towards a common goal – you don’t even have to imagine what could be achieved. You just have to look at what we have.

Image by Wikipedia-user, "Someformofhuman."

Image by Wikipedia-user, “Someformofhuman.”

Look at the extensive network of roads and railways. We take them for granted, but we would be helpless without them. New roads and railway-lines are constructed all the time. When a new stretch of road is created it might take a few years. This seems painfully slow, doesn’t it? The internet has made us all horribly impatient. We are too used to getting everything right away. If it takes you more than a few hours to respond to an e-mail you are obviously not in touch with the world around you. We want, no, we need all news as it happens. If someone somewhere kicks a ball into a net we demand to be informed of it instantly.

Surely, nothing that takes all of a few years to finish can be worth the time it takes. It’s so sloooowwww… Yet, the roads created today may well still be used 150 years from now and will probably be taken for granted in the same way as we take our roads for granted.

It might just be me, but sometimes I get a feeling that I am all too ignorant about the “slow” things around me. Sure, I am “wired in” to the world through the internet. I know how to automatically make an alarm-clock trigger based on when my calendar tells me I should get up, I know how to look up almost anything using Google, I know how to use technology in a wide range of ways I am sure a lot of people don’t. It’s all too easy for people like me to judge people who perhaps don’t know all these things. After all, computers and the internet is our future, right? Surely one would have to be stupid, or at least without a realistic outlook to brush it aside without further thought as unnecessary and pointless… right?

Or perhaps not. Perhaps someone who doesn’t use Facebook, who has a mobile phone that can only make calls and send texts, who doesn’t use the computer every day, perhaps they are realising something we are too distracted to realise. Perhaps we are all too busy playing with our fancy gadgets to really look at the world around us. I know that I am. In 400 years, what will be remembered? The website or the iPhone app that made the maker a famous millionaire in a week, or the iconic building it took 200 anonymous workers 5 years to build?

highway

It sometimes occurs to me that the internet is a great arena for a lot of money to switch hands without anything of real value being created. Huge chunks of our lives are dedicated to volatile pieces of data stored in magnetic hard-drives in locations unknown to us. I just hope there are enough people out there actually doing something more permanent than moving data around. Some day I might too. I really hope I will. Perhaps the internet and my knowledge of technology will assist me in this. I really hope it will.

But if you will excuse me, I have to get back to writing a report on how I designed circuits that add and multiply numbers in a way that allowed me to type “Hello!” on one computer and have the message go through a series of electronics before it appeared on a screen. Hopefully you are doing something a little more worth while.

Image of New York by David Iliff.

November 13, 2010