The Internet is a new world that pulls toward zero the distance between everything on it. This is new to human experience.

The world of distance

Fort Lee is the New Jersey town where my father grew up. It’s at the west end of the George Washington Bridge, which he also helped build. At the other end is Manhattan.

Distance in the old telephone system was something you heard and paid for.
An air mail envelope from 1958, when the postage had gone up to 7¢. This one was mailed from a post office, where the sender paid an extra penny for the second green imprint on the left there.
In TV’s antenna age, you needed one of these if rabbit ears wouldn’t do. The long rods were for channels 2–6 (no longer in use), the medium ones were for channels 7–13, and the short ones were for channels 14–83 (of which only 14–36 are still in use, and haven’t been auctioned away). The pigeons were for interference, and often worked quite well.

A world without distance

Everything I just talked about — telephony, mail, radio and TV — are in the midst of being undermined by the Internet, subsumed by it, or both. If we want to talk about how, we’ll have nothing but arguments and explanations. So let’s go instead to the main effect: distance goes away. Gravity too.

Talking distance

Distance is embedded in everything we talk about, and how we do the talking. For instance, take prepositions: forms of speech that are locators in time and space. There are only a few dozen of them in the English language. (Check ‘em out.) Try to get along without over, under, around, through, beside, along, within, on, off, between, inside, outside, up, down, without, toward, into, far or near. We can’t. Yet here on the Giant Zero, everything is either present or not, here or not-here. We may say we go “on” or “through” or “over” the Net, or that we “upload” or “download” files. But the prevailing conditions are presence and absence.

Threats and inevitabilities

That one-ness will seem increasingly fractured over the next several years, as usage of the Net drifts from universal protocols such as http (which gives us the Web) to proprietary protocols and services from giant companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. Home ISPs and mobile carriers also all want to become isolated and controlling conduits for pumping “content” — especially the kind you pay for — directly between production studios and the glowing rectangles in your hands, on your lap, on your desk and in your living room, all paid for by subscriptions, all on the Netflix and cable/satellite TV model.

Terraforming The Giant Zero

William Gibson famously said “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Since The Giant Zero has only been around for a couple decades so far, we still have a lot of terraforming to do. Most of it, I’d say.

A question

I could go on, but I’d rather put another question to those of you who have made it to the end of this post: Should The Giant Zero be a book? I’m convinced of the need for it and have a pile of material already. Studying all this has also been my focus for a decade as a fellow with the Center for Information Technology and Society at UCSB. But I still have a long way to go.

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.