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2-Way Asymmetric Networks: Robots Call Me All The Time, Yet I Never Call Them


There are a number of stories that have been running through my playlist recently. The theme, the question, has to do with what I call spammable identity endpoints. With the growth of dual one-way asymmetric follow networks, I wonder if we are creating new communications channels that will make the phone number and email address obsolete?

Here are the stories:

Avital Ronell’s “book” called The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, opens with a description of our relationship with the node of the Network that the telephone represents:

…And yet, you’re saying yes, almost automatically, suddenly, sometimes irreversibly. Your picking it up means the call has come through. It means more: you’re its beneficiary, rising to meet its demand, to pay a debt. You don’t know who’s calling or what you are going to be called upon to do, and still, you are lending your ear, giving something up, receiving an order. It is a question of answerability. Who answers the call of the telephone, the call of duty, and accounts for the taxes it appears to impose?

Bruce Sterling may have said something resembling the following at the recent SXSW:

Connectivity will be an indicator of poverty rather than an indicator of wealth.

There’s a story about how cultural norms are solidified and passed to the next generation:

A room contains a researcher and a small stool. Hanging over the stool is a banana on a string. The researcher wears a white lab-coat and holds a fully pressurized fire-hose. An arbitrary number of monkeys is released into the room.

Sooner or later one of them will make for the stool to try and grab the banana. Yet as soon as that monkey climbs the stool and approaches his prize, the researcher lets him have it with the hose. And not only does that monkey get it, but all monkeys in the room (whether they touched the banana or not) get sprayed. After soaking them roughly for a few moments, the researcher turns off the hose.

Perhaps another monkey gets brave or hungry. When he climbs the stool and touches the banana, the researcher lets him have it. And as before, all the monkeys also get doused, whether they moved towards the banana or not. Repeat this process enough and, after the group has suffered enough soakings, the following effect should be noticed: Should any monkey make for the stool, the rest can be counted on to beat him silly before he reaches either it or the banana, sparing themselves. After awhile, the group avoids the banana even as their bellies growl.

Now say the researcher removes a monkey and brings in a new one to replace him. No big surprise, one of his first actions might be to make directly for the banana. And of course the others won’t allow this, for if he should make it they all get sprayed again. They administer a beating to the confused newcomer, until he learns not to near the stool.

Should the experiment continue, perhaps after replacing every monkey in the original generation, one can even remove the researcher. The descendants enforce the social order even though they may never been sprayed or even know about the researcher. By now no monkeys have directly experienced the hose, and in fact no white-coated danger exists, yet still their options are self-curtailed. There is no risk in the banana. Yet they avoid it, none quite certain why.

I’ve heard this story from Clay Shirky, although I can’t seem to find a reference to it (either on my book shelf or on the Network). So I’m going to make something up that Clay might have said:

Marconi invented radio as a means to enable ship-to-shore communication. The intention was to create a one-to-one communications network. It turned out that anyone with a radio listening device could hear the broadcast. In a network with only two radios, transmissions were scoped correctly as one-to-one. On a network with a broadcast radio and many radio receivers– just add some commercials selling soap, and you’ve got modern broadcast radio.

The network transmission characteristics of a technology make an imprint on our cultural practice. We all know that we couldn’t survive without the telephone and email. Going back to the telegraph and the telegram is not an option. We have a unique phone number and email address so that we can reached through the network. We make these identity endpoints findable, so that if it’s important, you can call us. The relation is two-way asymmetric — if my identity endpoint is known, it can be called. For instance, robots call me all the time, and yet I have very little desire to call robots. Although, I suppose I could.

If Twitter had a presence status indicator and full-duplex voice transmission enabled through the direct message channel, how quickly would it replace the telephone? Skype is already the largest international telecom provider in the world. Could a dual one-way asymmetric pub/sub communications network supercede the current network where robots can call me any time they are directed to do so? Or has this already happened, and are we just scrambling to put together the documentation of how it works…


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