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Learning To See At The Edge Of Darkness

Night-vision goggles give you an advantage, you can see in the darkness. There’s a sense in which Google has these goggles for the Network. Google has the most complete map of the territory, and they’ve flooded the map with light. A search engine’s spiders feel their way through the darkness, tracing out the graph of links and nodes, and sending their sketches back home to be pieced together into a larger map.

To most of us, the Network is dark, it’s only through habit or maps that anything can be found. Theoretically, any public node on the Network is reachable, but as a practical matter you can’t get there unless someone gives you a hyperlink. An individual’s map of the the Network consists of the URLs that can be remembered and browser bookmarks. The average Network traveler moves through a fairly well-defined circuit of web sites. The value of a weak-tie social network is that people you don’t know well, but follow, are likely to be carrying links that you, and members of your strong-tie network wouldn’t have ordinarily encountered.

The Network also has a dark side that can’t be mapped by Google, these are the secure pools of data protected from a search engine’s spiders. Bank accounts, medical records and other personal information falls into this category. Unless you’re in law enforcement, you can’t Google someone’s financial records. We call this kind of darkness privacy. Some say it no longer exists, but last time I checked, I couldn’t Google Eric Schmidt’s checking account or Scott McNealy’s health records.

Facebook is also sheltered from the search engine’s spiders. Google’s spider can’t join Facebook and become friends with all 600 million members so that the contents of Facebook can be added to Google’s map of the Network. A spider is a kind of robot, and robots aren’t allowed to join Facebook. Interestingly corporations are allowed to join, and robots and other kinds of applications can be constructed to operate within the boundaries Facebook. Facebook has created a territory that can only be mapped by Facebook, or from within Facebook. While Facebook is a dark pool to Google, the open Network is available to Facebook. Humans don’t view Facebook as closed because they cross the boundary that keeps robots out with a minimum of friction.

And so we come to the question of darkness and enclosures. If we view the Network as open, perhaps we see a large field of light with pools of darkness at the margins. But for the user without a map, the Network is complete darkness. Thus an argument for an open Network is the equivalent of saying that the map makers must be able to do their work so that we can navigate through the darkness. Allow their robots passage so that they can light the way for us. Although it should be noted we can only navigate to places on the map, uncharted territory remains in darkness. Facebook is un-navigable without the maps provided by Facebook; the open internet is un-navigable without the maps provided by Google. The difference, of course, is that anyone with internet-scale data infrastructure can provide maps of the open internet, while only Facebook can provide maps of Facebook. And while some may perceive a difference in the barriers to entry, it may be a difference without much of a difference.

In the end, the purpose of these maps is to provide you with a hyperlink—a doorway to get you to your desired location. You stop and ask for directions: “How do I get to such-and-such a place?” The search engine replies with two million prioritized results listed on tens of thousands of pages. You might scan the top ten of two million results to see if there’s anything of interest. If Google was really confident in their results, they’d only give you their ten best answers. However it’s the two million results that shed some degree of light on the landscape of the Network. In the end, it’s only a small selection set of hyperlinks that’s needed—one can easily imagine other methods of producing a small set useful of links.

As the map gains more prominence, many attempt to build structures on the map itself. The map provides a boundary, separating the visible from the invisible. For instance, the page must be constructed in a specific way if it is to be findable. What cannot be found, cannot be read. The finding is the thing. For instance, despite the rise of the e-reader, and networked apps designed specifically for reading, these approaches don’t fit into the map. The pages fall outside the method of map construction. It’s in this way that the map serves as a limit, a kind of zoning law, for new construction.

Maps distort the territory, they create an abstraction of a specific layer of the territory for a particular purpose. We can also say that a map never exhausts the territory, there’s always something that remains unwritten on the parchment. Oddly, we can also say that the map always already lies within the territory. There’s no outside of the territory, one doesn’t come to an edge and see a transcendental map maker beyond the clouds. The map is constructed from within the territory to be used to navigate the territory.

The Network’s pools of light and pools of darkness each have their own kind of maps. While some may call for eternal sunshine, with everything standing in the light, always waiting to be seen—it’s in the chiaroscuro that we see unknown figures emerging from the darkness.

How Poetry Comes to Me
Gary Snyder

It comes blundering over the

Boulders at night, it stays

Frightened outside the

Range of my campfire

I go to meet it at the

Edge of the light

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