June 24, 2012

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: Wild Dividers on the Information Superhighway and the Coming of the Information Apocalypse

Driving north from Minneapolis a few days ago, we took a brand-new spur off of a major highway that will eventually intersect the northernmost east–west Interstate Highway, connecting the Great Lakes and Intermountain regions of the United States.

The new highway is clean, slick, crack-less, smooth, stark and every bit the poster child of what a 21st Century highway should be.

In addition, the empty spaces between the asphalt and concrete superhighways have been seeded with prairie grasses. Some of those grasses are nearly extinct and while we pour all of our affection, attention and accusation on the bald eagles, timber wolves and passenger pigeons, the fact is that there are GRASSES, TREES, MOLDS and FUNGI that are becoming extinct as well. That’s what the Department of Natural Resources in this state has decided to do – restore bits and pieces of the ancient Great Plains.

Be that as it may, I was caught that day by a metaphor – a superhighway is what our First World likens its transmission of information to. In the writing world, ebooks are a sort of motel on that information superhighway – a place to stop, kick your shoes off and relax or learn something new. Downloadable off the fast-as-light database, ebooks are The Future and with the downfall of the brick and mortars (old-fashioned bookstores like Barnes and Noble, and Powell’s as well as libraries for those of you not “in the know”), ebooks are the ONLY way we will be reading in fifty years.

At least this is the expectation for those of us who live in First World, technologically advanced dependent countries. So say the experts.

But even on the new, physical superhighways, there are dividers filled with prairie restoration projects and dirt and simple weeds and invasive garden escapees. There’s earthworms in that dirt and if I had a hankerin’ to, I could plant me some taters and corn on the cob in some of the bigger places between the asphalt and concrete modernities stretching from horizon to horizon. Up close enough, those interstices are little different from the raw prairie of the ancient world.

What’s the purpose of the weedy areas on an Interstate? Aside from the belief that You Can’t Pave Over Everything, the reason for those restored prairies is that you need to keep water, wind and waves from eroding the foundation on which the superhighway rests.

Those of us who live in Minnesota quip, “We have two seasons in Minnesota, Winter and Road Construction.” We all know that EVERY highway in the US has to be patched and repaired and that a highway – even a SUPERhighway can only be patched and repaired so many times before it has to be totally and completely ripped up and rebuilt from the ground up. You heard me – rebuilt from the ground up. The superhighway. Rebuilt. Ground up.

So when the Information Superhighway has to be rebuilt, from WHAT will it be rebuilt? From paper books, physically retrievable data and oral histories. From ledgers, account reports and year-end reviews filed in paper drawers. The Information Superhighway has already experienced blowouts and break ups – it’s already been patched and resurfaced. What I’ve never seen before is the plan for rebuilding the Information Superhighway FROM THE GROUND UP.

Are you ready for the Information Apocalypse?


Paul said...

As long as we have all of the redundancies that are currenly in place, I don't think there's too much danger that the entire internet will need to be rebuilt from scratch (just like an entire superhighway system would like never need to be rebuilt in one go). The kind of catastrophe that would destroy the whole thing (e.g., a giant EMP), it seems to me, would wreak so many other kinds of havoc that we'd be spending most of our time trying to rebuild society, or even simply survive. Rebuilding the internet would be rather far down the to-do list.

GuyStewart said...

Though from what I hear about the current Interstate System -- it's pretty much wearing out at the same time. Also, while an EMP is an imaginable kind of catastrophe, I'm thinking more along the lines of intentional assault (hacking), bureacratic meddling, external competition (outside of the "control" of regulartory bodies) hacking at and weakening the structure to a point where it collapses. In addition, as the system has mostly GROWN in ways few people could have imagined, let alone PLANNED for; who are we to say we could predict how it might collapse? I disagree that the collapse of the internet and electronic world would necesitate the rebuilding of SOCIETY. Maybe OUR society, but my guess is that despite the media's implication that "We Are The World"; there are more people OFF-line than there are ON-line...but that's just my opinion. You're the one who lives in the web!

Paul said...

The thing about networks--interstate highways, the internet, the human brain--is that when damage happens, it's possible to route around it. It may take a long time to regain efficient transportation, communication, or body function (or it may never come back), but activity does continue; the entire network doesn't need to be rebuilt at once. It doesn't seem to me that the kinds of damage you're envisioning, serious though they are, would be comprehensive enough to necessitate a full restart.

From a story point of view, though, maybe partial damage would be more interesting. If large chunks of the internet, but not the whole thing, could be taken out, who would have access to what remains? To what degree would they control how, or whether, access is returned to those who once had it but no longer do?

GuyStewart said...

Though with all of the metaphors, despite the best directions and rerouting, people still get lost, memories get lost -- and data get lost. At what point does the lost data become significant? I can certainly stand to lose BORED OF THE RINGS -- I don't think much will be lost in the world if it falls by the wayside (though even that book might serve as an important window into the attitudes of the time it was written). The question then might be -- can the internet ever COMPLETELY lose information or will all information be available somewhere? And again -- what about those who have no internet and computer access?