in Profiles | 09 SEP 00
Featured in
Issue 54

Well Connected

Too much of a good thing

in Profiles | 09 SEP 00

Not too long ago I had an ADSL line laid into my apartment. The installation took about half an hour, the cost was nil, and now I connect to the internet at about 25 times the speed of my old 56k modem, a fact which would be merely convenient were it not the case that my experience of the Web has changed so drastically that a little reflection is in order.

The speed of the thing is transformative, an example of quantity become quality: ah, yes, you say to yourself, this is what they mean when they talk about information flowing here and there, unfettered by nation, corporation, or the lead boots of actually manufacturing a medium. In retrospect, the Web at 56k is a useful, if somewhat pokey device, like a rotary dial telephone or a television without a remote control. The Web at 1500k (and always on, since ADSL co-exists with a standard telephone line) is simply there, all the time, on demand, whatever you want. As a result, the whole thing suddenly becomes transparent. The fact that you're attached to a network through a telephone, so annoyingly obvious when it takes a full minute to call up the front page of the New York Times, suddenly becomes moot when it pops up on demand. You don't really notice that you're online at all - which, after all, is the goal. Technology - like, say, waiters, wire service prose, the bitters in a Manhattan, and urban planning - is essentially self-effacing. It manifests its success at precisely that point where you cease to notice it.

The second striking aspect of ADSL is the extraordinary degree to which it recasts the whole phenomenology of having a computer. The Internet is, of course, a network, but at dial-up speeds it's really only notionally so. Indeed, few aspects of life, work, pastimes, and pleasures are quite as discrete, as self-enclosed, as private, as the time you spend working at your computer. Your bookshelves are visible to anyone who might stop by. Music, television, movies, and so on - these things are meant to be shared, we do them with others, if not always then often. But the contents of your computer, even more than the drawers of your desk, are hidden from the world, and I suspect that most people have more secrets on their hard drive that they could ever bear to put in, for example, a diary. A diary, after all, can be purloined; but hard drives are password protected.

However, that notion of a computer as lock-box pretty much goes away when you're connected at ADSL speeds, and particularly if you use your line to trade stuff via one of the new programmes that exist to bind together vastly separated machines. Get hold of Napster, Scour Exchange, Gnutella, or Freenet, and you start simply lifting files off an open directory on someone else's computer, at the same time as someone, somewhere else, is lifting files off a similarly specified directory on yours. There was one day, for example, when I downloaded a bunch of Gary Stewart songs from some other Napster user (God knows where they were: Vancouver? Sierra Leone? New Jersey?) only to see them downloaded again off my own hard drive by someone else (Singapore? Trieste? Wormwood Scrubs?) before the last song had completed, both actions represented by a dozen or more bar graphs which grew across my computer screen: the only tangible signs that some transaction was taking place.

Naturally, opening up one's computer to the world that way is a little disconcerting, but it's not that I worry about someone lifting personal files off my drive, for the programmes are sophisticated enough that this, I gather, is less likely than someone breaking into my apartment and stealing my computer outright. Instead it's the phenomenological shift that I balk at, the reconfiguring of my desktop's role in the world and in my life, and with it, the timbre of my workday, the value and permanence of my efforts, and the efforts of others. It's a strange feeling: once information starts getting pumped into your system at a rate of a megabyte every five or ten seconds, and leeched off your system at a comparable rate, your hard drive no longer seems like the permanent storehouse of crucial information, but instead like a temporary catchpool in a vast and constantly circulating stream of data: newspapers, songs, movie trailers, forms for ordering aeroplane tickets, books, computer equipment - all of it touching down for a little while, before being erased again. Suddenly information isn't a form of cerebral dry goods, to be purchased and held; it's a utility, like electricity or water, there when you need it, and gone when you're done.

And, like a utility, it very quickly comes to seem much, much less valuable; whence the crowning paradox of broadband. I noticed it when I found myself forswearing my usual perusal of eight or ten news based websites every morning. I noticed it again when I found my email correspondences lapsing; and again when I realised that I'd effortlessly downloaded more music from Napster in a fortnight than I could possibly listen to in a summer; I remembered Tony Oursler once admitting to me that he shot more video than he ever got around to watching. Reading the various poetic-prophetic tracts on the future of the net ( /edge70.html), you find a great deal of breathless speculation about the possibilities inherent in unlimited access to information, entertainment, and communication. But, so far as I can tell, the overall effect is simply to prove how unimportant the entire endeavour is, because it quickly became clear to me that I don't need that much information, I don't want that much entertainment, and I don't have that much to say to anybody else. Thus, in keeping with the nomological style of high-tech speculation, I hereby propose Lewis' Law: the amount of stuff you need from the Web is inversely proportional to the amount of stuff you can get.