The Secret Architecture

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Red Herring on 1 May 2000

Back in the late 20th century, at the dawn of the Internet Era, Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte told us that to be “digital,” we would have to learn the difference between atoms - those tiny particles making up the stuff of the real world - and bits - the units of pure, binary information that define the landscape and content of cyberspace.

But, as these photographs reveal, atoms might best be thought of as units of pure information, and bits, well, bits are anything if not tiny particles with substance, mass, and motion.

Each time our fingers strike the keys on our laptops, the fundamental orientation of particles in our RAM chips is changed. Those changes are recorded for longer intervals on the magnetic media of our hard drives, and occasionally delivered through the electrons in copper wire, the glass filaments of fiberoptic cable, or ions in the air itself. Yet no matter how ethereal or invisible these particles seem, they are very real, indeed.

And the networks we have devised to transport and manipulate them are a physical infrastructure. Computer technology is really just a series of improvised Rube Goldberg conduits - aqueducts, pulleys, and shunts, patched together over time, respecting the legacy of their predecessors.

For however much we try to ignore it, we all still catch an occasional glimpse of DOS code - during a crash or particularly difficult start-up. We know it’s still there, slaving away down there in the ship’s boiler room while a spit-and-polish Windows strolls the upper decks for all to see. And we’ve all had that unnerving experience of accidentally picking up the extension phone while we were still online, and hearing the loud kshhh white noise of our computer conversing with its server, in a language that no human ear will ever be able to decipher.

We deny the reality of this unseen world the same way we deny the unseen hands of migrant workers who pick the grapes for our Merlot and Asian children who weave the patterns in our Bokara rugs. Bouquet and aesthetics might be thought of as bits; but grapes and looms are most certainly atoms. And they’ve found their delightful arrangements thanks to human hands.

But it is not guilt for the laboring electrons that compels us to shun them. It is fear.

We pretend to use the earplug extensions on our cell phones for the convenience, when we actually fear what the very real particles emitting from our Nokia may do when they collide with the gray matter in our skulls. We conduct stock trades on the Web while trying to deny the precarious path of routers, gateways, or even underwater cables through which our orders must travel before reaching their destination. We depend on our most intimate email correspondence reaching our loved ones intact, even though every message is broken down into dozens of components parts, all transmitted individually and tagged with identifying numerals, before being reassembled by the next server, and broken down again. Each time we install a program onto our hard drive, we inwardly acknowledge the possibility that it might prove incompatible with the almost living culture of programs already there, much in the way a transplanted organ is rejected by an organism’s resident antibodies.

However independent of physical reality our technologies provoke us to imagine ourselves, the bits on which we base this dream have no less need of a hospitable environment than we do. Instead of denying their existence, let us marvel, instead, at the universe we have created for them.