Information highways, oceans and islands
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #42

The information highway is a lousy metaphor. It reflects an idea totally contrary to what cyberspace really is, an idea of vast distances and hours spent getting from one place to another. A highway is not about places at all, but the space between them. The information society though, is based on the premise that as we travel across data 'highways' at the speed of light, distance - as we usually understand it - disappears.

In fact, information is not something that exists only in certain places between which one has to travel over some highway. Information is something in which we are immersed all the time. There should be no correlation between physical location of stored information and the path of access. Friendly interfaces to the world's knowledge base, such as the World Wide Web, leave physical distance behind as they mimic associative thought processes in their modes of navigation. You're never between pieces (or places) of information, you're swimming through a sea full of it.

Cyberspace is not very space-like. In 'real' space - between galaxies or on the trans-Siberian railway - distance is always empty. Cyberspace is a universe populated with concepts. While there is a notion of distance between concepts (world industrial output is closer to inflation than to Ancient Greek poetry), that distance is never empty but always full of yet more concepts, which define it. Cyberspatial distance is also very subjective, dependent entirely on the context. Unlike the gap between London and New York, which remains constant even if you visit Frankfurt before the journey, world industrial output becomes much closer to Homeric poetry if you've been studying the role of the Eurasian flax trade in the Trojan war.

Information is a substance, like water that wraps itself around you to form the ocean of cyberspace. Still, this is not a uniform ocean; there are places where a greater concentration of knowledge exists, and where ideas sprout spontaneously and are easier to associate. Such places - whirlpools or perhaps islands, really stretching the analogy - are known as libraries or research laboratories in brickspace, and in the digital world they are where interesting people gather, where ideas flow better because someone takes the trouble of organizing them.

These islands - whose organizers stand to make lots of money - contain distances too. But the distances seem much shorter, or longer, or at any rate more interesting than elsewhere - because information can be left alone as dead, or brought to life through constant modification by those who create it. Much changing of information is in discovering new associations - shortening the distance between ideas. But distance never changes on highways, so the quicker people realize that there aren't any, the better.

The beauty of the information ocean is its fluidity and omnipresence. You can sculpt it into impossible shapes, slice through it to get where you want in an instant, or simply dive in and swim where the currents take you.

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