Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Physical and the Virtual

The Internet is awesome--that's why everyone wants to be there. It's got cheap stuff, lolcats, all kinds of games you can play with your friends, news about even the most mundane things, and every conceivable way of 'talking' to other people without having to deal with them face to face. Did I mention that it's global and instantaneous too? Sold!

The Internet has shaped our lives so much that it's easy to become fed up with the real world. Why do I have to sit in traffic when I could telecommute? Why should I go to the store when I can buy online and have it the next day? Why should I learn anything when I can look it up on my phone? Why should I have to slog away at my job when kids are making millions selling apps? Why should I put up with a girlfriend when I can... well...

In short, why should I do anything that doesn't give me immediate satisfaction?

The shit flies when our speed-of-light connection is lost. I've been a cord cutter for a few years now. I watch less television, I don't pay the big cable companies quite so much, and I've learned to deal with the lag between air time and online availability. But, every so often, the cable goes out and I suddenly have no idea how to function. "What are we supposed to do?" I say.

Don't cut that line or we'll lose New Zealand!

It's times like these I remember that the virtual world can't be separated from the physical world. Even as a developer with a (albeit limited) knowledge of networking, it's so easy to forget the routers, cables, protocols, and standards that make it all work. We're abstracted from all that.

The story of the physical Internet is fascinating, and Andy Blum tells it well in his new book. Reading it, I remembered all the things I should have known already--like that the Internet is a network of networks, so there have to be places where these networks connect to each other. (Duh.) These stuffy closets and unmarked office buildings that Blum describes are where the Internet is, if it can be said to be anywhere. There's a whole other world that underlies our virtual 'reality.'

A subway map shows how to get between points above ground,
not what happens below
During the summers of my youth I ran cables for the school district, among less glamorous tasks. It was a shock when I first popped up the drop ceiling at my high school and realized that there was a huge space between the tiled 'ceiling' and the floor above. This in-between space is full of conduits, plumbing, cables, HVAC systems, and meters that make our comfortable lives possible.

Being abstracted from the guts of the system is good. It lets us deal with the things we care about, like learning, while ignoring other things, like trying to keep at a comfortable temperature. Supermarkets abstract us from the food chain so we can focus on cooking. Virtualized desktops and servers abstract us from physical hardware so we can focus on computing. High level languages abstract us from their implementation so we can focus on coding.

But abstraction has a cost. When the AC breaks, the tomato crop is ruined by disease, the network is down, or the compiler does something really stupid, we're hosed. We can't learn, cook, compute, or program.

I don't think there's some big moral to this story. We obviously can't get rid of HVAC, supermarkets, or OO languages. (Right?) But maybe it's a good idea to understand these physical worlds underlying our virtual ones... before they break.

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