The physicality of virtual space


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Since moving, we have had some issues with the internet. Every now and then our connection would drop for seemingly no reason. Speeds were slow. And our phone line (yes, we have a landline phone) would sound full of static and crackle.

We called our ISP and they took us through a rigmarole of diagnostics; unplugging the router and plugging it back in, connecting to the test socket, using a special loan router. Eventually, with no improvements, they sent round a real live person (an OpenReach engineer) to take a look.

This engineer harnessed himself up, and climbed up the telephone pole where he stayed for a little while. Upon his return, he explained to us that the cabling had lost all of its insulation.

“Anything could disconnect you,” he explained. “A spider could have crawled in there”.

I found something quite amusing at the idea of a spider crawling around our cables, disconnecting us randomly from the internet.

Everything is virtual now

In our modern world, it is easy to feel disconnected from the physical objects and the maintenance they take to keep them going. Bitcoin feels ephemeral and unreal, a product of a bright shining future. Except there are square miles of server farms, using up electricity, driving up the price of computer chips, destroying our physical environment.

The same with the people who email me offers (are they real, or are they clever marketing scripts?) or mysterious, invisible people who pick my groceries and bag them up for my home delivery. Out of sight, out of mind.

We have a lot of expectations for how the world should be run, and not a lot of care for the manpower and labour it takes to run it. I was surprised to discover that almost all ‘machine learning’ is run off the backs of underpaid Mechanical Turks. But I shouldn’t really have been surprised. This is, after all, the fallacy of the modern age. Smooth, sleek, shiny and hiding the inner workings.

When we prime that last minute gift we hardly think of the chain of operations needed to get it to us. The great warehouses full of stuff, the pickers frantically working to time, the army of delivery drivers racing to keep pace with the AI-optimised schedule. The human element is made invisible.

The cracks are showing

Of course, we’ve all seen the cracks lately. The vaguely alluded ‘supply chain issues’, the sudden staff shortages causing usually seamless processes to stumble.

The spider is crawling, our internet is disconnecting, and the link between the two is ever harder to see.

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