Monday, November 19, 2012

What does the Internet look like?

So much of our behavior in the past decade has come to be subsumed under a broad class of "virtual" behavior.  Like the physical world, with it's geography, buildings, etc... the digital world has a physical basis.  However the latter takes a form in which humans cannot physically enter -- computer cables, servers, satellites, and the like.  Regardless, both worlds allow for an infinite variety of behavioral topographies to take shape and acquire a multitude of functions in our daily lives.

But what does this other world look like?  An article by Christine Smallwood at Mother Board, overviews the interesting new field of Internet Visualization Theory.  The field strives to do just what the theory says -- to visualize the internet.

Like different paradigms in psychology, Smallwood notes "the history of the Internet is a history of metaphors about the Internet, all stumbling around this dilemma; How do we talk to each other about an invisible god?  How does it appear, this mess of data and bytes and information and code, transforming itself into alphabet and image?"

Everyone speaks in metaphors, even scientists.  For example, if you were to ask a cognitive psychologist to explain behavior, he/she would likely do so using a machine or computer metaphor, with words like "information processing" and "storing memory" etc... On the other hand, if you were to ask a behavioral psychologist the same question, he/she would likely do so using a contextual metaphor, emphasizing actions of the whole organism in context and often times invoking a selection-by-consequences framework borrowed from Darwin's natural selection.

The same is true for visualizing the Internet.  Small wood humorously notes "We can rule certain images out right at the start. We know, contra former Senator Ted Stevens, that the Internet is not a “series of tubes.” We know that “the Wild West” doesn’t cut it, not for a landscape that’s been so nicely parceled, policed and manicured. We also know that it’s not that other Nineties favorite, an “information superhighway”— the point of a highway is to get somewhere, after all, somewhere that is not a highway, while the point of the Internet is to stay there, forever and ever, like a hot tub. A hot tub, after all, is shared with friends and strangers, whose warm water swirls around you, lulling you into complacency while silently transmitting disease. Yes: The Internet is definitely more like a hot tub than a highway."

So what are some metaphors currently in use to visualize the Internet?  Try a tootsie roll pop (below).



To see more about the "tootsie roll pop" and other efforts to visualize the Internet read the full article here.


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