It’s something of a paradox to say that the web is at once both the most open, democratic, information-rich medium the world has ever known, yet is also the most secretive, dark place.
Start talking about a ‘secret internet’ and immediately you’re in the land of geeks and nerds with a portion of conspiracy theorists thrown in for good measure. However, is there something in it, is the world web wide just what we see, know and love?
It’s a bit behind the times now, but in 2001 John R Levine published the second edition of his book, Internet Secrets. It dealt with net culture and folklore (at that time), answered basic questions like who pays for bandwith, the DNS Wars, the Browser Wars, email manipulations, and enough basic terminology to be amazing only that a decade ago it was all new (ebusiness, HTML, analysing traffic, web store fronts, intranets, firewalls and encryption).
It was designed as a tech-instruction book, an explanation for newcomers, a cut above a ‘net for beginners/dummies’. Since then, the power of the internet has grown, along with the possibilities for abuse, real monetising, bullying, spreading good and revolutionising commerce and personal lives. People have come to accept the web as second nature, a piece of the furniture of our lives.
The Web Is an Iceberg
That there are cyber terrorists and criminals, that the web is like an iceberg with only 10% visible scarcely amazes anyone. A video explaining how to navigate without the usual web browsers and leave no history is mysteriously cut short on opening. Who is covering up what and why bother?
John Harlow wrote in the Sunday Times in November 2011 an expose of Google X, their ‘hush-hush science division’ dedicated to fringe research into everything, including super-smart kitchens. That much is known. Apparently Google fans call it ‘Area 51’, a major investment by the company in innovative but speculative tech startup ideas. A ‘playground for engineers’.
However, like Area 51, Google X appears on no maps, not even Google Earth. A former employee told Harlow it was housed in the Googleplex HQ near San Francisco ‘just past the giant red rubber balls and 18 canteens but near the dinosaur skeleton’. Nobody says how many deep-thinkers are employed, but many are offsite in partnership with universities and Silicon Valley companies in collaborative working.
This is crowd-sourcing but within a very specialised crowd.
The New York Times carried an account (November 2011) of the Google secret laboratory where robots ‘run free’. Google sees itself as different from other companies developing apps and ads, wanting to be at the forefront of ground-breaking, blue-sky research and development ‘in the tradition of Xerox PARC which developed the modern personal computer in the 1970s’.
Google already uses artificial intelligence techniques and machine learning in its search algorithms, so as the New York Times said: ‘some outlandish projects may not be as much of a stretch as they first appear, even though they defy the bounds of the company’s main web search business’.
The Web of Things
All or any of the projects (some think it’s as many as 100) could ‘change the world or be embarrassing and pricey dead-ends’. Both are equally possible. Many projects are devoted to automating households and other domestic developments, which have been imagined for decades but are now becoming reality.
Harlow reported the really interesting idea as ‘The Web of Things’, a potential ‘successor to the internet’. Objects are linked and communicate with each other. He said driverless cars are undergoing tests around California, and the ‘space elevator’ will be a massive cable from the equator running 22,000 miles into space using ‘gravity to hold it in geostationary orbit’.
Why? Well, Google having reprogrammed the world they say they collect the world’s data, so now they could collect the solar system’s too. Why not? What’s next? Should we love the web of things or loathe it?
- Internet Secrets, 2nd Edition, by John R Levine, 2001.
- The Sunday Times, John Harlow, X marks the spot for Google’s craziest dreams, 20 November 2011.
- New York Times, Claire Cain Miller and Nick Bilton, Google’s Lab of Wildest Dreams,13 November 2011.
- The Web of Things.
Photo: US Federal Government