net.wars: The museum-ready Internet

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 28 March 2003

In an attempt to build a real live museum of Internet Technology, Wendy and her co-curators discover that even in the San Francisco Bay area, not everybody has broadband ... but hang on. A museum for the Internet? On shelves?

Wendy M Grossman

"Things are much tougher here than anyone realises." Travel around the San Francisco Bay Area at the moment, and sooner or later everyone will say something like this. "Both my kids are out of work," said the greeter at The Tech museum in San Jose. Both are in computers.

The knock-on effects are noticeable. People can afford less, so they go out to eat less often - so the restaurants that the flute-player in Berkeley used to perform at no longer hire live musicians, and the house painter waits for the temp agency to call.

Yet housing prices, insane to begin with, keep going up, due to a combination of low interest rates and the fact that after the stock market crash no one feels safe investing in anything else. Among the hardest hit are the non-profits. Of course.

Yet even so, the future must go on. About a month after the September 11 attacks, I was invited to The Tech museum in San Jose to serve on an advisory board planning an exhibit about the Internet. It will open in October 2004.

At the first meeting, this seemed an impossible task. How do you plan an exhibit for three years in the future about something that changes every ten seconds? Here's how long ago it was: during that first meeting the judge from Minnesota next to me passed me a note telling me that anthrax had been found at the New York Times. At the time, no one was talking about blogs; 802.11b was still new enough that few people had access points; and people still thought the market was going to turn back up any day now.

Well, deal with it by focusing on concepts, not specific technologies. But hands-on museum exhibits, which have more in common with making movies than I ever suspected, can't do that: you have to build things people can do something with. Which leads to the other problem: how do you build an exhibit about the Internet that isn't something the visitor can do at home? Who's going to come to The Tech to read Web pages? If you build an Internet-enabled car, is something very similar going to be available as a commercial product a year from now?

The Tech's current communications exhibit deals with that by having areas where the content is dynamic.

The other point, of course, is that even in Silicon Valley there are plenty of people who do not have computers at home and whose Internet access is limited. San Jose is the 11th largest city in the US, and not everyone was wealthy even before the crash. The Digital Divide exists even within the heartlands of the digital revolution.

The plans for this exhibit have also made it plain to me how hard it is to pin down what "the Internet" means. Explaining and the workings and demonstrating the potential of "the network that interconnects other networks" can incorporate everything from RFID tags in groceries to digital guitars.

The thing I'm most intrigued by in the plans is a virtual tug-of-war that's being planned in conjunction with the New York Hall of Science. I had no idea people had gotten so far along with a method for transmitting touch and pressure across the Net. "Haptic technology", our concept document calls it. The idea is that gangs of armed children in each city will yank on a chunk of rope. Meanwhile, the amount of pull they're exerting will be transformed into bits and transmitted, to be reassembled and applied as force at the other end. There'll be real-time video of the remote team.

"What about network lag?" I asked. "We're in denial about that," said one of the museum folks. In fact, the amount of data that needs to be transmitted for the cool bit - touch and pressure - is relatively small; network lag is likely to affect primarily the video. Pull on rope. Two minutes later, other team sprawls. Could be fun - and an exhibit of an important principle all by itself.

But one of the really interesting questions raised by the discussions is: what is the fundamental nature of the Internet and what are merely qualities we've chosen to give it that could be changed at any time? I've long held (in common, of course, with folks like Howard Rheingold) that the Internet's unique quality as a medium is its ability to support many-to-many communications. That may be fundamental. But other things, such as "open infrastructure" could be changed; certainly, Lawrence Lessig believes they are being changed to turn the Internet into the kind of closed network the old telephone network is.

Probably, if there was one thing everyone thought the Internet wasn't, it would be "something you can put in a museum." But these days museums are as much about understanding the world around us as they are about understanding the world that was around them. Today, we have a museum exhibit about the Internet; tomorrow, we'll have an Internet-enhanced museum where every exhibit uses technology to enhance and expand its capabilities; someday in the far future again, museums will have exhibits about the quaint thing called the Internet that 21st century people believed was so advanced.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).