The Giant Zero

The Giant ZeroMany years ago, Craig Burton shared the best metaphor for the Internet that I have ever heard, or seen in my head. He called it hollow sphere: a giant three-dimensional zero. He called it that because a sphere’s geometry best illustrates a system in which every end, regardless of its physical location, is functionally zero distance away from every other end. Across the nothing in the Net’s hollow sphere, every point can “see” every other point, and connect to it, as if distance were not there. And at no cost.

It doesn’t matter that the Net’s base protocol, TCP/IP, is not perfect, that there are costs and latencies involved in the operation of connections and routers between end points — and that many people in the world still do not enjoy the Net’s graces. What matters is that our species’ experience of the Net, and of the world it creates, is of zero distance and cost. You and I can publish posts like this one, or send emails to each other, or even have live video conference calls, with little if any regard for distance and cost.

Our experience of this is as essential to our future as the discovery of language and fire was to our ancestors. The Net has already become as essential to human agency — the capacity to act with effect in the world — as the wheel and movable type. We are not going to un-discover it.

Yes, companies and governments can control or access to the Net, and sphincter what passes through it; but it’s too late for anybody or anything to keep our species from knowing what it’s like to be zero distance apart at zero cost. We now have that experience, and we will use it to change life on Earth. Hopefully for the better.

The Giant Zero of the Net has an analogue with the physical world, whose gravity pulls us all toward an invisible center we can’t see but know is there. As with the Net’s zero, we live on Earth’s surface. The difference is that, on the Earth’s zero, distance matters. So does the inverse square law. Sound, sight and radio waves fade across distances. We need to be close to hear and see each other. Not so on the Net.

The Giant Zero is also the title of my next book. Until then, if you dig the metaphor, you might also source World of Ends or NewClues, both of which are co-written by David Weinberger. For now I just want to post this so I can source something simple about The Giant Zero in one link.

HT to @dweinberger: every hyperlink travels across the zero. And thanks to Hugh McLeod for the image above. Way back in 2004, I asked him to draw me the Internet, and that’s what he did. I haven’t seen anything better since.


  1. BG’s avatar

    The “zero” is a lie.

    It is very expensive to make the delays look small (not zero) and the Net look seamless. It costs billions and billions of dollars in capital, plus tremendous amounts of effort and sophisticated engineering. Of course, Berkman and the people who work there — funded as they are by Google — wants to deprecate the value of the Net, and the effort and resources that are put into it, so as to promote regulations that boost Google’s bottom line at the expense of hard working ISPs. I am an ISP, and I am going out to spend a day of hard work on rooftops and radio towers — almost certainly cutting myself at least once and bleeding, for real — to make that network work better.

    The true zero is the ethics of those who promote agendas that attempt to deprecate this important work.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    You miss my point, Brett. And you’re wrong about Berkman. But we’ve been over this before. Not worth hashing it again. Rock on.

  3. BG’s avatar

    Doc, Berkman’s ties to Google are well documented. It’s funded by Google; tracks Google’s corporate agendas like a weather vane. Andrew McLaughlin, the former Google chief lobbyist who was famously outed by a technical error as communicating with his colleagues after being hired into the White House, went right to Berkman after that debacle. Susan Crawford, for whom Google has been a career-long benefactor, still is there. And on and on.

    The point is that infrastructure matters. It’s what the Net is made of. Denying its value and importance, and attempting to destroy the livelihoods of those who create it, is part and parcel of Google’s agenda.

  4. Bill Gates’s avatar

    Brett Glass or Bill Gates, you decide.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Brett, you’ve been seeing Google under so many rocks (me, Berkman, Susan, Andrew…), and harping on it, for so many years that it’s hard to take you seriously. Especially when I know for a fact, that at least in my case, Google’s influence on me is zero or less. I’ve probably given them more criticism than praise over the years, and that’s even after getting a cash award from them (given with O’Reilly) for my writing about open source (mostly for Linux Journal, which I continue to work for, without pay), in ’05.

    I have no sense that you read anything written by me, or anybody you see under Google’s influence, with anything close to understanding what the hell we’re saying. Just that we are all tools of Google and working to put you out of business.

    Your WISP and others are highly disadvantaged by many things, and in deep trouble, partly thanks to Google, and partly as well to other factors, such as the regulatory apparatus and its captors in the telecom incumbency. I’m glad to talk about that. But tendentious ad hominem arguments that start with Google’s evil self, and who pays whom for what, kinda go nowhere. Why keep it up?

  6. Dave Taht’s avatar

    I made some of the giant zero points years ago here… in fact, I think it was around that time I met doc for the first time.

    post trails off at the end, but seems to hold up well, even with some of the missing images.

    Look forward to the next book!

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