On Dotcom 2.0 & Hyperbolic Media Surfaces…

In the roar of Spring, transmutations… [Charles Olson]


We could be wrong (wouldn’t be the first time!), but after much coffee, we think we’ve glimpsed the mechanism via which the new dotcoms plan to rule the world. To work towards our conjecture, we need to start with a little network theory and a spangle of geometry.

Nothing too painful, we promise.

Step by step, then:

  1. The Web is not the Internet
    The Web is one thing built using the Internet. Post 1994, and pre-prevasive broadband, the Web was the set of protocols through which most people have experienced internetworking. But it’s just one kind of experience possible through internetworked media — chances are your cable TV is delivered over what is effectively an Internet spur run by your provider, and that doesn’t involve the Web at all. That’s important: our final conjecture applies to any media which can be distributed digitally.
  2. Networks (Can) Grow Exponentially
    Here in the UK it’s almost Spring — take a look at anything deciduous outside your window and examine the structure of branches — root to trunk to branch to twig: one trunk and a few birfurcating levels of branching and there’s room, come Spring, for those twigs, together, to support thousands, tens of thousands of leaves, which fill space and present an enormous surface area to suck up light and nutrients. Hold that image: a seemingly inert structure of branches suddenly bursting with ways to capture energy.
  3. The Surface of a Network Can Fill a Hyperbolic Plane
    Imagine trying to draw the Internet on paper. A few branches out from wherever you start, there are simply too many sub-branchings to fit on the paper — networks (can) grow faster than the surface available on a flat sheet of paper grows.One way to represent networks has been to project them not onto a flat sheet of paper, but onto a hyperbolic plane — a ‘Non-Eucledian‘ geometry in which space expands the further you move out across it, unlike the flat (Eucledian) space we’re used to. There’s a lovely introduction to hyperbolic planes — and some crocheted models, over at Cabinet magazine, but for now, imagine:

    One way of understanding it is that it’s the geometric opposite of the sphere. On a sphere, the surface curves in on itself and is closed. A hyperbolic plane is a surface on which the space curves away from itself at every point.

    So, on a hyperbolic plane, which expands exponentially out from wherever you start, there’s exponentially more space to draw the roots and leaves of a fast-branching network, like the Internet.

    Why does this matter — the Internet is virtual: it’s a configuration of things, not a space-occupying thing in itself, right? Surely the space-filling challenges of drawing it are only challenges for anyone stupid or bored enough to try? The Internet itself doesn’t take up any space!

    Wrong. It matters. Look out that window again — think of naked branches and twigs as you see them now, in Winter, as the Internet. What matters is that, come Spring, buds burst with life, and the whole space defined by the network of branches and twigs is suddenly green with purpose: to absorb energy. The potential inherent in the structure of the network (branches) bursts into exponentially space-filling reality when the nodes (leaves) suddenly occupy real space to a real purpose.

  4. CONJECTURE: Dotcom 2.0 Makes For A Hyperbolic Media Surface
    See where we’re going? We believe that the Dotcom 2.0 pioneers have seen the (virtual, spaceless, inert) structure of the Internet, which has grown over the past decade through the success of the Web, as the dormant, Winter version of a hyperbolic media surface, which, come some dawn, will burst into Spring. And when it does, the leaves of media sprouting from the lifeless branches of the virtual network will fill a very particular space — that of our attention, via the very real, space filling agency of computer, TV, mobile phone screens, ePaper, video games: the full range of interfaces for digital content.
  5. If the Conjecture is True, Traditional [Flat] Media is Doomed
    How does that work? As we’ve pointed out before, the generous gifting of cool tools to the community by Google, Flickr and the like generally provide for the originators of the tools to claim a little space for media on any resulting innovations. Think of each of these tiny presences, each tiny media presence — be they used for ads, video, whatever — as taking up an incremental attentional space. Like a leaf, these individual spaces might seem insignificant — but in totality constitute a vast new, hyperbolic media surface which will eclipse the reach of any traditional flat media.

So how has this escaped notice? We think first, because the Dotcom 2.0 Spring is as yet still a potentiality, though close to fruition. Second, to learn a little from the geometers: locally, a hyperbolic plane appears flat. From any particular perspective — that of TV, the blogosphere, whatever — the nascent new media surface appears to be an incremental threat: a PVR technology here, a streaming Video-on-Demand service there. It only when you look at the shape of the new media threat that the sheer audacious scale of what Dotcom 2.0 may do to media is apparent. It’s not an order-of-magnitude bigger in potentiality than traditional media, its an order of scale: exponential rather than linear growth.

Actually, we didn’t need to bring in the bit about hyperbolic space at all — the space-filling should be terrifying in itself to anyone used to buying attention programme-by-programme, or channel-by-channel. But the idea of this strategy requiring space which itself has to grow to accomodate the channel is an easy way to visualise the magnitude of the threat!

[See also the stuff we’ve been writing at BigShinyThing recently… ]