Chapter 4. Intertwingled


Chapter 4. Intertwingled

Intertwingularity is not generally acknowledgedpeople keep pretending they can make things deeply hierarchical, categorizable and sequential when they can't. Everything is deeply intertwingled.
Theodor Holm Nelson

As a sociology student at Harvard in the early 1960s, Ted Nelson enrolled in a computer course for the humanities that changed his life. For his term project, he tried to develop a text-handling system that would enable writers to edit and compare their work easily. Considering he was coding on a mainframe in Assembler language before word processing had been invented, it's no surprise his attempt fell short. Despite this early setback, Ted was captivated by the potential of nonsequential text to transform how we organize and share ideas. His pioneering work on "hypertext" and "hypermedia" laid an intellectual foundation for the World Wide Web, and his views on "intertwingularity " will haunt the house of ubicomp for many years to come.

We experience Nelson's intertwingularity every time we click a hypertext link. We move fluidly between different pages, documents, sites, authors, formats, and topics. In this nonlinear world, the contrasts can be dramatic. A single blog post may link to an article about dinosaurs, a pornographic video, a presidential speech, and a funny song about cabbage. We routinely travel vast semantic distances in the space of a second, and these dramatic transitions aren't limited to the Web. Our remote controls put hundreds of television channels at our fingertips. Terrorism on CNN. Click. Sumo wrestling on ESPN. Click. Sesame Street on PBS. Click. And our cell phones relentlessly punctuate the flow of daily life. One minute we're playing soccer with our kids at the neighborhood park. Seconds later we're in the midst of a business crisis half way around the world. The juxtapositions are worthy of shock and awe. Business and pleasure. Reality and fiction. Humor and horror. And yet, we're not shocked. We've become accustomed to dramatic transition. We expect it. We enjoy it. We're addicted.

Hypermedia technologies permeate our environment, shaping a bizarre hyper-reality that delivers information and commands attention. And even as we complain of information anxiety, we're about to elevate intertwingularity to a whole new level with the advent of "ubiquitous computing." The late Mark Weiser, formerly chief technology officer at Xerox PARC, coined the term in 1988 to define a future in which PCs are replaced with tiny, invisible computers embedded in everyday objects. So, whether we call it ubiquitous, pervasive, mobile, embedded, invisible, ambient, or calm computing, the vision is nothing new. What's new is the rapid transformation of this vision into reality. It's really happening, right now. Where Moore's Law meets Metcalfe's Law , we've reached a tipping point, and there's no going back. Faster, smaller, cheaper processors and devices. A rich tapestry of communication networks with ever-increasing bandwidth. A constant stream of acronyms tumbling into our vernacular: GPS, RFID, MEMS, IPv6, UWB. We don't need a crystal ball to see the road ahead. As William Gibson warned us "The future exists today. It's just unevenly distributed."

Metcalfe's Law

Metcalfe's Law states that the usefulness, or utility, of a network equals the square of the number of users. In other words, the value of networked systems (e.g., telephone, fax, email, Web) grows exponentially as the user population increases in a linear manner.


My fascination with this future present dwells at the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet. We're creating new interfaces to export networked information while simultaneously importing vast amounts of data about the real world into our networks. Familiar boundaries blur in this great intertwingling. Toilets sprout sensors. Objects consume their own metadata. Ambient devices, findable objects, tangible bits, wearables, implants, and ingestibles are just some of the strange mutations residing in this borderlands of atoms and bits. They are signposts on the road to ambient findability, a realm in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime. Of course, ambient findability is not necessarily a goal. We may have serious reservations about life in the global Panopticon.[*] And from a practical perspective, it's an unreachable destination. Perfect findability is unattainable. And yet, we're surely headed in the general direction of the unexplored territory of ambient findability. So strap on your seatbelts, power up your smartphones, and prepare for turbulence. Beyond this place, there be dragons. Or is it streets paved with silicon? Either way, we'll soon find out.

[*] The Panopticon is a type of prison designed by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe all prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell if they are being observed or not, thus conveying a "sentiment of an invisible omniscience." From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon.