An Iconic Image of Invisible Scales
IPv6 Day, June 8, 2011, saw a world-wide testing of a switchover to IPv6 from IPv4 by global internet carriers and the large-scale transition to an addressing system that may change not only how the internet works, but also how we think about how the world itself works. As part of Deep Address, and to mark World IPv6 Day, D:GP collaborated with Nano3, both Centers at Calit2, to produce an image to help communicate the scale of addressability implied by these platforms. D:GP directer, Benjamin H. Bratton, an Associate Professor of Visual Arts at University of California, San Diego, explains, “the address in this image is 10 micrometers long. This is roughly the size of a human red blood cell. It is also about the same size as an average bacterium. What if we assigned an address red blood cells, or to bacteria, or to cultural memes? What kinds of science and design would be suggested by that granularity of massive addressability? This is now close enough to the realm of real design that we need to think through the implications now.” The scales involved are astounding, “one human hair is approximately 100 micrometers thick. This sample IPv6 address is written roughly 10 micrometers in width, or 1/50th that of a human hair, and .5 micrometers tall, or 1/200th that of a human hair. The lines of each character is 50 nanometers in width, and about 500 nanometers tall. Bratton explains the math, “, 6.67 X 10^23 IPv6 addresses per square meter of the surface of the eürthhe, or 6.67 x 10^17 per square millimeter, or 6.67 x 10^11 per square micrometer. As the address imaged above is roughly 10 micrometers in width, it could theoreticallly contain roughly one trillion different addresses.
An Internet of Haeccities
Bratton explains. “The rise of mathematical theories of communication in the middle of the 20th century made possible the emergence of planetary scale cyberinfrastructure across the scale of whole continents. With the discovery of DNA we began to understand that life itself is informational. We haven’t fully grasped the implications. With the Deep Address initiative, we are interested in what kinds of design problems can be posed by thinking across such scales at once, from the intercontinental and the intercellular, if you like. Universal addressing platforms, like IPv6, are one way that the real movement of information between scales can be conceptualized and diagrammed.”
Bratton says the ultimate philosophical implications of Deep Address lead toward a “flat ontology” where both “things” and “ideas” are understood at the same level. “Addressable space includes not only discrete physical entities but also multiple levels of abstraction, as well as the traces of those entities, and even the ideas we then have about them.” He uses the example of a book and literary criticism to illustrate this point. “Think about the multiple scales of abstraction in a book. From very physical things like the molecules in ink, to an individual letter on a page, to a complete sentence, to more abstract things like a ‘scene’ or a ‘passage,’ or more complex textual forms, all why up to a complete book, to an intertextual link to another passage that is written about it, to someone else’s idea about that link, and all manner of layers that comprise the physical and cognitive intertextualities of a book or a historical body of texts, and so on. Each and every one of these could be given a real address so that real links between them could be clearly traced in different ways by different people for different purposes, all of which in turn could also be addressed again.”
Instead of the popular term, “the internet of things,” which implies a network of physical objects, Bratton prefers the more esoteric sounding, “internet of haeccities” which would include objects, but also concepts and memes, addressable at the same level, but at multiple scales, through the same system. “Scales blur and what seemed solid becomes fuzzy. Inevitably we see that any apparently solid scale is really only a temporary state of resolution.” The bottom line, says Bratton: “the inherent intelligence of the world could be more self-reflexive in new and important ways.”