You've Already Forgotten Yesterday's Internet

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The Web is a stunningly effective accelerant. Ideas move so fast that we no longer know what's new and what's old. We don't remember what we just saw.

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Philip Bump

Let's talk about Herodotus.

Ha ha, just kidding. No one not wearing tweed talks about Herodotus. No one talks about the Sabines or about Virgil or about Carthage. Most people don't even learn about them in the first place.

Allusions and stories that were a staple of education for centuries have been abandoned as points of reference. This is certainly related to the democratization of education. But it is also because those points of reference are increasingly unnecessary.

References are communication short-cuts, efficiency mechanisms. To work, they require that everyone understand them, necessitate a shared base of knowledge. "Shaka, when the walls fell." Either you understand that reference, or you don't.

I recently came into possession of a book printed in 1897 called "The Elements of Steam Engineering, Vol. III." It's a large, thin, elegantly-bound, dull book articulating the proper procedures for using straight edges and compasses to draw the constituent elements of a steam engine. It served as a very specific point of reference for a very specific community. And it's an artifact of a particular moment in human history, serves as a reminder of how education and knowledge were once transferred.

Books were not entertainment, they were Wikipedia. They were a massive technological advancement beyond oral history -- but were still exclusive to those who could afford or access them. Books expanded the number of points of reference, and the number of people who shared those points of reference. It was an arithmetic progression.

The web creates new shared points of reference every hour, every minute. The growth is exponential, staggering. Online conversation has made reference to things before World War II exotic -- and World War II only makes the cut because of Hitler.

Yesterday morning, an advisor to Mitt Romney made a comment about the Etch-A-Sketch. By mid-afternoon, both of his rivals spoke before audiences with an Etch-A-Sketch in hand. The Democratic National Committee had an ad on the topic the same day. The point of reference was born, spread -- and became trite -- within hours.

Next time, the advisor should make that comment in a book.

The Web is a stunningly effective accelerant, its speed increased by orders of magnitude as people increase their use of it. Knowledge is a blur. A comment on a Reddit thread can become a movie deal in a week. A drawing game can grow to one million users in less than two weeks, leading to a $180 million sale. A $1.5 billion project to route fiber optic cable from London to Tokyo via the Arctic justifies its cost by shaving 60 milliseconds from the latency of financial transactions.

None of the things referred to above happened more than a month ago. Knowledge is a blur.

My personal blog serves mostly to share interesting links. Ten years ago, I found the links by poking around on the Times website, Wired, etc. Eight years ago, I checked a few blogs. Four years ago, I installed Tweetdeck. I see more, find more, share more. Faster. My own latency has been reduced.

Yesterday, two links were making the rounds on Twitter: a site that lets you fake a tweet from someone else and a video of a camera that can see around corners. As an old Internet hand, I remembered that both had precedents: the fake link gimmick was done last April Fool's Day; a similar camera technique in 2005. In the speed and breadth of the Internet, even popular occurrences quickly become hazy. A repost isn't a rerun, it's a new episode.

If people have trouble remembering last April, why bother making reference to Ancient Greece?

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