The Giant Zero

The Giant Zero

The world of distance

Fort Lee is the New Jersey town where my father grew up. It’s at the west end of the George Washington Bridge, which he also helped build. At the other end is Manhattan.

Even though Fort Lee and Manhattan are only a mile apart, it has always been a toll call between the two over a landline. Even today. (Here, look it up.) That’s why, when I was growing up not far away, with the Manhattan skyline looming across the Hudson, we almost never called over there. It was “long distance,” and that cost money.

There were no area codes back then, so if you wanted to call long distance, you dialed 0 (“Oh”) for an operator. She (it was always a she) would then call the number you wanted and patch it through, often by plugging a cable between two holes in a “switchboard.”

Distance in the old telephone system was something you heard and paid for.

Toll-free calls could be made only to a few dozen local exchanges listed in the front of your phone book. Calls to distant states were even more expensive, and tended to sound awful. Calls outside the country required an “overseas operator,” were barely audible, and cost more than a brake job.

That’s why, to communicate with our distant friends and relatives, we sent letters. From 1932 to 1958, regular (“first class”) letters required a 3¢ stamp. This booked passage for the letter to anywhere in the country, though speeds varied with distance, since letters traveled most of the way in canvas bags on trains that shuttled between sorting centers. So a letter from New Jersey to North Carolina took three or four days, while one to California took a week or more. If you wanted to make letters travel faster, you bought “air mail” stamps and put them on special envelopes trimmed with diagonal red and blue stripes. Those were twice the price of first class stamps.

An air mail envelope from 1958, when the postage had gone up to 7¢. This one was mailed from a post office, where the sender paid an extra penny for the second green imprint on the left there.

The high cost of distance for telephony and mail made sense. Farther was harder. We knew this in our bodies, in our vehicles, and through our radios and TVs. There were limits to how far or fast we could run, or yell, or throw a ball. Driving any distance took a sum of time. Even if you drove fast, farther took longer. Signals from radio stations faded as you drove out of town, or out of state. Even the biggest stations — the ones on “clear” channels, like WSM from Nashville, KFI from Los Angeles and WBZ from Boston — would travel hundreds of miles by bouncing off the sky at night. But the quality of those signals declined over distance, and all were gone when the sun came up. Good TV required antennas on roofs. The biggest and highest antennas worked best, but it was rare to get good signals from more than a few dozen miles away.

In TV’s antenna age, you needed one of these if rabbit ears wouldn’t do. The long rods were for channels 2–6 (no longer in use), the medium ones were for channels 7–13, and the short ones were for channels 14–83 (of which only 14–50 are still operative). The pigeons were for interference, and often worked quite well.

All our senses of distance are rooted in our experience of space and time in the physical world. So, even though telephony, shipping and broadcasting were modern graces most of our ancestors could hardly imagine, old rules still applied. We knew in our bones that costs ought to vary with the labors and resources required. Calls requiring operators should cost more than ones that didn’t. Heavier packages should cost more to ship. Bigger signals should require bigger transmitters that suck more watts off the grid.

A world without distance

Everything I just talked about — telephony, mail, radio and TV — are in the midst of being undermined by the Internet, subsumed by it, or both. If we want to talk about how, we’ll have nothing but arguments and explanations. So let’s go instead to the main effect: distance goes away.

On the Net you can have a live voice conversation with anybody anywhere, at no cost or close enough. There is no “long distance.”

On the Net you can exchange email with anybody anywhere, instantly. No postage required.

On the Net anybody can broadcast to the whole world. You don’t need to be a “station” to do it. There is no “range” or “coverage.” You don’t need antennas, beyond the unseen circuits in wireless devices.

I’ve been wondering for a long time about how we ought to conceive the non-thing over which this all happens, and so far I have found no improvements on what I got from Craig Burton in an interview published in the August 2000 issue of Linux Journal:

Doc: How do you conceive the Net? What’s its conceptual architecture?

Craig: I see the Net as a world we might see as a bubble. A sphere. It’s growing larger and larger, and yet inside, every point in that sphere is visible to every other one. That’s the architecture of a sphere. Nothing stands between any two points. That’s its virtue: it’s empty in the middle. The distance between any two points is functionally zero, and not just because they can see each other, but because nothing interferes with operation between any two points. There’s a word I like for what’s going on here: terraform. It’s the verb for creating a world. That’s what we’re making here: a new world.

A world with no distance. A Giant Zero.

Of course there are many forms of actual distance at the technical and economic levels: latencies, bandwidth limits, service fees, censors. But our experience is above those levels, where we interact with other people and things. And the main experience there is of absent distance.

We never had that experience before the Internet showed up in its current form, about twenty years ago. By now we have come to depend on absent distance, in countless ways that are becoming more numerous by the minute. The Giant Zero is a genie that is not going back in the old bottle, and also won’t stop granting wishes.

Not all wishes the Giant Zero grants are good ones. Some are very bad. What matters is that we need to make the most of the good ones and the least of the bad. And we can’t do either until we understand this new world, and start making the best of it on its own terms.

The main problem is that we don’t have those terms yet. Worse, our rhetorical toolbox is almost entirely native to the physical world and misleading in the virtual one. Let me explain.

Talking distance

Distance is embedded in everything we talk about, and how we do the talking. For instance, take prepositions: locators in time and space. There are only a few dozen of them in the English language. (Check ‘em out.) Try to get along without over, under, around, through, beside, along, within, on, off, between, inside, outside, up, down, without, toward, into or near. We can’t. Yet here on the Giant Zero, everything is either present or not, here or not-here.

Sure, we are often aware of where sites are in the physical world, or where they appear to be. But where they are, physically, mostly doesn’t matter. In the twenty years I’ve worked for Linux Journal, its Web server has been in Seattle, Amsterdam, somewhere in Costa Rica and various places in Texas. My own home server started at my house in the Bay Area, and then moved to various Rackspace racks in San Antonio, Vienna (Virginia) and Dallas.

While it is possible for governments, or providers of various services, to look at the IP address you appear to be using and either let you in or keep you out, doing so violates the spirit of the Net’s base protocols, which made a point in the first place of not caring to exclude anybody or anything. Whether or not that was what its creators had in mind, the effect was to subordinate the parochial interests (and businesses) of all the networks that agreed to participate in the Internet and pass data between end points.

The result was, and remains, a World of Ends that cannot be fully understood in terms of anything else, even though we can’t help doing that anyway. Like the universe, the Internet has no other examples.

This is a problem, because all our speech is metaphorical by design, meaning we are always speaking and thinking in terms of something else. According to cognitive linguistics, every “something else” is a frame. And all frames are unconscious nearly all the time, meaning we are utterly unaware of using them.

For example, time is not money, but it is like money, so we speak about time in terms of money. That’s why we “save,” “waste,” “spend,” “lose,” “throw away” and “invest” time. Another example is life. When we say birth is “arrival,” death is “departure,” careers are “paths” and choices are “crossroads,” we are thinking and speaking about life in terms of travel. In fact it is nearly impossible to avoid raiding the vocabularies of money and travel when talking about time and life. And doing it all unconsciously.

These unconscious frames are formed by our experience as creatures in the physical world. You know why we say happy is “up” and sad is “down”? Or why we compare knowledge with “light” and ignorance with “dark”? It’s because we are daytime animals that walk upright. If bats could talk, they would say good is dark and bad is light.

Metaphorical frames are not only unconscious, but complicated and often mixed. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out that ideas are framed in all the following ways: fashion (“old hat,” “in style,” “in vogue”), money (“wealth,” “two cents worth, “treasure trove”), resources (“mined a vein,” “pool,” “ran out of”), products (“produced,” “turning out,” “generated”), plants (“came to fruition,” “in flower,” “budding”), and people (“gave birth to,” “brainchild,” “died off”).

Yet none of those frames is as essential to ideas as what Michael Reddy calls the conduit metaphor. When we say we need to “get an idea across,” or “that sentence carries little meaning,” we are saying that ideas are objects, expressions are containers, and communications is sending.

So let’s look at the metaphorical frames we use, so far, to make sense of the Internet.

When we call the Internet a “medium” through which “content” can “delivered” via “packets” we “uploaded,” “downloaded” between “producers” and “consumers” through “pipes,” we are using a transport frame.

When we talk about “sites” with “domains” and “locations” that we “architect,” “design,” “build” and “construct” for “visitors” and “traffic” in “world” or a “space: with an “environment,” we are using a real estate frame.

When we talk about “pages” and other “documents” that we “write,” “author,” “edit,” “put up,” “post” and “syndicate,” we are using a publishing frame.

When we talk about “performing” for an “audience” that has an “experience: in a “venue,” we are using a theater frame.

And when we talk about “writing a script for delivering a better experience on a site,” we are using all four frames at the same time.

Yet none can make full sense of the Giant Zero. All of them mislead us into thinking the Giant Zero is other than what it is: a place without distance, and lots of challenges and opportunities that arise from its lack of distance.

Terraforming The Giant Zero

William Gibson famously said “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Since The Giant Zero has only been around for a couple decades so far, we still have a lot of terraforming to do. Most of it, I’d say.

So here is a punch list of terraforming jobs, some of which (I suspect) can’t be done in the physical world we know almost too well.

Cooperation. Getting to know and understand other people over distances was has always been hard. But on The Giant Zero we don’t have distance as an excuse for doing nothing, or for not getting to know and work together with others. How can we use The Giant Zero’s instant proximity to overcome (and take advantage) of our differences, and stop hating The Other, whoever they may be?

Privacy. The Giant Zero doesn’t come with privacy. Nor does the physical world. But distance alone gives some measure of privacy in the physical world. We also invented clothing and shelter as privacy technologies thousands of years ago, and we have well developed manners for respecting personal boundaries. On The Giant Zero we barely have any of that, which shouldn’t be surprising, because we haven’t had much time to develop them yet. In the absence of clothing, shelter and boundaries, it’s ridiculously easy for anyone or anything to spy our browsings and emailings. (See Privacy is an Inside Job for more on that, and what we can do about it.)

Personal agency. The original meaning of agency (derived from the Latin word agere, meaning “to do”), is the power to act with full effect in the world. We lost a lot of that when Industry won the Industrial Revolution. We still lose a little bit every time we click “accept” to one-sided terms the other party can change and we can’t. We also lose power every time we acquiesce to marketers who call us “assets” they “target,” “capture,” “acquire,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in” as if we were slaves or cattle. In The Giant Zero, however, we can come to the market as equals, in full control of our data and able to bring far more intelligence to the market’s table than companies can ever get through data gathered by surveillance and fed into guesswork mills that: a) stupidly assume that we are always buying something and b) still guess wrong at rates that round to 100% of the time. All we need to do is prove that free customers are more valuable than captive ones — to the whole economy. Which we can if we build our own tools for both independence and engagement. (Which we are.)

Politics and governance. Elections in democratic countries have always been about sports: the horse race, the boxing ring, the knockout punch. The Internet changes all that in many ways we already know and more we don’t. But what about governance? What about direct connections between citizens and the systems that serve them? The Giant Zero exists in all local, state, national and global government contexts, waiting to be discovered and used. And how should we start thinking about laws addressing an entirely new world we’ve hardly built and are years away from understanding fully (if we ever will)? In a new world being terraformed constantly, we risk protecting yesterday from last Thursday with laws and regulations that will last for generations — especially when we might find a technical solution next Tuesday to last Thursday‘s problems.

Economics. What does The Giant Zero in our midst mean for money, accounting and everything in Econ 101, 102 and beyond? Today we already have Bitcoin and its distributed ledger, the block chain. Both are only a few years old, and already huge bets are being made on their successes and failures. International monetary systems, credit payment and settlement mechanisms are also challenged by digital systems of many kinds that are zero-based in several different meanings of the expression. How do we create economies that are both native to The Giant Zero and respectful of the physical world it cohabits?

The physical world. We live in an epoch that geologists are starting to call the Anthropocene, because it differs from all that preceded it in one significant way: it is altered countless ways by human activity. At the very least, it is beyond dispute that our species is, from the perspective of the planet itself, a pestilence. We raid it of irreplaceable substances deposited by life forms (e.g. banded iron) and asteroid impacts (gold, silver, uranium and other heavy metals) billions of years ago, and of the irreplaceable combustible remains of plants and animals cooked in the ground for dozens to hundreds of millions of years. We fill the planet’s air and seas with durable and harmful wastes. We wipe out species beyond counting, with impunity. We have littered space with hundreds of thousands of pieces of orbiting crap flying at speeds ten times faster than bullets. The Giant Zero can’t reverse the damage we’ve caused, or reduce our ravenous appetites for more of everything our species selfishly calls a “resource.” But it puts us in the best possible position to understand and deal with the problems we’re causing.

The “Internet of Things” (aka IoT) is a huge topic, even though most of the things being talked about operate in closed and proprietary silos that may not even use the Internet. But what if they actually were all to become native to The Giant Zero? What if every thing — whether or not it has smarts inside — could be on the Net, at zero distance from every other thing, and capable of interacting in fully useful ways for their owners, rather than the way they’re being talked about now: as suction cups on corporate and government tentacles?

Inequality. What better than The Giant Zero’s absent distance to reduce the distance between rich and poor — and to do so in ways not limited to the familiar ones we argue about in the physical world?

The unconnected. How do we migrate the last 1.5 billion of us from Earth to The Giant Zero?

A question

I could go on, but I’d rather put another question to those of you who have made it to the end of this post: Should The Giant Zero be a book? I’m convinced of the need for it and have a pile of material already. Studying all this has also been my focus for a decade as a fellow with the Center for Information Technology and Society at UCSB. But I still have a long way to go.

If pressing on is a good idea, I could use some help thinking it through and pulling materials together. If you’re interested, let me know. No long distance charges apply.

This piece is copied over from this one in Medium, and is my first experiment in publishing first there and second here. Both are expanded and updated from a piece published at on May 16, 2008. The drawing of the Internet is by Hugh McLeod. Other images are from Wikimedia Commons.


21 responses to “The Giant Zero”

  1. I’m interested in a book-length treatment of this subject.

    The implications go beyond what you’ve outlined here, but I’m sure you already have material to cover that as well Doc.

  2. I agree with J Ratliff. I would like to suggest a chapter on the “Deep State” and “the shadow elite” and how they interact with The Giant Zero.

  3. If the Giant Zero absent distance is also invisible, then once in, must we all truly remain prisoners, naked?

    Hard-to-fathom philosophical and technical issues. Worthwhile.

  4. I would appreciate a book length exploration with the hope it would touch on my two pet topics:

    Where should the boundaries be for marketing, sales and other form of commerce within the zero? I admit to being a “demand generator” working furiously to capture “eyeballs” and “mindshare,” concepts right out of a Philip K Dick or William Gibson novel.

    Why haven’t we evolved empathy on the net? I know anonyminity emboldens people. Yet most of the urban population is functionally anonymous and refrain from using speech that’s common online.

    Thank you for an the article. Love it.

  5. you are a fish who has given
    an extremely good description
    of the water in which we swim.
    of course you must write more.
    yes, i’ll help turn it into a book.


  6. Hey Doc! I thought you had written this book already…

    I keep thinking “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” as well.. and “Too big to know” (Weinberger both) … seems if its too big to know, its too big to centralize in one Silo…


  7. Hi Doc,

    I agree with the other comments that I’d absolutely love to see this concept fleshed out into a book.

    One of the key implications is that eventually the future will be more evenly distributed, and what does that mean for out society in the physical world. We’re already seeing it in the fact that “only” 1.5 Billion people are not currently connected, which even the most ambitious prognosticators weren’t expecting this soon.

    The current worldwide economic inequalities will not likely stand up to the future that The Giant Zero heralds, and how societies adapt will go a long way to determining what kind of future the human race has to look forward to.

    I love thinking about this kind of thing, and would love to help you out, even though I have no credentials and you have no reason to include me – that’s kind of the point of the Giant Zero though, it becomes a great equalizer.

  8. I think that you should first plan how you want the ideas of the book to be used and by whom.

    For example, if you want the ideas to be used in academic courses, you might want to think in what courses and what syllabi you wish your book to be included. Maybe divide the chapters so that they will appeal to different people. The Cluetrain Manifesto (the book) is in the syllabi of marketing courses. Google Syllabus cluetrain filetype:pdf

    Maybe it should be like a manifesto that will make people want to take from it short sentences for their lecture slides. Who are those people? What do they want to say? What do they want to “sell”?

    I don’t know. Just a thought.

  9. As an editor and a writer and one who has worked for a bit as a literary agent, I’d say that this should be a book asap.

    Ready, set, go….

    Easy enough to find out ….. just reformat it into a book proposal. It’s mostly there.

    If you need a short paper on what makes for an effective book proposal, email me and I’ll send it on.

    1. Thanks for the kind words and encouragement, everybody.

      Hanan, those are great questions. An interesting fact: Cluetrain was broadly imagined as a business book (the subtitle is “The end of business as usual”) written for everybody. The Intention Economy was almost strictly a business book (published by Harvard Business Review Press, which specializes in those). This one… I’m not sure.

      And vanderleun, send it on, to doc at searls dot com.

  10. yes.
    i’ll skip the movie, though

  11. Hi Doc,

    This is an interesting piece. Thanks for writing it.

    If you were to expand on it to write a book, though, I’d want less diagnosis and more prescription.

    The insights you share above about the Internet destroying geography are solid but are also concepts I was including in VC pitches back in the 1990s.

    The metaphorical frameworks are interesting and clever but not particularly actionable.

    If I was to pay for a book about these topics I’d want to hear from you what you think is next, and what we could/should do about it.

    Observations are interesting but predictions and recommendations would be better.

    Hanan’s point about planning for a specific target group and use cases has merit, too.

    From one author to another I hope that’s helpful since you asked for feedback.


  12. You write it, I’ll buy it … I’m not sure it’s ever been more necessary.

  13. About that “anthropocene” world and human beings as a “pestilence” upon the earth….

    In the run up to the Second World War, it was common to think of the enemy, whoever that may have been, as a non-human entity; a monkey, a sub-human, a disease, a pestilence.

    This idea, now promulgated by the “environmentalists”, that the earth is sacred and we are its cancer is precisely that used by the totalitarians to justify their atrocities. We are all well advised to remember that each human life is sacred and a gift.

    If we abandon that idea we will pay dearly, just as millions in the 20th Century did before us.

    The net is a useful tool, but it is not an alternative reality. And the problem is not in our stars but in ourselves.

    Sorry for the sermon, but my children are not a pestilence.

    1. Terry, humans have always had an “other” they made enemies and rationalized killing. It is not hard to image (or just assume) that the human diaspora was caused by the need for tribes to get away from hostile humans mutually considered “the other” — and the other a pestilence or whatever. There is nothing new about this. And it is a problem in ourselves, as you say.

      Whether or not the planet is sacred, from its perspective humans have been harmful, and I stand by what I said about it. If our children and grandchildren do not solve the problems our species causes, many species, including our own, are in big trouble.

  14. In the late 1970s I was stationed at Camp Stanley, Korea, as a lieutenant of 1st Battalion, 38th Field Artillery. My fiance was still in college in North Carolina.

    I telephoned her one time per month. Had to go to the camp telephone office, sign the wait list and have a seat. There was no privilege of rank – whether private or colonel, you signed in and waited your turn to use the single overseas-linked phone they had (inside a soundproofed phone booth, thank goodness). A Korean man at the desk manually dialed the Korean international operator, who dialed the US international operator, who dialed the US domestic operator, who connected to your desired number. The the Korean guy motioned you to go into the phone booth and talk.

    It cost me just more than $40 to make one 10-minute call to my fiance ($145 in today’s dollars!). Since that cost accounted for several percentage points of my Army pay, I made only one call per month.

    Email, Facebook, the Internet and everything else we take for granted now simply did not exist back then.

  15. Shedload of rhetoric. People say stuff and sell stuff using the net to communicate. Each has her own culture and origin. What’s so difficult about that?

    1. Nothing, Mr. g, if your mind is already made up.

  16. […] a post on his Harvard blog, he identifies nine key elements needed to create this new world successfully, of which two – […]

  17. […] various and many Giant Zero (and related) posts.  I think I want Doc to lay the ground for any book I try to […]

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