Which modern technology “enables us to send communications…with the quickness of thought, and to annihilate time as well as space”?
If you answered “the internet,” you’re right. If you answered “the telephone,” “the television” or any other speed-of-light telecommunication technology, you’re also right. That quote is from an 1860 book by George Bartlett Prescott, an American telegraph official.
In 1860, the fastest telecommunication link between California and New York was the Pony Express, which took at least 10 days to get a message to the other side of the continent. Then one day in 1861, the First Transcontinental Telegraph was completed and you could send the same message across the continent in 10 seconds. Two days later, the Pony Express officially ceased operations. Prescott was onto something.
The Ancient Greek word “tele” means “far away”. To telecommunicate is to communicate farther than you can shout. When you connect two points with a speed-of-light telecommunication channel, you annihilate the spacetime-distance between the points. You get a kind of wormhole.
The internet is a network of spacetime wormholes connecting every human being on the planet. If you want to chat with someone face to face, you just stare into your cell phone and they stare into theirs. You can’t tell if they’re a thousand miles away, or in the next room.
But when it comes to physical things, we’re still living under the tyranny of spacetime. Kevin Ashton, the inventor of the term “Internet of Things”, wrote in 1999: “We’re physical, and so is our environment … You can’t eat bits, burn them to stay warm or put them in your gas tank. Ideas and information are important, but things matter much more.” Just look around the room right now, at anything other than your cell phone. All the things you can see and touch depend on where you are in space, or on how much time you spend moving yourself to a new location.
That’s a problem, because at any given moment, most of the things you care about aren’t in your line of sight. Almost none of the food you’re going to eat that day is. Almost none of the appliances you’re going to use that night are. That’s the tyranny of spacetime, which the internet of things is now beginning to overthrow.
The internet of things has three major spacetime-annihilating functions:
- Transportation – making far away things come to you
- Teleportation – instantly getting copies of far away things
- Telepresence – interacting with far away people and things
In the past, far away things had no way to know what you wanted from them or when you wanted it. The right things wouldn’t know how to find you. So you’d have to travel to where the things were — to a restaurant, to your house, to various stores.
If you shop on Amazon instead of going to the store, you’re on the internet of things.