The Adjacent Possible


The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

– Steven B. Johnson, “Where Good Ideas Come From”


Our Web 2.0 Legacy

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, Lost City of the Incas. Photo courtesy of my iPhone

Last year I took a trip to Peru, a visit sponsored by the volunteer organization I was working for. In addition to seeing our sites in Cusco and Urubamba, I had a full day to explore Machu Picchu. It was like everything I’ve read or seen, and more: the wonder and beauty of the lost city of the Incas – ineffable, pure, silent – was breathtaking.  It had a ‘Disney attraction’ feel as well, unsurprisingly: I arrived at 8:30 AM on a Wednesday to an entrance chock full of tourists and hikers. Student-led archaeological excavations were peppered throughout the site, alongside whispered rumors of its imminent closing due to erosion from constant foot traffic. Machu Picchu was transcendental and cliched all at once; I had seen the famed entrance so frequently in pictures that viewing it in real-life was somewhat anticlimactic. But seeing its entirety made for a wonderful, memorable experience.

I left thinking, how did 500 years go by without any knowledge of its existence?

Which brings me to this post about our legacy in the digital world. If stunning feats of stone and carvings can be hidden and preserved for half a millennium, what does that say about our digital artefacts?  What is our legacy, if it’s housed entirely within servers, algorithms, code and hard drives? Will HTML in the Web 2.0 world be what hieroglyphs were to ancient Egypt?

If millions of years of life, death and evolution can create what we know as Earth’s greatest natural resources, the blood of the earth – carbon-based gas, coal, oil – what will the data server swamps hold for life beyond the 21st century? We cannot grow or harvest life’s organisms from data housed in black sheaths of metal and plastic. How will the terabytes full of digital content compare to the physical wonders of the world – Machu Picchu, Atlantis, the Acropolis? Whose legacy are we creating, and does it matter?

Imagine if there existed a Roomba-like bottomfeeder for the Internet’s lower depths – its main task was finding and consuming the dead and rotting Web 2.0 artefacts: abandoned blogs, disposed Twitter handles, soured April fool’s jokes and decayed user profiles laying on the server’s dank floor, accumulating into hardened plaque-like layers of data sediment, adding to the polluted ecosystem every minute. At present, we view discarded data as harmless, inconsequential or irrelevant: a bi-product of what marketers taut as “our right” to produce and consume as much as we please. This ideology – that we as humans have the right to gluttonously gobble up all the data we want, blind to the consequences – is as insidious as the claim that we have ownership rights over the Earth, its natural resources and its inhabitants.

I wonder what our legacy holds if it is no longer physical, preserved or intact as in eras past: the diaries of authors, the film reels of cineastes, and the stone carvings of felled empires. When we are told that life has never been more accessible, transparent or discoverable, what lies beneath the search engine’s trough? What about that which will never be discovered?