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The virus in space

Rohit Gupta | Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on May 19, 2017
Sea change: The Atlantic Cable as “eighth wonder of the world”

Sea change: The Atlantic Cable as “eighth wonder of the world”

Rohit Gupta

Rohit Gupta   -  BusinessLine

On how matter wants to move like information, and other futures from the past

Upon the opening of the Suez Canal on November 17, 1869, the Glasgow Herald wrote: “Among the grand and humane objects of modern science… is the abridgement of space and time and pain. The whole coastline of Africa has hitherto intervened between Europe and India. More than half of this vast sweep has been abolished by the Suez Canal which, in a manner, cuts the continent of Africa through by the neck, so that its tremendous material bulk may no longer hamper the swift designs of Europe — the brain of the world…”

Worth comparing with this is the nearly simultaneous laying of the first transatlantic submarine cables, 1850s onwards; and how telegraph allowed information to move faster across the globe than any man or his materials. There is the story of a woman in Prussia who tried to wire sauerkraut to her son on the border. When told this was impossible, she asked, “How could so many soldiers have been sent to France by telegraph?”

Ever since, the world of transport has been trying to emulate the behaviour of information. The subsequent development of high-speed automobiles, bullet trains and supersonic jets is enough evidence of this chase. If the door-to-door delivery supply chains of modern megacorps like Amazon or Domino’s, and 3D printed objects are any indication, matter is trying to catch up with the speed of light, the ultimate barrier.

Just as the motion of electrons inside a wire generates a magnetic field (a fact discovered by Hans Christian Ørsted in 1820), the creation of the Global Positioning System (GPS) allows matter in motion to generate geodesic information on the fly — cars, couriers, freight trucks and agricultural seeding machines. Like radiocontrast dyes used in the X-ray imaging of internal body organs, GPS becomes an X-ray image of the materials and geopolitical flows across the body of the Earth.

Not only in sheer velocity, matter is beginning to mimic information in how it travels across the planet. The advent of the standardised shipping container (“the can”) redefines quantum packets of shipment like bytes. The continuous re-routing of traffic for ride-sharers by Uber mimics packet-switching data networks. The renting of homes by people on AirBnB has something akin to peer-to-peer botnets that have outgrown any chain of hotels. In some sense, information shows matter how to move and, in return, matter tells information where to go.

Not only do algorithmic traders want to be located near trading servers to shave off light-seconds, it has been suggested that “privatised particle accelerators would generate and encode neutrinos in order to bore a sub-molecular pathway through the earth — saving up to 44 milliseconds.” Elon Musk’s proposed three-dimensional, multilayered rhizome of tunnels under Los Angeles is a part of the same philosophy in which, as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams put it, “The earth itself becomes an impediment, something to be hollowed out in order to facilitate the circulation of capital.”

In a consumerist-capitalist civilisation, the movement of products across the planetary meridians acquires a geologic scale. The rate at which shipments come out of the assembly lines of China are not very different from lava flowing out of a colossal volcano and creating igneous rocks of plastic. The redistribution of metals through electronic merchandise can perhaps be compared to a miniature continental drift. Supply chains of corporations are the new rivers that deposit sediments on the way to their destination, the new Himalaya of trash that is surely rising somewhere out of the Earth’s oceans.

In a sense, information is pulling matter closer and closer to its own perfectly geometric paths. This imperfect Earth, with its fractal coastlines and fjords, sinewy rivers and mountain meadows, may even be geo-engineered for the maximum transport of materials across latitudes and longitudes. Perhaps in a thousand years, the first visitors from outer space will find, instead of a planet, a perfectly symmetric machine that conveys materials from pole to pole nearly at the speed of light.

Temari balls are Japanese toys, spheres embroidered with intricate patterns on them, made by wrapping and looping strings around nails. Originally from China, these geometric globes resemble the navigational dreams of the great mariner Zheng He; or they might be seen as a map of magnetic fields generated by a planet with multiple poles; or the paths of photons trapped around a black hole.

Perhaps our planet will have 12 equidistant, major “poles” that pull in matter and data between each other, connected in the most optimal way through tunnels bored in the Earth’s crust — an icosahedron. With its chemical and organic simplicity, and its efficiency as a ruthless machine, this new superorganism will resemble — more than anything else — a virus.

Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah; @fadesingh

Published on May 19, 2017
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