This entire film is wonderful but I want to draw your attention to the section roughly from 34 to 40 minutes where physicist Richard Feynman explains what he calls the ‘inconceivable nature of nature’.
I found this video via Web 2.0 – Twitter, to be precise, from a tweet by Tim O’Reilly.
I picked up the tweet, watched the film, and as a result wrote this post. This is how information spreads and is reprocessed via the internet.
In the particular section I’d like you to watch, which runs from around 34 mins into the film, to around 40 mins, Feynman gives a very clear and graphic explanation of the way that radio and light waves work What really struck me about his explanation is how it is resonant it is of the (much much less than his example) complexity of Web 2.0, what Clay Shirky has called ‘the mess’. One of the objections to Web 2.0 is that it is more complex and messy than any human can cope with, but Feynman’s talk on how we separate out visual and audio signals specific to our own interests whilst simply not noticing all the other personally irrelevant data reinforces the fact that humans are able to filter and sort very large quantities of material.
But his account also makes me wonder. Light and sound waves are, I believe, naturally occurring, whereas the media of the web (words, images, etc) are highly processed, and perhaps this is getting in the way just as over-processed food can be hard to digest. Let me try to explain my thought. Feynman’s account describes the many waves occurring in the space of a room, but I am wondering whether it might be possible, some time in the distant future, to use the internet to extend that ‘room’, or sensorium, beyond its brick walls to the entire world, or even the universe, beyond? So that we swim in an even larger pool of information yet are still able to filter out what we need in the manner he describes here? This world would certainly not be trapped inside any kind of screen, but would more resemble what Feynman calls ‘the inconceivable nature of nature’. Most importantly, it would not be an intellectual experience, but something totally and inconceivably sensory akin to what happens when, as in Feynman’s example, we choose to tune in to a radio station. If we turn off the radio, the radio waves are still there – we’re simply not listening to them anymore. Can you imagine how it be for the internet to work like that? Wow! [And in fact this is quite close to an essay I wrote in 2005, Virtuality as Air, which is a pretty similar notion. Looks like I’m going round in circles. Oh well!]
(warning: pls ignore his unfortunate opening sexist comment – this was 1983, I guess that’s the excuse)