When I recently interviewed Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Media, I asked him the same question I've been asking all my interviewees – "If the internet were a landscape, what kind of landscape would it be?" His first impulse, he said, was to think of it as an ocean:
"The sea is a sustaining medium, most of which is invisible to us and which, like our atmosphere, we largely take for granted. But elements of it occasionally swim within our range of vision. I think the internet is a lot like that – we see very little of it at any one time."
I was reminded of his comment yesterday when I marked my last week in California with a whale-watching trip in the Santa Barbara Channel. We saw several humpbacks but the really exciting moment was when we were surrounded by dozens of leaping dolphins racing alongside and even under the boat, speeding just below the water, right beside us, and flying into the air in groups of three or four. The water was boiling with them all around! This crummy phone picture doesn't begin to do justice to their joyful grace. Of course, we have no idea whether they are joyful in any sense at all, but being out there with them reminded me of how joyful they make me feel, and of how little I know about the mysteries of the ocean. I stared into the water and tried to imagine how deep it was and what was down there. It will be a while yet before the internet is equally deep and complex but I do agree with Tim O'Reilly that we see very little of it at any one time and indeed when I think about the deep web I often get that same sense of unplumbed depths. And I wonder what kinds of strange creatures are evolving down there in the internet dark?