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Only Connect

Cheap printing, wireless telephones, trains, motor cars, gramophones and all the rest are making it possible to consolidate tribes, not of a few thousands, but of millions.

Aldous Huxley,
Those Barren Leaves

Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.

Bertrand Russell

The tablecloth is snowy white, recently cleaned with a new product designed by a laboratory in Switzerland and made in Connecticut. The table is decorated with a vase of flowers flown in that morning from Israel. The heavy cutlery is from Germany. The cut glass decanters are from Ireland. Your waiter brings you the wine list as you sit chatting with your friends. The sun, a sinking red ball, is painting a flight of pigeons with earth tones of red and gold.

You're in a trendy Manhattan restaurant about to have a meal in the global village. You order a French wine and an Italian pasta. The wine was flown in on planes owned jointly by an American and a British firm. The wine is from Provence, but the pasta isn't Italian, although its recipe is. Your friends order food mostly grown nearby; but the chilies are from Mexico, the curry from Pakistan, the fresh fruit from Venezuela, the fish from Alaska, the grapes from California, and the cheese from Canada.

Even the food grown in Iowa or Indiana or Illinois was processed through a complex system of trucking, insuring, legal, and retail firms before arriving on your plate. And it probably had to go on trucks or railway cars made, or partly made, in Japan, Britain, France, or Germany.

While you're chatting, Jodi, one of your friends, starts to beep, excuses herself, and reaches into her jacket pocket for her telephone. She's talking to a business associate, a mutual friend in Curacao, about a shipping deal involving partners in Britain, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

As she speaks, the computer in her telephone is turning her voice into a series of pips and tossing them into the air. A radio receiver several blocks away picks up the low-powered radio waves, uses its computer to check that it's an authorized call from that telephone, amplifies the signals, and sends them on to a nearby central station operated by her cellular-phone company. The station decodes the signals, creates a corresponding pulsetrain of microwaves, and beams them up to one of hundreds of orbiting satellites. Computers in the targeted satellite decipher the call's destination and beam microwave signals down to a receiving station in Curacao. The station then routes the signals to a portable telephone held by your mutual friend as he speeds down a rutted highway in an American car. All the various encodings, decodings, routings, reroutings, uplinks, and downlinks take only a few tenths of a second in total. Neither of your friends notice.

The telephone, although Japanese, was made in America. The satellite is owned by an American company, which is owned by its stockholders---which may include you. It was launched by a company jointly held by a consortium of European countries. That company has thousands of employees, several of whom are Americans who live and work in America. The satellite company, nominally American, also employs thousands of people, many---but not all---of them Americans residing in the United States. Others are in Singapore and other places and may be Singaporean, Indian, British, French, or any of a number of other nationalities. Large corporations no longer owe allegiance to any one nation.

Similarly, the computers in the telephones, radio transceivers, and satellites were designed by firms in Palo Alto but use parts made in Houston, Taipei, Kobe, and Brussels. They were put together in Seoul, shipped to Amsterdam, and sold all over the world.

Unconscious---and uncaring---of all of that interconnection, Jodi hangs up the telephone and pulls a portable computer out of her purse. Brushing aside her butterdish, she types something into the computer, which beeps and makes faint chugging noises. It is retrieving information. The tiny computer can hold several hundred novels' worth of information---which seems odd, considering the tiny size of Jodi's purse. Turning to you, she mumbles that she has to fax some information to your mutual friend in Curacao, and her computer does so as she speaks. Like the telephone, it can send and receive information from around the world; but unlike a simple voice transmission, this information can take the form of handwriting, pictures, music, or just about anything else. She pays no attention.

At the close of the meal you hand your waiter a credit card. As he wands it, your credit information pulses down the restaurant's telephone lines to the credit approval center, a bunch of people and computers you've never seen. You haven't, of course, paid for your meal; you've promised to pay for it. Actually, the credit card company has promised to pay it, and you've promised to pay them. Later that month you might send a signed piece of paper, make a telephone call, or visit a money machine---to talk your bank's computers into paying your credit card company.

Your bankers are another group of strangers, and most of them are computers too. They pay the credit card bill---or, rather, promise to pay it---because the government has promised to replace any money lost up to a certain amount. The government---that is, everyone in the country---has promised to pay the bank because national banking insurance is part of the social contract worked out to make this vast web of dependencies function.

This web is but part of a larger web that includes every nation. While sitting at the dinner table, you---or rather some of your possessions---are affecting decisions being made around the world. For instance, the money in your bank that nominally belongs to you isn't actually in the bank's vaults. It is joyriding the airwaves. Even when you're asleep, your bankers---or more usually their computers---are trading on your money, using it to generate income, a tiny bit of which they'll later give to you.

People and machines you've never heard of in Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, or Chicago are continually buying and selling things, effectively, with your money. By their separate actions, they are collectively determining what future projects will get funded: a corporation's supertanker, a country's space program, or that backyard swimming pool you've been thinking of getting a loan for.

They all depend on your money, although, like information, it is only really profitable when combined with the money of millions of others. Now that it's gone electronic, money---like information and labor, and all the rest of the strands that join together the global village---is a fiction built on top of a fantasy masquerading as a reality. As insubstantial as it is, it, and all the other strands of the web, binds us all. We are all caught in a huge yet invisible web of connections, each of us made more powerful by the uniformity and collectivism of shared life. Food, fuel, jobs, money, artifacts, life-styles, information---all are shared. Computer networks are but the latest strand in that web. Eventually though they may become the most binding thread of all.

NEXT: The World's Largest Conversation