“Being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing,” Alice tells the Caterpillar.
Just think how the internet feels! It’s big enough to make the world feel small, and small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. It dissolves huge chunks of data into particles of light, then flings them across filaments of optical fiber roughly the width of human hair.
Those filaments link continents—and the most intimate regions of our lives. What else runs under the Pacific Ocean and also keeps you company on the toilet?
The internet’s vastly different scales don’t just coexist. They coproduce each other. The planetary and the personal, the tiny and the titanic, are locked, circling, in a spiral dance. Technology shrinks to grow, and grows to shrink.
This isn’t the first time technology has rescaled the world. In the 1860s, when Lewis Carroll was writing Alice in Wonderland, new railway and telegraph networks were reshaping time and space. Journeys that used to take days now took hours. Letters that used to take weeks to arrive now took minutes.
A web of wire and steel pulled whole continents together. “We have seen the power of steam suddenly dry up the great Atlantic Ocean to less than half its breadth,” one author marveled. “The Mediterranean… has shrunk into a lake.”
Moore’s Law says you can fit twice as many transistors on a chip about every two years. As the chips get smaller, our capacity to store and process information gets bigger. Computing becomes ubiquitous, digitization universal. The fountains of the great deep are broken up, and the face of the earth is covered with data.
Miniaturization enables and demands new maximizations. Billions of connected devices require the construction of vast data centers. A startup with thirteen employees acquires millions of users within months—and gets bought for $1 billion. A corner of Northern California formerly occupied by orchards and canneries becomes shorthand for the future. Software eats the world.
Software doesn’t actually eat anything, of course. The phrase is pure fetishism: relations between people reimagined as relations between things. Somebody is always doing the eating—and somebody is always getting eaten.
A cafeteria worker who helps reproduce the labor power of LinkedIn’s engineers with quinoa and kale shares a one-bedroom apartment with a dozen family members. A media worker whose industry is being liquidated by Facebook watches her income dwindle as she cranks out content she hopes will go viral.
There is no limit to the scale of wealth and power that a few men are permitted to accumulate. Meanwhile, the rest of us are asked to live smaller, leaner, more flexibly; to enterpreneurialize ourselves into serfdom—”to eat a coffee for lunch,” as the infamous Fiverr ad puts it—to lower our expectations, and in some cases even our life expectancy, to adapt to a Lilliputian existence at the feet of our new kings.
This issue looks at how scale shapes technology and the tech industry—and how their bigness and smallness are reshaping us. Our writers explore why technologists come under pressure to think big and think small—to scale and to compartmentalize.
VCs demand massive growth on a short timetable. Because the vast majority of the startups they fund will fail, the few that succeed must succeed hugely. At the same time, software itself is modular. Engineers organize code into abstractions that help them manage, and conceal, complexity. The “black boxes” that result can be good for business, and bad for humans.
The tech industry typically speaks the language of engineering and finance. Increasingly, however, its leaders are coming to realize that they may need to become conversant in other idioms as well: the social and the political. And the social and the political, as our writers make clear, are the territories where tech’s particular configurations of bigness and smallness must ultimately be understood.
Social media is the site of much hatred and delusion. It is also the soil where social movements can take root. Hashtags enable individual incidents of injustice to go viral, revealing systemic patterns.
Yet that virality is made possible by monopoly—it requires one Facebook, one YouTube, one Twitter. And these large concentrations of unaccountable private power endanger the basic premise of democracy—the idea, often invoked but rarely attempted, that the whole of the people should determine how society is run.
The leaders of the tech industry talk big. California’s very own Rocket Man wants to build a vacuum-tube railway across the state while financializing the stars. But new technologies also make it possible for ordinary people to experiment. Our children may be reduced to doing platform-driven piecework in a world ravaged by the energy demands of crypto mines. But “#nerdfarmers” are working to bring the outside indoors. In their smart bedrooms our children’s children may grow their own avocados.
Big Tech is an empire built on sand—literally. Sand is what silicon is made of. In the Bible, Jesus says that a wise man builds his house on rock; a foolish man, on sand. When the rain comes and the winds blow, the fool’s house falls down.
The problem with sand is how quickly it can shift. It’s fluid. But this is also its advantage.
If we learn to see the world in a grain of sand, we may find the means to build the future we want. To live well at new scales, individually and collectively, will require imagining new shapes a society could take. Turn over an hourglass and time runs in a different direction—toward a new Year Zero.
Right now, many minds are tending toward the apocalypse. But if we can resist the temptations of fatalism—the bird’s-eye-view—we can start looking for specific places to hone in. The fact that global systems of networked power must pass through small nodes means that occupying those nodes can create enormous leverage.
If a tree falls on the power line leading to a Facebook data center, everybody hears it.
“Give me a point on which to stand,” Archimedes said, “and I will move the earth.”