Button: Peer to Peer
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When we think of the word "circuit," we often envision the electrical wiring that composes the heart of modern electronic devices. But the term has a long and multifaceted history. It once meant a line that contained the limits of an area: the circumference or boundary. It also denoted a journey, the action of circumambulation, of going around and around. It is to these traditional meanings that we refer when we discuss the realm of the circuit: digital culture as the physical realm in which we live, as well as the processes and procedures enabled by the digital tools— the things we can do in the realm. The realm of the circuit is formed by digital networks, the electronic digital tools we use, and the people who are connected by it. The circuit is, ultimately, the superstructure of our culture, and civilization is the reflection of communities formed by our need to share physical, emotional, and intellectual resources.

The realm is composed of interlocking networks of human exchange. A network is defined as the linkage of nodes (components) into a system, or a web of connections. A node can be anything that is connected: a computer, a person, or a town. Networks of communication draw connections between people, whereas networks of pathways and roads link villages and cities. The earliest networks were the routes used to travel from shelter to food. As people met at the watering hole, the exchange of goods gave way to the exchange of information. It is through such interaction and exchange that culture is formed.

A network is not valuable for what it is, but for what it does: facilitates the distribution, exchange, and assemblage of information and goods, and allows human beings to move between communities. Networks can serve multiple functions: the road built to move an army also moves commerce. Networks are not always creative, they can be destructive as well. Furthermore, networks connect and enhance one another.

The fabric of society today is more complex and provocative because of the innovative ways in which people have been changing the meaning of interaction through the digital network. A teenager may gather friends in an online community, or use online tools to facilitate gatherings in the real world. Because of the ubiquity and ease of use of video-editing tools, political activists have been able to download President George Bush's (US President, born 1946) State of the Union speech, manipulate it, and post the result back to the network (in this case YouTube), thereby allowing a biting political satire that would not have been available through older forms of production or distribution.

Data map of the NSFNET, part of the Internet
backbone, 1994
The Human Brain
University of Washington's Human Brain Fly-Through

Understanding the network of the human mind is one of our greatest quests. In the mid-twentieth century, computer pioneers such as John von Neumann (Hungarian-born mathematician, 1903-57) were influenced by metaphors of biology, especially the brain; later in the twentieth century, cognitive neuroscientists were heavily influenced by metaphors from the computer. Scientists today understand the mind primarily as "the brain," described in the language of a complex and dynamic system of interconnected neurons, or a neural network. Each of the 100 billion neurons in the brain is connected to thousands of other neurons by synapses: connections through which information is passed. As the neural networks of the brain are stimulated by input neurons, they produce a set of outputs depending on the configuration of the network. For example, the stimulation of certain nerves will cause a specific muscle to contract. As the system becomes stimulated repeatedly, synaptic pathways become reinforced, and this produces memory.

The redundancy of the neural network allows the brain to function even after parts of it have become damaged. (A redundant network is one in which there are multiple pathways from one node to another.) The designers of the Internet, especially Paul Baran (American engineer and inventor, born 1926), who came up with the notion of packet switching were influenced by this fact. When they considered ways of improving network reliability, they chose to model it after the brain: distributed rather than central control, with many redundant pathways. At the end of the last century in the United States, there were perhaps ten thousand photographers in the world communicating to 200 million people. Today, on fotolog.net alone, 7 million members share photographs with one another. Here, the Web has provided a peer-to-peer method of facilitating interaction among commercial, fine art, and (primarily) amateur photographers. The boundary between high and low art is becoming increasingly porous, to borrow a phrase from Donna Haraway (American feminist scholar and philosopher, born 1944).

Recently, computer scientists have adapted the model of the neural network to design computers themselves. The program performs tasks and eventually begins to "learn" on its own, by reinforcing connections between events. Modern computing systems model neural networks and are used to recognize fingerprints or to predict weather. Even though these computers cannot replicate the complexity of the human brain, they can vastly outperform the previous generation of computers. Danny Hillis's (Americaan computer scientist, born 1956) 1985 Connection Machine, one of the earliest of these computers, had 16,000 processors— a miniscule number when compared with the billions of neurons in the human brain, yet a huge number when compared with other computers of the day, which had only one processor.


Networks, those of both communication and distribution, changed relatively little from their earliest incarnations until recent times. Early networks used human and/or animal power (with the notable exception of wind-powered ships) to transport goods or information (in the form of either written messages or those stored in memory). Networks grew in complexity as the world's population grew and spread across the globe, heightening the needs to communicate and to trade. In the nineteenth century, mechanical means of transportation from the steamship to the railroad vastly increased the speed at which goods and people could travel. During the same century, the telegraph allowed the transmission of information at the speed of light.

Ironically, as with many inventions, improvements came with downsides. The faster rail network centralized distribution, and was tied to the schedule of the trains and the location of the train depot. Previously, one could ride a horse at any chosen time and the rider did not have to follow a series of predetermined trails. But horses were slow. Even the Pony Express, which delivered mail through a relay system by which it was handed from rider to rider, took ten days to carry a letter from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. It was not until the development of the horseless carriage (the automobile) and the network of the interstate highway system that this would change.

The phrase "freedom of the road" has long been associated with the pleasure and spontaneity offered by the car and, by association, of America itself. Henry Ford (American industrialist and inventor, 1863-1947) capitalized on the notion of freedom in the rhetoric behind his mass-marketed automobile, designed for the "common man," as a vehicle of liberation of the urban class from the noise and dirt of the city. But again, as is often the case with any new system, this newfound freedom was the catalyst for suburban sprawl, traffic jams, and a culture of fast food and strip malls.

The electrification of networks of communication in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (from the telegraph to the telephone to the home Internet connection) continues the history of the realm of the circuit. The first electronic "writing" (the dots and dashes of Morse code), produced by lattices of wires laid across the United States beginning in (1844 and between the U.S. and Europe in 1866) allowed for the instantaneous transmission of information. Yet, only a small coterie of telegraphers knew Morse code and messages were sent and received only from centralized locations: telegraph depots. The telephone, and its rapid incorporation into every aspect of American life (just 10 years after its introduction there were nearly 150,000 telephones in the U.S.) freed communication by telegraphy much in the same way the automobile offered a freer form of transportation than the railroad. Rather than go to the telegraph depot, people in the developed world could make a phone call from almost anywhere at any time. But it is important to note that 130 years after the phone's invention, we entered the twenty-first century with half of the world's population without telephones, and 35 percent without access to a network of electrical power. Additionally, a shocking number of people lack access to networks that provide clean drinking water. Technological progress does not always parallel economic development.

Electrified networks produce rapid and sometimes radical social changes. The telephone call allows peoples to project themselves instantly across previously inconceivable distances, a phenomenon known today as telepresence. The term "to call" means both to visit and to contact by telephone, and came into use as contact by telephone replaced in-person visits. The cell phone has increased the user's mobility and has become an accessory as common as the wristwatch, allowing us to connect to the electronic network while we continue to negotiate the familiar physical networks of our lives. The cell phone today is a roving locus that creates new social circuits through the production, exchange, and remixing of cultural capital from image to text to video.

Social Structures

New social structures emerge through what writer Tim O'Reilly (Irish open source technology supporter, born 1954) calls Web 2.0— his vision of the Web as a communication platform that fosters participation, as opposed to the older one-way model of publishing. At the turn of the millennium, peer rating became explosively popular, with sites like Hot or Not among the most popular. This site allowed visitors to post photographs of themselves. Other users could then rate their attractiveness on a scale of one to ten and a collective intelligence emerges. The Web is less a destination in and of itself than it is a means for fostering communication and collaboration, constantly evolving and mutating platforms that strengthen connections between users. The circuit is home to people and hardware, and networks have value as they reinforce existing social networks, at the same time as they create new networks. Social networking Websites like Flickr, Facebook and MySpace allow participants to connect with friends they already have, while forging new possibilities.


The history of technology, like human history itself, is defined by the struggle between those in power and those who are ruled and exploited by it. From the ancient trade routes to robber baron monopolies over railroads and oil in the nineteenth century, to Microsoft's domination over personal computer software, the struggle for power has always been between monopoly and free enterprise. Discontent with the dominance of a particular political, social, or economic system has often produced new inventions and new networks. The Underground Railroad in the United States attempted to circumvent the horrors of slavery. Networks often serve to destabilize authority and the established order, usually through the dissemination of information critical of the dominant culture or the previous network. This can be done by connecting people to create an opposition movement or by disseminating information in an attempt to sway global public opinion. An example of the first is the French Resistance to the German occupation during the World War II, which relied heavily on the use of personal radios to communicate with the Allies. An example of the second stance, swaying global opinion in Mexico, the Zapatista movement sprung up in the 1990s to counter economic changes that wrought havoc on the poor of the country, and political oppression of indigenous groups in areas such as the Chiapas region. Using unexpected guerrilla tactics that included ingenious manipulation of the press through the Internet, they were able to bring international attention to their struggle.