Explorers of the network

Exploration is both expensive and risky. It’s expensive because we need special equipment, and because we need the help of experts to plan, prepare and mitigate. It’s risky because lots of bad things can happen—we could, quite possibly, die. But none of this really matters because exploration as we imagine it is dead. 

Today, exploration isn’t so much exploration as it is the undertaking of difficult journeys. A lot of the world has been discovered, and as a consequence, “explorers” spend their time dreaming up, co-ordinating and executing ambitious expeditions, rather than exploring unknown slabs of territory.

That’s exploration in the meatspace. But what about exploration in cyberspace? That is an art that is alive and well. Geographically, a lot of the fog of uncertainty has been removed. But on the internet, much fog remains. There are pockets and planes that, individually at least, are represented by a huge question mark.

As I was thinking about the difference between exploring the world and exploring the network, I asked myself a question: How exactly do you explore the internet? We figured out good processes for exploring territory in the real world, but what about online?

Well. I think the first thing to keep in mind is that exploration is not exploration if you know where you’re going. To explore you have to step off the edge of your map. That’s point one.

Point two. In the real world, explorers used navigational aides like compasses. The compass we have to rely on when exploring the net is one whose poles are made up of nothing more than strong emotion. A mapped territory, eventually, ceases to yield strong emotions. It’s the law of diminishing returns. Old stimuli cease to stimulate us. So the only way to expand the map is to follow the call of strong emotion. 

Now, that doesn’t have to be one specific emotion. Surprise could be our compass. As could interestingness. Disgust, fear or anger could also function as our guides. So could joy and laughter. Each of these, if followed, will lead us to some unusual places.

The third point is a contrast with physical exploration. Exploration of cyberspace is far less risky and expensive than exploration of meatspace. We need no special equipment, just a screen and a connection to the network. And the risk is far less, although there is still some present. 

I’ve been hearing a lot recently about the co-ordination of mental pain with physical pain. Essentially, what people are discovering is that things that contradict our beliefs and cherished ideas cause a physical reaction, they light up the same areas of the brain as being kicked in the shin or threatened by a predator. So in that sense, there’s risk. It’s not physical in nature, but psychological, perhaps even existential.

The final point to keep in mind is that there is no edge to the map. I recently read a blog post that discussed the dangers of the internet becoming like a mall, with big brands and chains occupying the prime locations and making it too expensive for independents to contribute and compete. It’s a nice analogy, but it falls down when you realise that only in the real world is real estate zero-sum. 

Think about it. In the real world, if you start travelling in one direction, and keep going, eventually, you’ll come back to where you started. That doesn’t happen online. If you keep going, eventually, you’ll find emptiness and be forced to either stop and choose another direction, or create something to fill or cross the void you’ve stumbled upon.

I suppose that exploration hasn’t died so much as it has evolved. Explorers of the real world must set their sights on increasingly small parts of Earth, or on the sky and space and galaxy that we’re such a tiny member of. But these are not the only type of explorers. There are explorers of the network. People who push to the boundaries of culture and understanding, who confront uncertainty and walk excitedly into the mist of the unknown, knowing that what they find could matter, or could not.