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one small islet in the sea of digital text
April 25th, 2013

Cables, Networks, and Webs

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Threads and strings, the ties that bind things together into a cohesive whole, join together to form cables.  Cables have an interesting history interwoven in the English language.  According to the OED, the first usage of cable is dated c1275, and it referred to strings and threads that were twisted together to form “a strong thick rope, originally of hemp or other fibre, now also of strands of iron wire.”  This later came to include “cable-stitch” in 1890, which could refer to either an embroidery or textured knitting technique.  After the invention of the telegraph brought additional definitions to the term:  “A rope-like line used for submarine telegraphs, containing the wires along which the electric current passes, embedded in gutta percha or other insulating substance, and encased in an external sheathing of strong wire strands” in the 1850s.  By 1883, the term ‘cable’ came to refer also to the message itself, a shortened form of ‘cablegram.’  As modes of communication changed and television programing could be delivered via a cable connection in the 1970s,  ‘cable’ transitioned again from a mode of transmission to referencing transmission itself – a shortened version of ‘cable television.’
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Cables, strings, and threads are integrated and fabricated into webs and networks.  Interestingly, the first use of ‘network’ arises in 1530 and refers to the interlaced fibers that form a net or other porous fabric.  As technology changed, the word developed additional abstract usages in the nineteenth century, referring to systems of interconnected but immaterial things, such as transportation (railroad), telecommunication (telegraph and telephone), and electrical utility lines, before being applied to people with certain academic or professional connections.  As radio, and later television, became popular media, broadcasting companies were referred to as networks.  The term was applied later (1962) to systems of interconnected computers.
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Telegraph as social network

The Telegraphic Kiss postcard, in particular, shows the social nature of these new technological networks.  People could

connect with one another across geographic distances in ways that were previously inconceivable.  This particular picture depicts how people were integrated into a network designed to connect machines.  The telegraphs became extensions of the individual operators, serving as a means for communication, while also separating them from one another.  The two lovers are physically separated – they are kissing one another – rather, they are fantasizing about kissing; their connection is a mental and tactile one.  Distance separates, while the telegraph machine serves as a tactile extension of the fingertips, sending messages but also providing some measure of anonymity.

So this use of a network of integrated technology and human agency brings me to the next topical bead on my string of thoughts.  Webs.  The word ‘web’ is tied for the oldest word I have chosen to examine here.  Dating from c725 – concurrent with ‘thread’ – ‘web’ referred first to a woven fabric, particularly a whole cloth as it is being woven or in finished form.  Nearly 900 years later, it comes to include things that are like a woven fabric, particularly of they are intricate in structure or workmanship.  The term could also refer subtly-woven snares, entanglements, and flimsy things that lack substance – from light airy fabrics to fanciful reasoning.  In the first half of the twentieth century, it came to include complex interconnected networks, including radio and television broadcasting networks.

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The final two entries for ‘web’ bring us to modern usages of the word in the computing sense: “Usu. with capital initial.  Chiefly with the. = World Wide Web n.” (1991).  This last definition introduces a new variant of the term, and a proper noun at that:  World Wide Web.  Its definition, dating from 1990, reads thus:  “Chiefly with the. A widely used multimedia information system on the Internet, whereby documents stored at numerous locations worldwide are cross-referenced using hypertext links, which allow users to search for and access information by moving from one document to another. Also: the network of interlinked information that is accessible via this system. Abbreviated WWW, W3.Often shortened to Web (see web n. Additions). Although World Wide Web and Internet are frequently taken to be synonymous, the World Wide Web is only one of various systems (including email and peer-to-peer applications) which are facilitated by the Internet.”  Noteworthy here is the role of the Web in connecting people together via these interlinked documents.  The links themselves form the matrix, the tissue, the fabric that is created by intersections of cables and wires carrying data, interwoven together to form the Web.

So, with web, we see a transformation that is somewhat akin to network.  Like network, ‘web’ begins with organic matter – a cobweb or threads of cotton, linen, wool – but the meaning changes to incorporate abstract interconnected systems.  At first those systems may not directly include humans in their structure (although their fabrication is enacted by humans) – crisscrossing lines of wire cable, miles of intersecting railroad tracks, snares and nets and traps – they are all built by humans, and require human intervention and utilization.  These networks and webs, then, link people together into webs and networks.  Eventually humans become incorporated into the mesh of the intersecting threads and strings and cables.  We layer ourselves in the data, coding our thoughts, words, and images, connecting with others across countries and continents.