Sugar Mountain

‘Oh to live on Sugar Mountain’, wrote Neil Young in 1964, on his nineteenth birthday. That makes him 66, just like the Route. Apparently the original version of the song had one hundred twenty-six verses, an opus magnum even by Bob Dylan’s exalted standards. As Neil Innes once said: Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve suffered for my music. Now it’s your turn.

Back in those days, and in fact ever since the old wax records had started being sold to the public, spinning at a dizzying 78 rpm (a computer hard drive platen spins at around 10,000 rpm), music was lent and borrowed. A zero-sum game. If you lent your copy of After the Gold Rush, you were deprived of listening to the musical equivalent of barbiturates for a period of time. A kind of Prozac moment. It was normal to see teenagers going to school with an LP record tucked under their arm, trading music. Woe betide that one of those vinyl masterpieces came back scratched. Music was only shared through communal listening, a true social network.

When you think about it, it took a hell of a long time for music to become the killer app of mobile computing. After all, computers and operating systems of varying ease were around since 1980 or so, and yet music was limited partly by poor sound processing, and partly by what can only be described as the Yeti―the missing link between digital recording and remastering, and mainstream use of computers for music.

But music likes to travel, and thus the Sony Walkman morphed into the Ipod. Which in turn is being reabsorbed by smartphones.

In German, sugar mountain translates as Zucker Berg. Capitalized because Germans insist that their common nouns begin with uppercase letters. If you try the translation using Google Translate, sugar mountain comes out as… sugar mountain. But if you put a comma between the two, you get Zucker, Berg. If music was the killer app of the 1990’s, followed by video as computer memory shrank in size and price, then social networks are the hit of the millenium.

The Zuckerberg story is truly the tale of a sugar mountain, a sweet, sweet deal. The company is valued at 100 billion dollars, now that it’s going public. 845 million people are on every month, together providing 2.7 billion feeds every day, i.e. likes and comments. The success of Facebook is staggering, but the development of that kind of network is not. Like many other primate species, we are gregarious, social animals. Our life is filled with complex interactions with friends, family, and of course foes.

And we love to interact. Digitally, it all started with things like IRC and ICQ, followed by Messenger, and various other flavors of group communication. But we are limited in the number of relationships we can develop, and sometime back I read that the limit was a number in the low hundreds. To me, that’s ridiculously high. Younger people in general have more friends, even if my definition of the word friend is more demanding. As life progresses, the circle tightens, and occasionally people leave from that circle; with luck, others enter. But unlike your waist, the circle widens only a little. If at all.

Friends come and go, enemies accumulate. And often, the best friends end up as the greatest enemies. A life lesson for those who think friendship is eternal, made more critical by the appearance of the Facebook TImeline―presently voluntary, but give it a little time. The power of digital archiving and search is enormous and the capacity of genetic algorithms such as Google uses to sift through data, find patterns, and deliver information, is awesome. All you have to remember is how underperforming Altavista and other search engines were, back in the day.

Percentage of Facebook user base by continent (or block)

I can easily see a time when my day to day digital experience will be forced onto Facebook, or whatever flavor of the month succeeds it. Already, in researching some of the numbers in this article, I was unable to access information unless I logged on to Facebook. It’s happening more and more. If you want to hear from them, they need to hear from you first. 

Apart from the danger of encouraging young people to share personal information, and not just with ‘friends’ that have a limited shelf life, there are much deeper aspects to social networking. Unlike the concept behind Las Vegas, what happens on Facebook stays in Facebook.

The Arab proverb ‘ if you keep a secret, it is your prisoner; if you share it, you become its prisoner’ has never been truer than now. I thought a petabyte was just a bad dog, but apparently it corresponds to a quadrillion bytes. A quadrillion is a one followed by fifteen zeroes. And one hundred of these babies have been posted by Facebook’s 800 million or so users. Now, a book the size of The India Road (90,000 words) is about one megabyte, and your average picture with a high res digital camera will be around five megs. A DVD is about five gigabytes. Someone wrote that easy reading is hard writing, so I’ll do the math: stored on Facebook, for the world’s viewing pleasure, is the equivalent of one hundred billion books, or twenty billion photos. Or twenty million movies. And we’re just warming up. 

Zuckerberg seems keen to make Facebook into a genuine way of letting people express their opinions, in time, a kind of world vote. I wanted to see how usage was distributed on a planetary scale. I did find the data I needed, but not the information. So I rolled my own, as Neil Young might.

As you might expect, Europe (roughly the EU) and North America make up almost half the user base. Asia makes up another 25%, although it has half the world’s population.  India, Indonesia, and Brazil combined match the US. Dictatorships are rather thin on the ground. China comes in at number 94 in the world, two slots below Cyprus. Iran and Syria don’t figure. Neither does Myanmar. After the lessons of the Arab Spring, Facebook & Co. are seen as dangerous political weapons.

If new totalitarian regimes raise their heads in this digital world, they’ll have a lot on file for their users. Any government that can hack into Natanz, to plant a computer worm such as Stuxnet in an Iranian nuclear facility, will eat social networks for breakfast.

In the stats, the Vatican comes last with 20 users. Presumably half are cardinals and the other ten are Swiss Guards.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


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