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October 31, 2003

Where Distance Knows One Memory

The quintessential trait of a beautiful view is that it contains no humans. Since it's difficult to satisfy this requirement on Earth, we settle for looking from far enough away that single humans are indistinguishable from each other. From a view atop the Yosemite mountains or the Empire State Building, with neighbors as specks in the distance, we seek perspective even as we clasp our shrinking privacy and personal space.

Cyberspace has traditionally worn its absence of geographical and social boundaries as a badge of honor. Is this a natural law, like gravity and its apparent absence inside an orbiting space shuttle? My science teacher would point out that gravity isn't absent in the space shuttle, it's just balanced by other forces, as the shuttle both free-falls and travels around Earth.

In a crowd of arriving passengers at a busy airport, how are you identified? Family and friends recognize you instantly, but why does the limo driver resort to waving a sign with your name? How can this jumble of alphabetic symbols select you from the crowd? In the most famous bar of 20th century television, "everybody knows your name". Memories of you are bound to the non-unique symbols that are your name.

Then we arrive in cyberspace, waving signs emblazoned with symbols like @. But this crowd is bigger than the scores of passengers who arrived with us at the airport. This crowd is millions-strong and there is not room enough for everyone who wants to wave their sign. We peer into our mental mirrors, questing for symbols to distinguish us in this crowd without boundaries. A crowd where no one knows our face.

In time, a familar constellation surfaces in the stream of anonymity. Thoughts of signs and symbols are replaced with an impulse from brain to fingers. We smile in recognition, type and instantly enter a temporary space for two. But as quickly as our private space was created, it ends and we must move on in search of a familiar cluster.

In this illusory crowd, time and space don't exist except in our fading memories of shared experiences. Revisiting the location of a memorable experience is not always possible, for digital construction crews may have upgraded the neighborhood of "our" treasured memory.

Distance is a first-class emotional citizen of our relationship spaces. If time ensures that everything does not happen all at once, distance ensures that our multiple identities take turns sharing us. More than just an energy cost, distance recalls identity.

Posted by dotpeople at October 31, 2003 02:27 PM