Thursday, June 10, 2010

Putting the "world-wide" in "world-wide web"

Here's a lovely piece of concept art: In 2006, video blogger Ze Frank challenged his viewers to construct an "earth sandwich". How do you make an earth sandwich? Just put two slices of bread at exactly opposite points on the earth (bow bow bow).

Within about a month, two contestants had placed half-baguettes in New Zealand and the Spanish countryside, accomplishing the feat. The two had (I assume) met online through Ze Frank's show, had doubtless exchanged email and, of course, produced their own online videos of the whole adventure.

In other words, it could only happen on the web, right? Well ... yes and no.

Certainly it could only have happened the way it happened on the web. That's almost tautological. But is there any part of the concept that couldn't have been done without the web? Certainly people in New Zealand and Spain have been able to communicate and share a common idea for much longer than the web has been around. Neither is the earth sandwich the first piece of concept art on a global scale. David Barr's Four Corners project, completed between 1976 and 1985 without benefit of the web or GPS, comes to mind.

On the other hand, I expect the web makes it much, much more likely that such things will happen, by providing a cheap and easy way to broadcast an idea to a global audience. It also provides a cheaper and faster way for participants to communicate with each other by providing both the time-shifting of mail (I don't have to read while you're writing) and the speed of the telephone (we don't have to wait for a message to be physically transported around the world). Time-shifting is particularly useful when the participants are twelve time zones apart.

My inner engineer questions the accuracy of both the earth sandwich and four corners projects, since the earth isn't perfectly round. It's definitely a problem for the four corners. Whether it's a problem for an earth sandwich would depend on the fine points of the GPS coordinate system, though at least the largest source of non-roundness, the equatorial bulge, shouldn't be a problem for points the same distance from the equator. On the earth sandwich page, Doc Searles doesn't even pretend to accuracy -- Cambridge is opposite the Indian Ocean, nowhere near Singapore.

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