Successful empires and kingdoms are good at building infrastructure and sharpening the best ideas. The inscription along the magnificent colonnade above the James A Farley building in central Manhattan, the largest post office in the United States, reads: ‘Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.’ Herodotus wrote the words 2,500 years ago, to describe the ancient Persians – who were always on the lookout for innovative technologies and ideas that made it easier to administer their great empire. Getting messages quickly and reliably from A to B in the ancient world was no less important than it is today. ... The instant communications made possible by recent technological changes should not make us susceptible to the breathless commentary about globalisation as something new. For more than two millennia, news and information, goods and products, ideas and beliefs have flowed through networks linking the Pacific coast of China with the Atlantic coasts of North Africa and Europe, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean and Scandinavia. Since the late 19th century, these networks have been known as the Silk Roads. ... We are witnessing the world’s centre of gravity return to the axis on which it spun for millennia. When viewed from the vantage point of the Silk Roads, the familiar narrative begins to quiver, history itself begins to shift. In fact, to understand the world, the best place to look is not in the centre of the West nor in the heart of the East, but on the old Silk Road where the two come together. ... Most scholars have neglected these networks for three reasons. First, they challenge the familiar, triumphalist story of the rise of the West. Second, historians today work in crowded and competitive fields requiring increasingly narrow and precise specialisations. ... Finally, there’s the simple fact that Western scholars’ ability to follow historical connections can be limited by the lack of knowledge of central Asian languages.
Ah, there you are. That didn't take too long, surely? Just a click or a tap and, if you’ve some 21st century connectivity, you landed on this page in a trice. ... But how does it work? Have you ever thought about how that cat picture actually gets from a server in Oregon to your PC in London? We’re not simply talking about the wonders of TCP/IP or pervasive Wi-Fi hotspots, though those are vitally important as well. No, we’re talking about the big infrastructure: the huge submarine cables, the vast landing sites and data centres with their massively redundant power systems, and the elephantine, labyrinthine last-mile networks that actually hook billions of us to the Internet. ... And perhaps even more importantly, as our reliance on omnipresent connectivity continues to blossom, our connected device numbers swell, and our thirst for bandwidth knows no bounds, how do we keep the Internet running? How do Verizon or Virgin reliably get 100 million bytes of data to your house every second, all day every day?
For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long. ... I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. ... Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. ... the insanity was now banality ... e almost forget that ten years ago, there were no smartphones, and as recently as 2011, only a third of Americans owned one. Now nearly two-thirds do. That figure reaches 85 percent when you’re only counting young adults. And 46 percent of Americans told Pew surveyors last year a simple but remarkable thing: They could not live without one. ... By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact.
Twilio, as a company, reflects its chief executive’s personality. “Be humble and be frugal,” says Lawson, a 39-year-old father of two. That aw-shucks credo has translated into 30,000 customers—from small developers to large enterprises—who use Twilio to power some 75 billion annual connections that reach 1 billion devices. ... building communications functions into apps is both vital and easier than ever, which in turn prom-ises to make every smartphone in the world even smarter. ... Twilio is exceedingly simple to use and charges no upfront fees, so programmers often use it to test an idea or product. Pretty soon that product scales and turns into a six- or seven-figure account that required no traditional sales process. “We onboard developers like consumers and let them spend like enterprises,” Lawson says. Like others that have embraced developer-driven marketing—Amazon for computing services, Stripe for payments, New Relic for analytics—Twilio benefits as companies increasingly turn to software for differentiation. ... His 15 months at Amazon proved to be formative. Selling the building blocks of computing as a service was a brand-new idea, and Lawson was at its epicenter. The model gained traction with the advent of mobile apps, which over time prompted scores of businesses to turn to software as a way to interact with customers. As he began to think about where he could apply the Amazon Web Services model, Lawson homed in on communications, which had proved essential to every business he had started.
He was, she remembered, preoccupied with the math problems he worked over in the evenings, and he was prone to writing down stray equations on napkins at restaurants in the middle of meals. He had few strong opinions about the war or politics, but many about this or that jazz musician. ... Oliver, Pierce, and Shannon—a genius clique, each secure enough in his own intellect to find comfort in the company of the others. They shared a fascination with the emerging field of digital communication and co-wrote a key paper explaining its advantages in accuracy and reliability. ... Partly, it seems, the distance between Shannon and his colleagues was a matter of sheer processing speed. ... Shannon’s response to colleagues who could not keep pace was simply to forget about them. ... George Henry Lewes once observed that “genius is rarely able to give an account of its own processes.” This seems to have been true of Shannon, who could neither explain himself to others, nor cared to. In his work life, he preferred solitude and kept his professional associations to a minimum. ... Shannon wouldn’t have been the first genius with an inward-looking temperament, but even among the brains of Bell Labs, he was a man apart. ... It was Shannon who made the final synthesis, who defined the concept of information and effectively solved the problem of noise. It was Shannon who was credited with gathering the threads into a new science. But he had important predecessors at Bell Labs, two engineers who had shaped his thinking since he discovered their work as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, who were the first to consider how information might be put on a scientific footing, and whom Shannon’s landmark paper singled out as pioneers.