IF YOU LEAVE the refrigerator door open, does the kitchen get cooler or warmer? As a Luddite-in-training, I spent several years in college debating this question with my roommate, Steve the Physicist. Obviously, a refrigerated room is a cooler room. Not so obviously, Steve the Physicist explained how fridges actually remove heat from their inside compartment and release it into the room outside, making the room warmer. He had science on his side. I had common sense, and that was enough for me.
Science has become the governing faith of our times, at least for a certain crowd, and while I enjoy the fruits of science as much as the next guy -- I bow before the miracle of the remote control -- the unending march of scientific studies that purport to change our lives is as tedious as the folks who sell the Watchtower magazine door to door, hoping to capture one more soul for their Lord.
That said, here is one cool study: Out at Notre Dame, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, a Romanian physicist who spends his days trying to figure out things such as why sand castles stand, has of late been examining the structure of the World Wide Web. Wait! There will be no computer mumbo jumbo in this column. Normally, I can't stand reading about these machines. Seems to me that if they could actually get one of the dang tubes to work -- to turn on with the flip of a switch, and to stay on without freezing up or requiring you to call some geek who shrugs and tells you to "just turn it off and on again" -- then none of us would have to hear any of this inane jargon again. After all, do you know how your car radio works? Do you care?
But Barabasi is not interested in how the machines work. He wants to know what the Web would look like if you made a map of it, and what that would tell us about how connected we are. For the better part of a decade now, we've been subjected to the most ludicrous rhetoric since the Soviet propaganda of the 1920s -- an avalanche of hooey about how the Internet is going to liberate us, how the individual will be granted new powers to stand up against the forces of consolidation, conglomeration and every other con that's been cooked up in this century of corporate hegemony. Where do you want to go today? Only Microsoft knows for sure.
So here comes one curious physicist to tell us that the Web -- that collection of a billion pages, a system of such vastness that it inspires the same kind of awe the great cathedrals did 500 years ago -- is really no different from high school, your home town or Hollywood. Barabasi sent a computer robot out to map the Web, and he found that despite its incomprehensible size, the Web has all the markings of an organized system. In fact, he found that the distance between any two Web pages, on average, is no more than 19 clicks. Just as Stanley Milgram's famous sociology study concluded that there are six degrees of separation between any two people, Barabasi has now shown that 19 degrees divide your kid's Go Skins! page from, say, the home page of a Finnish institute on molecular biology.
That much is heartening: Perhaps the Internet is not quite as destructive of community as it first might seem. Perhaps we can still find one another, even as we disappear from the public square into the arcana of the hobbies and fascinations we find on our computer screens. If 19 clicks is all it takes to find your way from home to the exotic idea that will inspire your work, or to the home page of the babe you spied at the ballpark, maybe we are on the cusp of a new kind of connection.
But Barabasi's latest finding is devastating, at least to those who have bought into the liberation theology advanced by technology's true believers: "On the Internet, just as in the social network of actors who gravitate to the stars or scientists who look to the Nobel winners, those who have a large number of links will get even more," the physicist told me. "We link to the pages that are the most popular, the ones we know."
No matter how big the Web gets, that 19 degrees of separation is not likely to grow, and the reason is one we all know from just about every other aspect of life: The big get bigger. Every teenager in America could create a new Web site every month, and still most of us would link to Yahoo and Disney and CNN and Amazon.
Barabasi's studies have not told him why this is, just that an inanimate network like the Web behaves remarkably like a human network, such as your office mates. But he has his theory about why: "It's human nature."
We have a new toy, and after we finish this initial phase of exploring its boundaries, we will want computers to help us raise up the walls and protect our own little worlds. We will want from these machines exactly what we've always wanted, whether from TV or books or friends -- comfort, security, loyalty. The Web can take us to the borders of knowledge, fine, but if it can deliver a Coke and a smile, that'd be a whole lot nicer, wouldn't it?
Marc Fisher's e-mail address is email@example.com.