The Membrane

Schoolkids are taught in middle and high school that you need a cell membrane in order to be considered alive. Despite all the cool things viruses seem to be doing- hijacking our immune cells or even controlling our brains, they can’t be considered alive (says the pedantic science textbook) because they don’t have cells, because they’re just protein and nucleic acid without that layer that separates inside gunk from outside gunk, the phospholipid bilayer. It twists and turns, it folds and invaginates, holds onto cilia and flagella and spins them around, contains multitudes of buried treasures, secret protein gates and ion channels, carbohydrate matrices,  microtubule filaments, slimy protectants and toxic weaponry against all who might come knocking unwanted upon its many doors. And all of it is necessary for anything to be alive. While our mitochondria and intestinal bacteria might partially disagree, living things need barriers between “them” and “not-them” just in order to be living things. At a less semantic level, barriers are helpful so as not to get eaten; as a kids’ science book I once read remarked, to a pathogenic bacterium we are just a giant hot dog the size of a planet. A cell is full of delicious nutrients; it best be careful what it lets in or out through that membrane.

As for cells, so for the whole body. If you pierce our outer barrier by cutting or burning the skin, the big danger is infection, sepsis, consumption by the ravening invisible demons eager to eat us for lunch. Even more congenial piercings of our barriers are dangerous, as the history and continued importance of sexually transmitted diseases would show. The body isn’t quite a walled fortress, but it is a hysterical police state monitoring every entrance for hostile intruders, with good reason.

All of which is to say that the Internet, which shares many qualities in common with an assemblage of living things except for those clear boundaries and defenses, might well not trend toward increased usability or easier exchange of information over the longer term, even if that is what we have experienced heretofore. The history of evolution is every bit as much a history of parasitism and counterparasitism as it is any kind of story of upward movement toward greater complexity or order. There is no reason to think that we (and still less national or political entities) will necessarily experience technology as a means of enablement and Cool Stuff We Can Do rather than a perpetual set of defenses against scammers of our money and attention. There’s the respect that makes Fake News the news that matters forever more.

This is still more true if, as most people expect, the advances in Artificial Intelligence lead to entities existing in cyberspace that are roughly as smart or smarter than we are. Some such entities shall probably do our bidding, a good Ariel to our not-so-wise Prospero. But others will be Iagos to set us on the path to ruin, or will simply be cast as soldiers in back-and-forth escalating conflict for hard disk space and processing power if not for the real world of Skynet-like destruction. There’s little reason to think that our electronic ecosystem will allow for easier coexistence than natural ecosystems once did, and still less that we can allow for all boundaries between me and not-me, cell and not-cell, us and not-us to slip away.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, but no thing lives that doesn’t have a membrane.

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