The instant superhero

In ancient times, a series of beacons once topped the hills of Wessex. Kept dry against the rain, they were used only in times of need. The only message they could send was one word: “Danger.” On the other side of the world, on the broad, dusty plains of North America, indigenous peoples would light leaf fires and use a blanket to smother, then uncover them in turn to create patterns of smoke. These enabled more nuanced signals to be passed.

On the sea, ships would use complex series of flags to create detailed messages. The scale of the network was limited by what the human eye could see through a telescope, the limits further complicated by the curvature of the earth and visibility of the horizon. For a flotilla, simply keeping a ship in sight was already sending a signal of its own: “We are still here, and heading in the right direction.”

And so, over thousands of years, we have used the tools at hand to extend our reach as far as it will go, even if this means passing the minimum of data. Even today, we blow our whistles, flick our mirrors in the sun and flash our headlights to pass the simplest of signals — “Return to base”; “I am over here”; “You are free to turn”. Even as we arrive at a point where everything can be connected, from farm gates to individual tablets, somewhere above us, deep in space, the Voyager spacecraft continues to pulse its message: “I’m still here.”