every telecommunications network is composed of a series of layers. as is the usual convention in technical circles, nobody can agree on exactly how many there are -- some say seven, some say four, some ask "who's counting?" -- but the fundamental idea remains the same. each layer abstracts away the details of the ones below, presenting a uniform interface for the ones above.

take, at the most basic level, the physical connection. that cell phone game where you raise a distressingly cute virtual pet kitten, buy it little virtual toys, and watch it play with your friends' similarly virtual cats instead of doing whatever you were actually supposed to be doing? all of this relies on the fact that someone figured out how to transfer data through the several hundred meters of air between yourself and the nearest cell tower, then through a tangle of fiber-optic cables plugged into a central switch, then down an undersea cable that runs clear across the pacific ocean into another intricate web of glass and copper and plastic. all of that's already been handled, and so the game's developers can avoid having to grapple with the true underlying complexity. this frees them to spend more of their time looking for the exact mewling sample that will make users all over the world just a little bit weaker at the knees.

the protocols that make up the bottom strata are, in essence, nothing more than dumb containers. they claim no intelligence about what's being transmitted through them; for all they're concerned, the world is composed of a random stream of completely meaningless fluctuations in electrical potential. it's content agnosticism, in the truest sense of the word. billions, trillions of times per second, the infrastructure that makes up the planet-spanning fabric of our modern lives flings pulses up and down its axons in utter ignorance.

and yet, even knowing all this, i still can't help but ask one last question, as the pixels of the console screen in front of me blink in and out of sight:

"are you still there?"