Wide Web is more than technology, more than modems, bandwidth,
computers. It is a thing made of language and of history, a
Web of Metaphor.
we view all new technologies through perspectives or metaphors
that limit our understanding and obscure intrinsic qualities
and possibilities. Nothing inherent in the internal combustion
engine required that the first cars resemble horse-drawn carriages.
That beginning was dictated by metaphor, by inherited
notions of conveyance, centuries of carts and wagons and palanquins,
by how we imagine human transport by land.
92, remembers driving an early Ford whose elaborate leather
dashboard was fitted with a pocket for the handle of a buggy
though more dangerously, the dominant metaphors deployed to
describe our experience of things digital constrain our understanding,
limit and channel our inventions and even our speculations.
We need more discussion of such rich but also limiting descriptors
as cyberspace, highway (or the bi-lingual neologism
infobahn), market, space, site, frontier.
Am I wrong
to think that these are especially American and capitalist metaphors,
carrying an undersong of adventure, of risk and speed and danger,
of entrepreneurs or starfleet commanders or homesteaders braving
the wilderness? Like the early popular Nintendo computer
games, discussed in a 1995 essay by Henry Jenkins and Mary Fuller,
such figures implicitly celebrate motion, activity, acquisition,
the conquest of space. Odd at first thought, but deeply instructive
on reflection: that such swashbuckling metaphors should define
the essentially sedentary experience of sitting at a computer
terminal with mouse and keyboard at the ready.
the acerbic point, made a decade ago by the cultural critic
Gerald Graff, that if the self-preening metaphors of peril,
subversion and ideological danger in the literary theorists'
account of their work were taken seriously, their insurance
costs would match those for firefighters, Grand Prix drivers
and war correspondents.
same spirit of skeptical realism, might we recognize a resemblance
between computer users and long-haul truck drivers, strapped
in behind the wheel from LA to Memphis, listening to country-and-western
songs of cowboy truckers, the great American highway, faithful
wives? Are the drivers who buy into the sentimental mystifications
of such songs victims or eager and sometimes creative collaborators
in a mythology that converts the actual confinement and the
tedium of long-distance truck driving to an experience of freedom
and masculine fulfillment?
de Certeau would supply alternative answers. But they would
agree on the paradox.
we might say, do computer users and web surfers navigate or
maneuver across (or down or through) a superhighway, a teeming
marketplace, a frontier, the vasty deep of cyberspace -- yet
all the while situated physically in safe domestic or professional
cubicles, tethered to the computer screen, perhaps in the dark,
maybe tracked and surveilled by their bosses or by the merchants
and other strangers whose sites they have visited.
of contradiction or dissonance between our celebratory, heroic
metaphors and the physical -- and moral and intellectual --
actualities of computer-use grows still more paradoxical when
we consider the computer or the Internet in explicitly political
ways. We use words such as support group, interest group,
news group, chat room, market, subculture, community, society
to designate some of the ways people link together on the Internet.
These and similar terms try to name the web's participatory,
activist potential, its power to create new communities and
theoretically to permit isolated minorities to find one another
across geographic and political boundaries.
But we clarify
and complicate this sense of the web's powers when we add the
necessary adjective virtual. As many have noted, this
is a deep paradox, fundamental to our experience of computers:
virtual environment, virtual community, virtual reality.
tropes point toward something of the immense promise but also
the immense peril of the Web: its apparent power to gratify
vastly divergent tendencies and yearnings. The Web is kind to
impulses often at war in our selves and in the social world.
It allows us to traverse the globe, to convene for many causes,
to converse intimately or publicly with many persons. Yet to
accomplish these interactions we must sit, solitary, at the
computer keyboard, interfacing deeply not with a human other
but with Windows 95.
encourages joining, interaction, sharing, the creation of communities
of interest; yet it is also congenial to our uncivic preferences
for isolation, the avoidance of human contact, solipsism, "lurking",
voyeurism. Through its power to confer anonymity, it feeds instincts
for scandal, revenge, name-calling, surveillance, pornography.
It is the
best of Webs, the worst of Webs. It promises, simultaneously,
to become the Agora, True Democracy, but also Big Brother. Do
I contradict myself? says the American poet, very well then
I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.
It is easy
to misconceive the import of such discourse about the Web's
contradictory nature, and especially its power to threaten such
vital conceptual and psychological boundaries as "near"
and "far," "presence" and "absence,"
"body and "self," "real" and "artificial."
by the adventure myths embedded in our vocabulary for cyberspace
and also by the futurist, technological aura of the whole enterprise
of computing, we may be led to see these profound paradoxes
as part of the future, uniquely modern, uniquely ours.
But of course,
and of course paradoxically, the reverse is true. The new grows
out of the old, repeats the old, embraces, reimagines and extends
the old. To understand the Web, I'm saying, to understand our
emerging digital culture, we need a continuity, not a discontinuity
aspect of continuity, of history, then, it becomes possible
to recognize that this supposedly unique and certainly central
aspect of our experience of the Web reenacts a distinctive joining
or blurring of "real" and "false", of "connection"
yet "isolation," "public" and yet "private"
that is also at the root of our experience of the movies, of
television, yes even the book.
this, my son, 33, a historian, insisted rightly that these formulations
are excessively literary and leave implicit such equally relevant
precursors as the telegraph and the telephone, collapsing space
and time by enabling instantaneous communication over any distance.)
angle, then, as from many others, this World Wide Web of paradox
is not at all new, at least in some of its defining powers,
but instead undertakes and carries forward the cultural work
of its predecessors and ancestors.
no quibble, some minor casuistry. I'm saying the experience
of hearing stories, reading novels and poems, attending plays,
looking at paintings, watching movies -- all are in a fundamental
way virtual experiences, where actuality is re-presented, tested
by hypotheses, experienced vicariously as metaphor and spectacle
retort to complaints against Shakespeare's failure to observe
the neoclassical unities of place and time is a famous crystallizing
of this durable idea of art as a site of "play", of
"let's pretend." It is absurd, Johnson says, a breach
of our contract with the very idea of theater, to credit the
objection that it is implausible for successive scenes to take
place in Rome and then half-way round the world in Egypt (or
for ten years to elapse in a play instead of a few hours) but
then to think that the entirety of sets, costumes, actors, audience
-- the whole environment of artifice -- is not a far stronger
cause for disbelief. We do not rush from our seats like Don
Quixote to save the puppet-heroine because we understand and
embrace the enabling convention of all drama: that its world
is imaginary, a virtual site.
I find it
instructive, I find it consoling to think about Jules Verne's
Captain Nemo and Star Trek's Captain Kirk -- of course they
are also emblems for their audience, for book-readers and tv-watchers
-- navigating unexplored and perilous universes even as they
sit in the familiar confining safety of the captain's chair,
on the captain's bridge, joystick ready, watching the screen.
to the conference, Democracy and Digital Media, was subsequently
published in The American Prospect, Sept-Oct 1998, pp.