Aug 152008

“Links are good. I believe that.” So begins David Weinberger’s argument  [p. 181] on the morality he sees embedded in the hyperlinked structure of the Web. His is one of the more interesting contributions to a book based on a conference entitled “The Hyperlinked Society:Questioning Connections in the Digital Age”, edited by Joseph Turow and Lokman Tsui. (Michel Bauwens suggested the book as something I might be interested in commenting on. So I read it and now I ‘m commenting.)
Weinberger’s argument  would, I think, also apply to telephone wires in the days before wireless. They allow us to communicate with one another, and in so doing  extend our awareness to the concerns of others. That makes the structure of the Web (or telephone system) commensurate with the morality of the Golden Rule, which he parses as follows: “We share a world, that world matters to others, and the fact that it matters to others matters to us.”
In other words, by following (hyper)links, we can learn what matters to the person who put the links on her web page, which will lead us to act differently, presumably, than we would without knowing that. And not only differently but more morally. Of course, the new web page probably has links as well, put there probably by the different person whose page that is, which leads us in an an endless spiral, at the end of which we would have learned what matters to everyone in the world, or at least everyone on the web.
Each hyperlink, thought of in this way, then, is a means of directing our attention from the person or persons who had it to someone else who had theirs. This passing along of attention can happen in many settings other than the Web. A friend of yours says “you’ve got to read this book,” or this article, or see this TV show or movie or art exhibit or taste this chef’s cooking or whatever. Or maybe it’s not a personal friend who says this but Oprah or Jon Stewart on their respective TV shows. Or any of them simply introduce some person new to you who you meet face to face, or see stepping onto the stage in front  of the TV star’s audience.
Only, if you have enough friends, you can’t possibly direct your attention to everything they suggest you should; likewise you can’t possibly follow the nearly infinite trains of hyperlinks to find out what matters to each of the vast majority of people on the web. If it would be moral to do that following, then perhaps, your intrinsic inability to is a new form of original sin. If you were God, perhaps you could attend to everyone; as you’re a finite person, you can’t. Either the Web makes us all sinners, or something is silly or wrong about Weinberger’s argument.
(His argument is even more all-encompassing than the non-Web examples I’ve offered. Your friend might be into orchid growing, frisbee throwing or stamp-collecting, but if she knows you’re not, she is unlikely to try to suggest books to read on the subject. But if your friend has a website, it might very well include links to such things. These things after all matter to her. But is it really the case that the Golden Rule would make it incumbent upon you to study such things? I suspect not. The Rule, correctly applied, I would think, would make it incumbent on straight people to grant gays the same rights to marriage that straights have long enjoyed, but it wouldn’t require straights to understand or even try to understand just what is attractive to gays about members of the same sex. Lots of people love sky-diving; I don’t have the least desire to find out for myself what this feels like; I might be immoral if I tried to forbid them from doing this or knowingly did something that interfered with their safety, but there would be nothing particularly moral, I think, in my trying to imagine or experience directly what jumping out of a plane feels like. )
So I don’t think it has been settled that the Web is intrinsically good, though it’s obvious that most people do enjoy what they find on the web. If it is good intrinsically, then either its users should become noticeably more moral than non-users, or its rise should clearly make the world a better place. If it could be  convincingly shown that the Web’s presence improves the chances for world peace, for  human rights, for environmental protection or other clear moral goods, then the Web could plausibly be called good in itself. Neither Weinberger nor anyone else writing in this tome offers any such assurances, at least not in any way I find believable.

MORE on this book to come……