Sep 122008

The Hyperlinked Society, the book I’ve referred to before, is a  book which shares the common faults of printed versions of conferences. Though the very word “conference” suggests the possibility of a rich dialogue among participants, the printed version tends to suggest no attention paid to each other. Here, for instance, there are two chapters on maps and the Web — the second much better than the first — each covering much the same topics, but not noticeably referring to the other.

What makes all this more problematic than it might be is that the stated subject is poorly chosen. Hyperlinks are ways to move attention from one web page to another. They are vital for the web crawlers or spiders that allow search engines to work, and without them the web as it was about 20 years ago would never have come into being. But what about everything besides hyperlinks that go along with them? Compare this topic with having a conference on the effect of screw threads on society. It would be hard to imagine modern life without the use of screws, bolts, threaded pipes, and threaded jar caps, but, still, singling out this one invention used in so many different ways would not really get you too far. Watches and plumbing both relied on screw threads, but that connection is not very revealing about how watches or plumbing affected modern society.

Likewise, from the very first, the hyperlink was merely one link in the chain of inventions that have made the Web significant. Hyperlinks would not have been of much use had they not been preceded by the personal computer, the graphical user interface, the computer mouse, packet switching and the Internet backbone. Since Tim Berners-Lee came up with the Web framework, tens of thousands more software innovations have come pouring forth. These include browsers, bookmarks, bookmark bars, cookies, java, mp3’s, file sharing, php, SQL, pdf’s, web portals, blogging software, easy to use listservs, community sites (Craigslist), on-line auctions, a whole series of search engine algorithms, e-Bay, Amazon, Yahoo! and Google, WordPress, quicktime, social media, multiplayer games, Wikipedia and wikis in general, SecondLife, VOIP, cloud computing, etc. Plus the negatives such as computer viruses, worms, spam, phishing, etc. And all sorts of hardware innovations in connections to the Internet at both ends, such as cable modems, wi-fi, smart phones, digital cameras, search-engine server farms, and so considerably on. Some of this depended on the hyperlink, and some did not. Singling out this one invention leads only to murk.

Tighter and Stronger

Attention is basically not mentioned in the conference report, even though changing the direction of our attention is what selecting a hyperlink most universally does. It is much more fundamental to see the Web in terms of attention than in terms of the technical device of hyperlinks. As each new invention of software or any other form of expression is added via the Web, the resources that can be used or rearranged for future additions grow, and the more people will find some way to channel their attention through it, leading to still more inventions, which, not so incidentally, are modes of attention getting in their own right. As is also not said, as this goes on, the effect is that new modes of attention getting and attention paying are added. No matter what personal tastes, styles, predilections, attitudes, and forms of comfort someone has, some aspect of the Web is likely to be able to fit with them, to provide channels of attention highly suited to all that. And the fit will continue to get better and better. (Even those now not linked at all, with no computers or modems, for instance, will be pulled in through new hardware initiatives and inventions as well as more complelling software of all sorts.An interesting example of how the attraction increases and changes with new resources such as Facebook and Twitter and continuous updating of minor news of each person involved is offered in “I’m so Totally, Digitally Close to You,” by Clive Thompson in the NY Times.)

These reflections suggest a key prediction, not found in the book, of course. The Internet, which encompasses the Web and more, and its attendant devices and software together are like a single giant and growing Black Hole, pulling us all in faster and faster, and ending up much more attractive than all else. And just as light is not released by an ordinary black hole, attention is more and more tightly held through this all, where instant or very fast responses are the standard. (More than ever, traveling far away in space, say to Mars, would put one out of the loop, and probably unacceptably so. While the real worlds of the Internet expand to include all sorts of “virtual worlds,” the reality of the planets fades in importance. When we travel inward to virtual worlds, we find many others there; by comparison the planets are barren, devoid of anyone who can pay us attention, and far less evocative.)

But What About the “Real World”?

David Weinberger, at the end of his piece in the book, comments on people who fear that Web users will ignore “the ‘real’ world,” and then he adds a footnote to point out that he puts quotes around “real” because there is “only one world.” His point of course is that there is nothing unreal about the Web. I wouldn’t say it is much use to assert, for these purposes, that there is only one world, for each person has a certain horizon of attention the uniquely defines what, practically speaking is this person’s world. Seeing the Internet as black hole means that the parts of it that each person connects to more and more tightly is an increasing part of that person’s reality.

The word “real,” as in “get real” is of course often used pejoratively, to imply someone is not dealing with “reality.” Reality in that formulation can mean “economic reality — i.e. the old money economy — or simply material reality, as in, say, tables, chairs and breakfast cereal. But in fact reality for each person not only continually changes but is refracted an reflected through the minds of other people. The growing Internet is increasingly the channel of that refraction and reflection, that re-pointing of attention to what now becomes most real.

“Real,” then suggests a contrast with “unreal,” but the latter can mean ideal or abstract, as in mathematical truths, or wishful thoughts, hallucinations, paranoid fears, or simply works in progress, (not yet “realized”) or simply the so-called virtual worlds instantiated by such “games” as SecondLife. If each person has in effect her own world defined by the reaches of her attention, it will contain some elements of all of these, but the parts that can be viewed as real are the parts that cannot be changed purely by that person’s wishes or emotional changes without the intervention of others, but can be changed when others agree. Within the new black hole of the web, even mathematics (or religious truths) ceases to be purely an unchangeable ideal but rather depends on agreement among a circle of others. Some supposed “real world” entities, such as prices, lose a clear claim to reality, while other entities, like global warming, which cannot be individually perceived, increase in reality, because they emerge in a new consensus. We —or rather, some of us— are more and more in touch with aspects of the old “concrete reality” that we would be kept from were it not for the Net.

How that effects our psyches I will say more of in the next installment.

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