copyright 2002 David Weinberger
On Bill Cheswick's home page [i] you'll find a bit of visual legerdemain, the "McCollough Effect." It's not quite an optical illusion, although at first it seems like it--you stare at some colored bars and then 'see" a nimbus of purple around vertical black stripes. But, unlike an optical illusion, the effect lasts for days, giving you the unsettling feeling that looking at the bars has somehow rewired your brain. If you want to get to Bill's home page to try this out, he'll tell you to just type "cheswick" into the address box at the top of your browser, as if it were built with his address specially encoded in it. In fact, he's relying on the fact that some browsers automatically fill in the "www." before and ".com" after a single word. Ches (as he likes to be called) isn't really trying to trick you; he's just playing with the seam where technology and magic meet.
You need this sense of play to be an Internet security guru. That's Ches's role at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. The imposing modern buildings set back from the street seem out of scale. Inside are the labs that invented the transistor, the laser, and information theory itself. Currently, they are registering a "mere" three patents a day.
If your role is to out-think hackers, you need to understand the Net at several levels at once: its hardware, the protocols by which computers establish communication, the languages they speak, and the applications they run that access the inner workings of the computer and thus present a vulnerable belly. You also need a sense of playfulness that will let you anticipate your nemesis" quirks of genius. These qualities of vision are characteristic of people who love maps, for maps show an overview and details all at once. So, it perhaps should have been no surprise when Ches unrolled a large piece of paper printed on an over-size printer, introducing it as a distraction from our real reason for meeting. Our work meeting had turned into play.
It took two of us to hold the scrolled paper open." Ches admired his handiwork. It looked like a particularly chaotic set of fireworks, starbursts in a hundred colors, overlapping and messy. Or perhaps it is like a roomful of mutant spider plants. It's an arresting image but conveys no information to me.
"This," says Ches, "is a map of the Internet."
It is, to be more precise, a map of the hardware of the Net, the routers that move the packets of information requested whenever a user clicks on a hyperlink. As Ches puts it, it shows "the tin cans and string" of the Net. His voice gets even more animated as he points out cluttered areas representing sub-surface Internet backbone providers few users have heard of.
It's a view that corresponds to nothing that users ever see, like a multi-layer map of a city. The top layer shows the city streets and buildings, with tourist attractions starred. The next layer shows the subway system, perhaps in a stylized manner to make it more readable. The next layer shows the gas, water, sewage and electrical conduits, arranged to show how they connect, not how they relate to the top-level map. This bottom layer corresponds to Ches's map. It's useful to those who can interpret it--the colors show clusters of IP addresses and thus of potential blockages--but this is a not a map of a space any more than is a map of a family tree. It's useful and interesting precisely because it shows the Net organized by clusters of connections--space freed of geography.
* * *
"This a map of the Web," says Tim Bray, on the other edge of the continent, pointing at a computer screen that shows, unexpectedly, a map of Antarctica.
Tim is one of the Web pioneers. While one can mark the beginning of the Web with Tim Berners-Lee's invention of HTML, the language of Web pages, there is a different history to be written as well, one that focuses on two decades of thought about the business problems posed by documents. Documents are stunningly deep artifacts. Just about all business information worth knowing is expressed in them. Yet, once you put an idea into a business plan, a memo, an invoice or a white paper, there's no easy way to find it, extract it and re-use it. Tim Bray was one of the leaders in the effort to solve these problems, focusing on finding information in documents. When the Web hit the world, Tim was able to take the software hed written and use it to create one of the very first Web search sites. In fact, if you did a search on the contents of Yahoo back in the early days, you were using Tim's work. Given his long interest in helping people navigate through masses of pages, it's not surprising that his start-up is centered on mapping webs--it's the same set of problems, although this particular solution uses pictures to navigate through the Web's words. [ii]
Tim and I are looking straight down at what started its life as a satellite image of the frozen continent." We type in that we're looking for 'sites about vegetarian recipes "and the site returns a list of topics such as Home/Recipes/Vegetarian and Home/Recipes/World_Cuisine/Eastern_Asian/Chinese/Vegetarian, representing branches of a broad outline of topics similar to what you see at Yahoo. In this case, the outline of available sites is built by the Open Directory Project, a volunteer group of tens of thousands of people who suggest sites that ought to be included in the listing. We decide to visit one of the topics, and pick a view that is relatively close to the ground--the higher up you are, the closer you are to the start of the outline and the more general the topic is. The map of Antarctica is populated with labels showing the category we're looking for as well as neighboring ones. We click to drop down a level until we're looking at markers indicating the Web sites themselves. Sites are represented by circles with three concentric rings like a bulls-eye target. The thickness of the black outer ring tells you how many links the page has, the thickness of the blue ring tells you how many other pages link to it, and the thickness of the inner white circle tells you how many pages are on the site. Thus, a quick scan tells you a lot about the richness and popularity of each site. We click on one with lots of links out and in, and find ourselves on a Web site devoted to vegetarian cooking.
Just when I think we're done, Tim clicks on a button on the screen and now we're not hovering above Antarctica but have dropped to ground level. The circles seen from above now look like buildings, their appearance designed to convey information about the site. By using the mouse and arrow keys, we can move through the 'streets," buildings growing larger as they approach. Tim presses the "Page Up" key and now we're flying. Beneath it are clusters of sites on related topics, little villages of recipes and hamlets of vegetarian information. Tim clicks on one and the site it represents opens up in a separate browser window. We come back, speed past some Chinese recipes and come to rest in a tiny town of vegetarian lasagna recipes.
Map or video game? Does it matter? On the Web, information can be its own reward.
* * *
Ches and Tim's map are world's apart." Ches's is of the Internet, the global network that pre-dates and enables the Web; Tim's is of the Web. Ches's is of hardware; Tim's is of Web sites, which ultimately are software. Ches's clusters are based on their physical connections; Tim's clusters are based on guesses about similarity of topic. Ches's aims at showing relationships to help our understanding; Tim's aims at helping us navigate. And both these maps are very different from maps of the earth. Ches and Tim could change their plotting algorithms and their "land masses" would radically shift. And although both maps are graphical, Tim's sort of Web maps are unlike any maps of the earth ever created since the Egyptians first asked what the world might look like to a high-flying bird: clicking on Tim's map actually takes you to where you touched. That only happens in the real world in dreams involving genies and lanterns.
Yet, the real mystery is this: Why does it make any sense at all to create maps of a world that is so profoundly non-spatial? Why does the Web-- accessed through a computer that shows us a 2-D screen of colored bits --seem so resolutely spatial when it's not spatial at all?
* * *
We carry with us two distinct conceptions of space. On the one hand, there's the space we walk around in, filled with tangible things such as houses, trees, and bicycles. On the other hand, there's the space that we measure with odometers, yard sticks and surveying equipment rulers. These two spaces - lived space and measured space - are quite distinct. Lived space is different everywhere we look. Except for a moonless night in a flat, featureless desert, or the blackness of a sensory deprivation booth, every waking moment of every day we are surrounded by differentiated sensations. Actually, that's not accurate. We're not surrounded by sensations but by stuff--the things of our world, each with some meaning to us." Our space is full of opportunities, obstacles and dangers--what the psychologist James Gibson called affordances (e.g., the chair affords us the possibility of sitting) and the philosopher Martin Heidegger called the ready-to-hand. [iii] This lived space is the opposite of measured space composed of uniform segments, like the grid on a map.
We invented measured space. We did so because it's useful. We humans have been measuring things for a long time; just consider the ancient origins of the term "foot." But thanks to 17th Century thinkers such as Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes, we took measured space one step further and began to visualize a universal, three dimensional gridwork within which any thing can be precisely located. We have so abstracted this grid that we believe that the entire universe fits snugly inside of it. The difference between knowing that we can, when required, measure something and believing that space consists of uniform, measured distances is vast. We measure things to make them fit, and thus are paying especially close attention to the things we are measuring. But the grid is supposedly always there, independent of the things in it. The grid, considered in itself, turns our attention away from the stuff of our world. Nevertheless, it has become the very definition of space according to our "default philosophy," the set of beliefs about our world that is so deep that it feels like common sense.
If the Web is a space, it's incapable of supporting a gridwork. There can't be an overlay of equally distant points because the Web is a space without distance, at least not in any usual sense. Yes, you could play with Chas" map of the Net until the router placements correspond to their placement on the earth, and then you could overlay a grid on top of that. But that would be a map of where the Web's hardware is housed. That might be useful - it could remind you to be careful when digging up your backyard, for example - but it wouldn't be a map of the Web. To achieve this grid, we've had to reduce the Web to a set of computers. But that's precisely what's not interesting about it. The Web space is composed of pages and sites that are located relative to one another but not in an abstract spatial grid. The Web is a special kind of space.
What type? Let's try a thought experiment. Imagine you're an English professor doing research on Moby Dick. You do most of your work in the huge university library where you have a carrel with a large writing surface and surprisingly large storage cabinets. As you begin your research, you want to "get the lay of the land," browsing in the vast literature about this classic by picking a starting point and being guided by the footnotes and bibliographies of the books you're reading." So, you request your first book from the stacks. Every faculty member has his or her own underpaid graduate student. Ours is named Bob. All you have to do is tap your finger on the reference, and the ever-alert Bob runs to the stacks and retrieves it for you.
You read along. There's an interesting footnote that refers to another book. You tap. Up comes Bob with the book. Making notes, you find some references in the bibliography of the second book. Down goes Bob as he loads your requested books on a cart and delivers them to you. More footnotes, more bibliographies, more trips into the stacks by Bob. After a couple of weeks, you're at book #500 and you seem to have just about all the relevant books at hand, carefully organized in the carrel so it only takes a few seconds to find the one you need. Bob goes for a cup of coffee and takes a well-earned nap.
Now imagine that you are doing the same research but on the Web. The same 500 books are all on line. Their footnotes and bibliographic references are all hyperlinked." Since you have a touch screen, all you have to do is press on the reference and the hyperlink is activated; this is just like what you had to do with the real books in your carrel. And, to keep the analogy, let's say the connection is bad so that hyperlinks work about as quickly as Bob (who, I may not have mentioned, is an Olympic roller skater). After four weeks, you've browsed through the same 500 books.
Now, we've constructed two situations, one hugely artificial, the other fairly realistic. In both cases, you're reading documents, touching links, and then reading the documents the links point to. The only difference is that in one case the documents are printed on paper and in the other they're sprayed across glass. Despite this, our experience of these two situations will be quite different. Consider the language we'll use. In the first case, we'll take a book from the shelf, find a link, get another book and put the first one back. In the physical carrel, I'm the still center of the universe. I cause things to be brought to me and to be put away from me when I'm done. Now consider the language we use to talk about the Web experience: we go to a site, we browse, we surf, we find a link so we go to it. When we're done, we leave the site. The carrel is a place where we sit; the Web is a space through which we travel.
So our very language tells us." And it's not just a few casual words that happen to use spatial imagery. The economy of the Web is being built around the idea that it's a space. We're building 'stores," worrying about the impact of Web "malls," running ads to bring users "in," trying to make our sites 'sticky" to keep users from "leaving," providing aids so users can navigate. Space isn't a mere metaphor. The rhetoric and semantics of the Web are that of space. More important, our experience of the Web is fundamentally spatial.
In our thought experiment, the two cases are identical except for the fact that one of them delivers documents digitally over the Web. It seems that there must be something about the Web itself that turns the book experience into a spatial one.
Part of it has to do, oddly, with the fact that the Web is a series of documents. Documents--pages--are the stuff of the Web. This is a good thing, for we are all intimately acquainted with the operating instructions for documents, the most complex presentations of information that humans deal with. From the time we sit on our parent's lap as he or she read picture books to us, we are taught the information structures behind documents, starting with pages and pictures with captions. By the time we're eight or so, we can parse a newspaper, understanding which elements are headlines, stories, headers, footers, subheads," and ads. Newspapers are amazingly complex in terms of their information structures, but we navigate them as if we were born to the job."
Without documents, the Web would be as boring as the Internet from which it sprang. Wed be scrolling through character-based screens of information, without the benefits to the eye and mind of multiple fonts and careful layout. But, because sites are documents, we've all already been trained to parse them. Because we're used to magazines, we immediately grasp the purpose of the left-hand sidebar used by many sites. Because we're used to books, we understand what a table of contents on a site does. Because we're used to reports, we make sense of information presented in table form. We've been well trained.
But Web documents are weird. This is to be expected given the odd history of the concept of the document. Sometimes when I give talks, I play a game with the audience called "Am I a Document?" I show them a photo of a book and ask if it's a document? Everyone of course says yes. Next, airplane tickets? Definitely. But how about a candy wrapper with an ingredients list and nutritional information? Yes, probably. The back of a cereal box? Yeah, since we read it at breakfast, why not? A t-shirt with a slogan on it? Half the people say no, until I zoom in on the label with its washing directions--the shirt's instruction manual. A musical score definitely is a document, but how about a recording of it being performed? Sky writing? Smoke signals? A coded knock on a door signaling that I'm a friend? A burning bush? Amazingly, there's always at least one person who says yes to each of these. The concept of the document has become elastic almost to the point of meaninglessness. [iv]
Before computers, however, we knew exactly what they were. And outside of the world of computing, we're quite clear about them. Documents are" a special class of things with writing on them, including passports, leases, contracts, an original copy of the United States Constitution and Napoleon's hand-drawn map of Waterloo. To be a document, it has to play a special role in our legal or historical systems such that a copy simply won't do.
How did such a clear and specialized concept get so confused? In the 1970s, the makers of word processing systems were looking for a word that would distinguish their files from those of other applications. They needed a term of sufficient generality to include everything one could write with their software, and, surprisingly, there was no such term in our language; the closest is perhaps "writings" and that doesn't work very well in the singular." So, the word processors took over the term "document," and if you are old enough to have been in on the first round of personal computers, you may remember" being struck by how out-of-place it first seemed.
But then word processors became more powerful and flexible. The files they create can now include images, sounds, movies. And it's not just word processors that create these types of files. Your spreadsheet, your database, your Web page editor can all do the same things. "Document" got stretched to include everything you can make visible with a computer program. Since the stretching happened without plan or definition, the term has become vague and without clear borders. That's why we run into difficulty when we try to define a computer document or even figure out if my tie, as a fashion statement, might conceivably count as a document.
As a result, the word "document" inside the computing world and outside of it has opposite meanings. Outside, documents are unique originals; inside the world of computers, they are perfectly copy-able. Outside, documents are high-value; inside, everything from a will to a grocery list is a document. Outside, documents are unchanging; inside, computer documents are there to be changed. Outside, documents are an unusual class of writings; inside, there's nothing more common than a document.
But it's a good thing that computers have broken the spine of this erstwhile well-defined concept. It has allowed computing environments, including the Web, to take advantage of the expertise we've developed understanding complex documents and to extend and stretch the concept in ways the real world didn't--couldn't--need. For example, because traditional documents have gotten us used to footnotes and other pointers, we were able to comprehend hyperlinks without a hiccough.
But some of the traditional ideas of documents don't transfer nearly as easily, including the basic document publishing model. When we buy a physical book in a bookstore, we don't expect it to be the original. In fact, we don't know quite what the original would be. The first copy printed? The author's handwritten pages? On the Web, on the other hand, matters are considerably more confusing. For example, in June of 2000, hackers vandalized the Nike site, www.nike.com. They put up a political statement and directed traffic to a site where people could get information about protesting the World Trade Organization. Suppose the Web didn't exist and the hackers wanted to vandalize Nike's marketing materials. Consider what it would have taken to vandalize all of the advertisements Nike was placing in magazines - millions of dedicated operatives thumbing through millions of magazines, writing their slogans over and over and over. The paper documents are all copies, albeit of an original that we can't quite identify. When we look at the paage at www.nike.com, we feel as if we're looking at the one and only. Vandalizing www.nike.com is more like vandalizing the Nike building than its marketing literature.
And this is perhaps the most significant change the Web brings to the world of documents: the Web has created a weird amalgam of documents and buildings." With normal paper documents, we read them, file them, throw them out, or send them to someone else. We do not go to them. We don't visit them. Web documents are different. They're places on the Web. We go to them as we might go to the Washington Monument or to the old Endicott Building. They're there, we're here, and if we want to see them, we've got to travel.
They're there. With this phrase, space--or something like it --has entered the picture.
* * *
The odd thing is that, of course, we're not really going any place, and we know it. When we click on a link, a message is sent to the server that houses the page we want and a copy of the page is transmitted to us. If there are lots of graphics or if the Net has indigestion, it can take a long time. We sit there watching the "Waiting" symbol in our browser and mutter under our breath. So, we do in some sense know that we're dealing with a copy being delivered - slowly - to our computer. Yet the spatial sense persists.
Perhaps this isn't so far removed from ordinary perception. We see the Washington Monument in the distance. It's there and we're here. Yet, if you were to sit us down and remind us of the physics we took in high school, wed tell you that what we're seeing is light that's bounced off of the Monument and has arrived in our eyeballs. Nevertheless, we have the irreducible sense of seeing the original. And the same is true on the Web: we are downloading a copy, yet we feel we're seeing the original.
In the final analysis, we seem to have a choice of metaphors that are equally suited to the task. We could think of the Web as a giant photocopier that delivers copies of sites. We could think of it as a medium through which we see sites. We could think of it as a library from which we request copies. But we don't. We experience the Web as a web: a set of nodes that are linked one to another, creating a space through which we travel.
* * *
There is a tie to the physical earth that helps give the Web its spatial sense. As we go to one document site after another, we have the sense that the authors of these pages are someplace else on the planet. Sometimes we have a good sense of where--for example, if you're at the home page of a car dealer or consulate--and often we don't have the slightest idea. But we know the authors of Web pages are far flung around the globe." We probably also have a vague idea that the Web servers that serve up the pages are themselves geographically distributed. This vague connection to the earth makes it easier for us to see the Web as a global space through which we can move.
And, as we go from page to page, we also know that the pages were put there for all to see. They are public. Documents are, after all, a way people communicate. This gives us the sense that the Web is an objective space that is bigger than any one of us. This, too, enables our perception of the Web as a space.
* * *
It's a space, but different from normal space. If you don't allow for the Web's transformation of space, you can get some unexpected results. For example, if the Web is spatial, we should be able to create a representation of it as 3-D space that enables us to move around using the arrow keys on our keyboard. Indeed, there are several chat rooms that take this approach, as does Tim Bray's Antarctica map. Normally, in a chat you and a number of other people online at the same time type messages at one another that appear in a scrolling window replicated on each person's computer desktop. In a 3-D chat room, each person is represented by a graphic of his or her own choosing, ranging from a simple drawing of a person to fanciful animals, monsters and objects. These graphics, or avatars, wander through a set of 3-D corridors and rooms. You see other avatars, typically with speech balloons over their head reporting what they're saying. If you want to join in, you just start typing.
But moving a chat into a 3-D web space changes the nature of the chat. For example, Michael Heim, a professionally-trained philosopher and author of several important books on the philosophical impact of computer and Net technology [v] , teaches 3-D design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He regularly runs cyber classes in which students meet via avatars online in a 3-D space. During one of Mike's lectures, I participated as a student. [vi] "
The 3-D world was populated with buildings assembled by students at the Art Center from a palette of basic shapes and textures, creating buildings, gardens, even free-floating cloud-like structures. The shapes had different textures, from metallic sheen to thatches. Some shimmered. Some played music as you approached. Buzzing around Michael were little cartoony characters, low resolution (i.e., made up of relatively few dots), representing each of us. I was the default avatar, a cross between a stick figure and a manikin; Michael's avatar was a plankton that looked like a pillow with four legs. To my side, one of the more practiced participants had adopted her own avatar, a gracefully dancing set of curved lines. A bird hovered, a colorful bug flitted. Certainly there must be some psychological significance to the choice of avatars, but it's as hard to read as the choice of hats - did you put on the pith helmet because you're feeling adventurous or ridiculous?
Michael began the tour by giving us some instructions. His words appeared in a comic-book balloon near his head. Using the arrow keys, we moved our avatars around, in effect watching ourselves move through space-- far from the usual earthbound experience.
The experience was different in other ways as well. For example, we could fly at will or hyperjump from one spot to another without having to cover any of the distance in between. And there was one more difference that may not at first seem connected to the nature of the virtual space we were in but which I think in fact is: the silly, back-of-the-classroom chatter we might have engaged in when teenagers faced with a substitute teacher surfaced quite explicitly. As Michael was making his points, there was a constant stream of remarks from the students about what he was saying. Some cheered him on with comments like, "That's so true!" or "The same thing happened to me" with an elaboration. Others made wisecracks, some at Michael's expense but none mean; clearly the group liked him. Side discussions broke out and drove to new points of interest or silliness. Students could "whisper" asides to a particular person without the rest of the group knowing. Because of the lag time between when one types and when the comment appeared, the replies to comments frequently would arrive after a new, unrelated comment showed up, resulting in an agreeable jumble of ideas, responses tripping over one another in an unassembled chaos.
This type of chatter wouldn't have occurred during one of Michael's classes in the real world space. We would have sat relatively quietly, not interrupting and staying on a single thread until it was done. It would not have been nearly as chaotic and digressive. If we wanted to talk while someone else was talking, we would have stifled ourselves, or, if not, we would have whispered. But online, what would have been rude in the real world turned into a valuable ingredient of the discussion itself. We were making public what would have been private in the space of the real world." And we were all talking at once, connecting to various threads of conversation as they emerged, because the Web space lets many things happen at the same time in the same place.
Weird things happen in a weird space. And there are other ways the spatial analogies don't hold--which can cause problems if the differences go unthought. For example, we think of a typical ecommerce site as a store, not as a catalog, because we're comfortable with documents-as-buildings on the Web. But where do the analogies end? Supposedly, the item in a real world grocery found in the most shopping carts is, surprisingly, bananas. So, many real world groceries put the bananas in the back of the store to force you to traverse the aisles in hopes that you'll be tempted into doing some impulse shopping on the way to the bananas. But this would be precisely the wrong strategy for a Web store. If you force users to click many times to get to what they're looking for, they will remember that they're only one click away from your competition. We don't mind walking down the aisle to get the bananas because in the real world, the nature of space requires some things to be further away than others. But, because the Web's peculiar type of space can put everything we need within equally distanceless reach, if we think a site is making itself inconvenient on purpose, we don't get the bananas--we get annoyed.
But the most significant difference between real world space and Web space has to do with the relationship of space to the things in it. Real world space is a pre-existing container in which the things of the world exist. Web space is created by the things in it. For example, the territory that Michael Heim had us visit wasn't an empty plot of Web until people built their creations; in creating the buildings, they were creating the space Michael was showing off. Unlike in the real world, there's no expanse of empty space that gets diminished every time someone stakes a new plot on which to build a house. Web space is infinite in that it can't be used up," but it's not infinitely big. In fact, it has no extent at all.
That Web space, unlike real space, is not a container waiting to be filled by the pages that are the stuff of the Web is a point often missed in media discussions of mega mergers such as that of America On Line and Time-Warner. The columnists get in a fluster, worried that these new, giant entities will crowd out the smaller sites, the way a Wal-Mart can drive out local businesses. But this assumes that the Web has a finite amount of space and that location counts. No, let AOL-Time-Warner-MCI-UN build the world's largest site complete with everything from news to gambling. So what? If it's good, we'll go. If not, it's no harder to get to www.mom-and-pop.com than to www.mega-site.com. Distance on the Web is measured by links, so the way to make your site "close" to where your customers are is to get lots of places to point to it. How? By being interesting or worthwhile. That's not how real space works where location location location outweighs almost everything--precisely because navigating real space is such a pain. While big companies have an advantage when it comes to location because their fatter wallets can buy better positioning, big sites don't have a leg up on being interesting. In fact, often it's quite the contrary.
* * *
Web pages create Web space. This is exactly how lived space works in the real world, although it's harder to see because the abstract idea of measured space is ready to leap into our thinking at inappropriate times.
Measured space is the same everywhere; that is its essence. Lived space is different everywhere; that is its nature. What makes lived space different everywhere you look? Things. Lived space is made by the things in it. Downtown is where the business buildings are." The recreational area is where the parkland is. The "combat zone," as we called it in Boston, is where the triple-X movie houses are. Move the porn shops into the parks and the business buildings into the combat zone and lived space will be thoroughly changed--while abstract, measured space isn't touched in the slightest.
But lived space isn't merely or even primarily the assemblage of stuff. Rather, lived space has tone, character. This is because the things of the world come with emotional qualities embedded. This is true of big things like buildings but is also true of the smallest, most trivial of items we encounter day to day. Put aside your philosophical and psychological theories"--our "default philosophy"--for the moment and think about the last time you were in your kitchen making breakfast or foraging for a snack. You didn't see shapes with colors. You saw stuff you could eat, use to make things you could eat, or that stood in the way of eating. In fact, the things of the world show themselves as more than just useful or not useful. They have emotional qualities as well. The Swiss Army knife we carry in our pocket is reassuring; the thick wool socks we see in our drawer are comforting; the straight-backed chair by our worktable speaks of the rewards of discipline. Assemblages of things, in the architecture of our dwellings, have their own, often quite deliberate mood. Many people have strong reactions to cellars, but we all have similar, less-attenuated, reactions to every room in our house: the warmth and utility of the kitchen, the sociability of the living room, the refuge of the bedroom. In The Poetics of Space, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard pries out the subtle affect of things as common as a kitchen drawer or a closet corner. [vii] You read the book and recognize feelings you didn't know you were having.
Things make space. Things present themselves in terms of their emotional quality. Put things together and you're beginning to build places that have their own affective qualities. Lived space consists of places.
* * *
The space of the Web is itself full of places--some like meadows, some like drainage ditches, but all full of character and meaning. The Web is a place.
What sort of place is the Web? Let's take a tour, one of billions of routes we might make for ourself.
A friend sends you an email recommending http://www.myrtle.co.uk because "it's cool." And Myrtle looks cool. It turns out that Myrtle is some sort of non-traditional marketing company." There's some low-tech information about their business, but the bulk of the long, scrolling black page is devoted to articles they've written and sites they like. You click on the Adbusters link (www.adbusters.com) because the Myrtle page describes it as an anti-advertising site. It turns out that Adbusters is an activist page that views ads as a corporate weapon of global domination. Back to Myrtle. There's a link to www.zeldman.com, "the advertising graveyard." You poke around there for a while, looking at proposed ad campaigns that got axed by their clients, often seemingly out of timidity. Quite amusing. Back on the Myrtle page there's a link to something called "NetBaby" which sounds like it might be some type of virtual infant. Nope, it's a site with interactive games. Cool, but you get tired of playing virtual ping pong after losing 15-0 to the computer. Unlike the Adbusters and Zeldman pages, there are no links on NetBaby to other sites, probably because NetBaby is a commercial site and wants to keep you to itself. Back on Myrtle you find they recommend an article called "Dust My Broom" by an author listed as "RageBoy." You go to the site (www.rageboy.com/index2.html) and find that it is a wacky assemblage of overstatement and outrage. As you poke around the site, you realize this RageBoy character (the nom de plume of author Christopher Locke) can actually write. And there are lots of links to explore. You make a note to come back to Myrtle at some point, and you recommend it to a few friends via email.
Of course, not all interactions with the Web are this non-directive; sometimes we just want to go to a site and get the information. Not long ago, I gave a talk touting the Web. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and confessed, rather shamed-facedly, "I don't browse very much." I told her about my friend Robert who has been on the Internet since it was called ARPANET and you had to be a certifiable geek to use it. Robert doesn't think of the Web as a place for browsing. He uses it everyday, but only for email and for doing research. The Internet is for him very much just a reference library, and although it has extensive holdings, many of them are unreliable, not to say lunatic. He rarely surfs or browses, yet he is one of the original Net prophets. And, I told this woman, I actually don't spend that much time browsing either. I'm on the Web all day, but I'm not jumping from link to link, exploring the new world. I'm doing my email and visiting sites recommended by others, with occasional surfing because a link attracts my eye. Lots of people who use the Web heavily are very light on random browsing.
"Whew," said the woman. "I thought I was doing it wrong."
* * *
Even if my friend Robert and this woman aren't spending a lot of time randomly browsing, they are still using the mechanism that enables the Web to be the Web: hyperlinks." Hyperlinks are the geography of the Web.
Consider the three places--Adbusters, NetBaby, and RageBoy's site-- on the Myrtle site that we explored. What do they really have in common? One is a political site, one is a game spot for children, and one is an idiosyncratic collection of essays by a writer with too much personality for his own good. All that holds them together is that someone at Myrtle found them interesting. For that reason alone, the three sites have been placed near one another, creating a small virtual village of sorts. On the Web, nearness is created by interest.
It can be difficult to comprehend this because distance is so much a part of our normal world. So, let's try another thought experiment. Imagine you're in a room full of information about Broadway shows. There are theatre posters on the wall, some essays on the shelves, and song lyrics on a table. There are also some doors." One is labeled "The Life" and Music of" George Gershwin." Sounds interesting, so you press the door bell. Instantly, you find yourself in a new room with artifacts relating to Gershwin." This room also has magic doors to other rooms, but, oddly, none back to the room you started in. Now, imagine there are over a billion rooms and tens of billions of magic doors. We've just described the World Wide Web--the rooms are Web pages and the doors are hyperlinks.
This is a very weird city we've just imagined. The way these doors work changes the way we build the city. No subways. No streets. No scarcity of real estate to provide advantage to some. No limit to the number of next door neighbors you can have. In fact, nearness loses its symmetry: My Broadway show room may be near (linked to) your Gershwin room, but your Gershwin room need not be near my room. In fact, you may not even know that I've brought my room near to yours by linking to it; RageBoy may not know that Myrtle has made his page part of its locale.
This new place, the Web, is marked out by the cumulative choices of every homesteader. No placements are accidental. And, unlike in the real world where if I build a house on the last bit of the beach and you want to also, my decisions about where to locate don't affect your choices at all.
Most tellingly, in this Web city there is no outside, no empty space that contains the whole and arranges the parts. In fact, the Web is a public place completely devoid of space.
* * *
We began by asking why the Web seems so spatial even though it clearly doesn't exist in space. It turns out that our question was confused, as so often is the case with questions that stump us. The Web feels spatial because it's "place-ial," and, because until now all our places have been in space, when we see a place we assume it must exist in space. Then we make a set of assumptions based on taking space as measurable and abstract. What would look anomalous--or just plain weird--in our spatial world makes perfect sense on the Web, once we remember the Web is "place-ial" but not spatial: we can move from place to place but without having to traverse distance; we can arrange places the way we want without worrying about violating the rule that two objects can't occupy the same space at the same time; the symmetry of nearness can be broken.
We are not well-prepared for the distinction between space and place. The only places we've come close to it is in literature, movies and dreams. And except for dreams, generally the space-less places we've visited have assumed that the laws of space are still in existence: while Tolstoy can transport us from Paris to Moscow without having us traverse any distance, the characters in his imagined world are not so fortunate. In literature, the author can arrange events according to her interests, can build scenes and juxtapose them as she likes, all without having to worry about how they'll physically fit together or how long it will take the reader to get from here to there. The author, and the reader, enjoy the freedom that comes from the liberation of place from space. The Web is in this sense, like a collective, global work of literature. Or a dream.
* * *
Traditional space as a container--as the grand "outside" of everything that exists--is essentially passive. But the Web in effect actively holds itself together. If I write a page, it only becomes part of the Web, and thus extends the Web place, if someone links to it. Otherwise it's simply a page no one will ever find. Through these billions of acts of will the Web is constructed and expanded.
We are not used to this sense of place that creates its space, although physicists since Einstein are: Newton's idea of space as a giant container has been replaced by the idea--unfathomable to most of us, including me--that the matter of the universe creates the space it's in, and thus the question of what's beyond the universe doesn't make sense. But, of course, the galaxies, unlike the Web, weren't created by human will and don't reflect a patchwork of human interests.
In short, not only is there no outside to the Web, there's also no nature. Everything in it is artificial. So, when we hike through it, we interpret everything we see as purposive. The link to RageBoy's site didn't just grow on the Myrtle page like a tree fungus. We assume there's some sense to the way the pages are arranged and how they're linked. The fact that Myrtle links to such an eclectic set of sites tells us a great deal about Myrtle--a fact that Myrtle, a marketing company certainly had in mind, and which we knew they had in mind. We certainly do the same thing as we walk down a real street in the real world, but we also know that human will was at the service of the necessities of space and so we make allowances. Not on the Web: if the bit is on the screen, it's there because someone wanted it precisely there.
Thus Web 'space" necessarily has a moral dimension.
* * *
And there's an important difference in the politics of space as well. In the real world, I can't just put in a door from my apartment to my neighbor's so anyone can go through. But that's exactly how the Web got built. Tim Berners-Lee originally created the Web so scientists could link to the work of other scientists without having to ask them permission. If I put a page into the public Web, you can link to it without having to ask me to do anything special, without asking me if it's all right with me, and without even letting me know that you've done it. RageBoy may wake up tomorrow and find that links to his site have appeared on pages of people who admire him, who detest him, and who don't understand a word he says. If he doesn't like it, there's nothing he can do about it except ask politely to have the link removed.
There have been attempts to control the placing of links. Most famously, in April 1997 Ticketmaster, with breathtaking short-sightedness, sued Microsoft because Microsoft's Sidewalk city guides were linking from pages about upcoming concerts to the Ticketmaster page where you could buy tickets for that concert. A less arrogant company would have seen this as a marketing coup--Microsoft was drumming up business for Ticketmaster. But Ticketmaster couldn't get past the sites-are-stores model. Although the direct links to the Ticketmaster concert pages were a convenience for the user, Ticketmaster wanted to drag users through their front door and down all the aisles in order to get to the bananas. This would have been enough to drive a significant number of users to Ticketmaster's competitors--if Ticketmaster had competitors. Unfortunately, Microsoft settled the suit and Sidewalk agreed to link only to Ticketmaster's home page--a bigger loss for customers than for Microsoft.
The Web couldn't have been built if everyone had to ask permission first. In the real world, we assume privacy and need permission to enter. On the Web, that flips. The politics of the Web, by its very nature, is that of public rights and public ownership.
* * *
We usually think of space as a passive container: what you put inside doesn't change space, and space doesn't change what you put inside. Within this container are places that are themselves containers. Within the places are things that are self-contained.
Web space, on the other hand, is built not around things with neat edges but things that point beyond themselves. Links are all that holds the Web together; without links, there is no Web. The top ten sites always are dominated by sites like Yahoo that get their value--a multi-billion dollar value in Yahoo's case--from pointing away from themselves." Web space is linked, dynamic, poorly-edged, explosive.
This means that business has to teach itself new lessons." For example, in real world merchandising, you want people to stay in your store as long as possible. You use the inconvenience of space to persuade people to buy straight off of your shelves rather than schlep around to your competitors to do some comparison shopping. You hope that if they have to walk down the Gadgets aisle to get to the bananas, they may decide to buy the device that lets you scramble your eggs without breaking the shell. Then, as your store gets bigger, the inconvenience of space practically requires you to put in a high-margin fast food court where people can rest their distance-weary feet.
These real world tactics lead companies to think about their Web sites in terms of" 'stickiness," i.e., getting their visitors to stick around as long as possible. That is, they want to replicate on the Web the inconvenience of the real world where space is necessarily sticky--it's easier to shop where you are than to travel somewhere else. Sites like Yahoo faced this issue early on, for customers at Yahoo were only there to get someplace fast. Yet Yahoo was making money by selling users to advertisers: the more pages on Yahoo a visitor viewed, the more Yahoo could charge its advertisers. So, Yahoo decided to become a portal--a collection of sites that provide a wide range of services. (Notice that this use of "portal" is the opposite of what the term actually means: a real portal is something you pass through, whereas a Yahoo-style portal is intended to keep you from passing through.) Yahoo, in effect, has created a mall in which nearness is the result of ease of access: it's easy to find the merchandise you want and the links are right there.
Other companies have adopted a different strategy to replicate online the inconvenience of real-world space. To make their site sticky, they avoid links to anything except their own site. That works fine for sites-of-last-resort offering a quick sale of goods at commodity prices. But otherwise, the fear of links makes a site feel like a dead end on the Web. By making their site into a hard-edged object with no pointers beyond itself, the site makes manifest its self-interest and self-absorption. "Here's a place," it says, "at which only we speak. We're so entranced with ourselves that we don't acknowledge the rest of the world or the fact that maybe you don't find us quite as fascinating as we do." Ironically, of course, customers will find the site not sticky but repellant and claustrophobic.
The real stickiness on the Web isn't inconvenience but interest. Web sites are amalgams of buildings and documents so we traverse Web space by reading. The techniques of making written materials interesting are well known and highly developed. In short: if you want your site to be sticky, write interesting stuff.
The Web place is defined by interest the way the real world is defined by the accidents of geography. Interest on the Web is--like Web space itself--explosive, out-bound, digressive. The Web space is the opposite of a container. If a store forgets that, we customers will feel like fireflies being chased by a cruel child with a jar in his hands.
* * *
So, is the Web spatial? Yes, that is the fact of our experience of the Web. But if we think of Web space in terms of the measured space of the real world--or as the even more abstract notion of a universal grid work of uniform units--we'll go hopelessly wrong. In fact, the Web feels spatial because it is a linked assemblage of places--meaningful, significant spots, each different.
This is the Web's nature, for everything on it was put there by a human being for a reason. In building a site, we are saying that we find this topic interesting and we think others will also. Sites that work make manifest their passion. So, of course the Web inevitably is a plenum of places that have meaning and matter at least to someone.
But on the Web we experience something we can never experience in the real world: places without space. Instead of needing a containing space to enable movement, the Web has hyperlinks. Links are at the heart of the Web and the Web's spatiality. The fact that the linked pages come from many people turns the Web into a place larger than we are. It is a public place, a place we can enter, wander, and get lost, but cannot own." Since place and space have been inseparable in all of our experience in the real world until now, when we experience the Web's place-ness, we assume that it must also have the usual attributes of spatiality, including the accidental nature of geography. That makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that what holds the Web together isn't a carpet of rock but the world's collective passion.
# # #
[i] Cheswickss Home Page--what happened to the footnotes in this version???
[ii] After I wrote this chapter but before Tim Bray read it, he asked me to be on the Board of Directors of the company he founded to commercialize this mapping technology. I accepted the invitation.
[iii] See my article, "Three Types of Vorhandenheit" [BIBLIO]
[iv] In his excellent book, Scrolling Forward," soon to be published David Levy takes issue with this point as expressed in a small article I wrote for Wired (199_), He says that documents are "things that speak" for us, an eloquent expression that has much merit. But, it is itself a highly elastic definition that doesn't help us sort through borderline examples. [DAVID LEVY BIBLIO]
[v] Add Heim's BIBLIO
[vii] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space [BIBLIO]