This is a rough, raw draft. It is certain to change substantially. Read it at your own risk, and understanding that it’s just a frigging draft, ok? Thanks.
Don’t worry about the typos, etc. We have bigger mistakes to fry.
© 2001, David Weinberger
Latest: August 22, 2001
The Arc of the Web
The Web is just another set of string and tin cans. In fact, worse metaphors are warranted: the Web is a sewer of filth, greed and duplicity, the Web is as tawdry as a traveling carnival’s fixed game of ring toss. For all the fanfare, we’re really not much different than we were before the Web entered the scene. What’s more, the dot-com crash at the beginning of the century proved that the early overheated claims were not just unwarranted but embarrassing.
Every statement in the above paragraph is true. But taken together and apart, they also each miss the point. They’re taunts from people who think they’ve dodged a bullet: “Nah nah, you missed!” But they shouldn’t gloat too soon. The Web will have its deepest effect not as a bullet or a bomb but as an idea. Ideas don’t explode; they subvert. They take longer than incoming mortar fire. And because they change the way we think, they are less visible than big smoking holes. After a while, someone notices that we’re not thinking about things the way our parents did.
The Web isn’t entering the realm of our thoughts directly as an idea. It’s getting there as a technology. But, ever since McLuhan told us that the medium is the message, we’re used to that: we adopt a technology and it turns out to alter the way we think as much as an explicit philosophical credo or manifesto can. McLuhan also told us why that happens: technologies are really extensions of our own body. They are, in the words of Andy Clark (discussed in Chapter 7) a type of “external scaffolding.” Change our body and our ideas change. The Web is doing more than extending our bodies, however. Yes, like the telephone and fax, it’s extending our senses of hearing and sight. But it’s also creating a new, persistent public space where our extended bodies can go. The message of the Web as a medium is: See what you don’t need? If we can be together so successfully in a world that has no matter, no space, no uniform time, no management, no control, then maybe we’ve been wrong about what matters in the real world.
No one can predict the shape of the new world of the Web will take. The creators of the Internet accomplished their design objective of enabling the network to support unexpected innovations. We can perhaps guess at how an imminent technology such as voice recognition will be used, but we can’t know what we haven’t yet invented. As a species, we’re filling the Net’s ecological niches – for example, the variety of types of reviews grown in Amazon.com’s agar – with a rapidity that surpasses our comprehension. Only a fool would guess, and only the lucky will turn out to be right.
But that doesn’t mean we have to suspend judgment. The ideas that are the message of this medium not only can be glimpsed but have a certain familiarity. And because of that, although we don’t know what the Web will look like as it develops, we have solid grounds for optimism. Hope is warranted. We should give in to it.
* * *
Hollywood types like to talk about the “arc” of a character, by which they mean what happens to a character and the way the character develops. There’s been a certain arc to the ideas we’ve been discussing throughout this book. For example, we saw that our concept of space as an empty container divided into an abstract and uniform grid of points was extremely useful for coordinating and manipulating the things of our world, but is at odds with how we experience our world. We don’t live in an abstract grid, we live in a set of places that have meaning, character and emotional qualities. The Web, we argued, isn’t like abstract space. It doesn’t exist inside a container. It makes its own space, and every time someone posts a page, that space is enlarged. So, Web space consists of pages and other expressions of human interest. Although the places on the Web are joined differently than the places we encounter in the real world – the Web uses links while the real world relies on proximity – the Web feels spatial to us because it is close to our lived experience of places.
Indeed, our abstract ideas about space, time, matter, individuality, sociality, knowledge, and more, are out of sync with our lived experience. The Web is different enough from the real world that the mistakes we’ve made about the real world don’t distract us there. Thus, our experience of the Web is closer to the truth of our lived experience than are our ideas about our lived experience. For example, there’s no abstract space on the Web, so we can’t misconstrue the Web’s spatiality the same way we’ve misconstrued real world space. Web time explicitly threads our discontinuous involvement with it, so we can’t misconstrue Web time as consisting of a continuous string of particularized moments. Web knowledge comes in the form of people speaking in their own voices, so we’re not as tempted to seek voiceless, passionless authorities. The Web shows us more purely the truths of our human experience, truths that have been obscured by our thinking about human experience. The Web has excited our culture beyond any reasonable expectation – it’s just a network of computers, not the fountain of youth or a cure for cancer – because it helps to heal our alienation from our own experience. We could even formulate it as an overly-tidy “law”: A culture’s excitement about the Web is directly proportional to that culture’s alienation from its everyday experience.
That’s why the Web, for all its technological newness and oddness, feels so familiar to us. And that’s why it feels like a return even though it is the newest of the new. The Web is a return to the values that have been with us from the beginning. It is even a return to our basic self-understanding – a return from the distraction of modernism and the anti-human untruths embodied in the default philosophy we all carry with us with like a hundred-pound backpack. When you set it down, you feel like you can fly.
* * *
In that backpack are a variety of ideas that seem so true yet are utterly non-descriptive not only of our daily lives but of what we know matters to us:
In the pack is individualism, the idea that we are first and foremost isolated human beings. Groups are secondary to individuals, our default philosophy says, because a group is nothing but a collection of individuals. But with this individualism comes a lonely selfishness that does a true disservice to the concern for others that guides our every waking moment. The Web, on the other hand, only exists because its 300 million denizens are reaching out to others. The Web is only possible as a group activity.
In the backpack is realism (of what some would call “materialism), the idea that the real world is fully independent of our awareness of it. That the world is independent of us is undeniably true, but it’s also true that it’s independent of our awareness to varying degrees: facts are less dependent on us than are desires, but even desires are a way of revealing something true about the “independent” world. What distinguishes our backpack’s realism from the unexceptional truth that we’re in a world not of our own making is our belief that the real – the independent – deserves extraordinary clout in all human activities: facts trump dreams and feelings are for sissies. The Web, on the other hand, is thoroughly a creation of subjective human beings and is built not out of atoms or matter or facts but out of human interests.
In the backpack is relativism, the idea that all values depend on accidents of history and culture. This is undeniably true, but we’ve taken it to mean that no ideas have “real” value because “real” means “independent of humans”: we’ve set the hurdle impossibly high. So, with relativism comes alienation from one’s own values. The Web, on the other hand, is a revel of values and viewpoints. The differences that supposedly disprove the worth of all values turns out on the Web to be a source of joy.
When you completely unpack the backpack, you may notice a lingering whiff of solipsism, the idea that all we can really know is what’s inside our own heads. This is undeniably true, if you define “know” as “to know with a psychotic degree of certainty.” With solipsism comes a terrifying alienation from all that we know and love outside of ourselves. The Web, on the other hand, is a multi-billion point reflection on the world, on its inhabitants, and on their own reflections about the world. It is a fractal image of the world outside of our own minds. To a solipsist, the Web is the most irrelevant contraption ever invented.
There’s an arc to what’s been placed in our backpack. The beliefs are true as far as they go. But they carry value judgments that fly in the face of who we are and who we are happiest being. Yes, we’re individuals but we’re at our best when we acknowledge our deep prior attachment to the others of our world. Yes, the world is independent of us, but we’re at our best when we work the stuff of the world to enrich our common potential. Yes, our values and concepts are relative to our culture and language, but we’re at our best when we build on that collective work, rather than vainly try to flee from it like a child trying to jump over his own shadow. These beliefs put together and shorn of their negative valuations say something quite simple and quite true: we are creatures in a shared world not of our making, and we’re in it not simply as bodies but as people who care about ourselves and others, understanding our world based on the hard work and poetry of those who went before us.
* * *
The negative values we place on these obvious ideas – truths so basic that they are indeed beautiful – also exhibit a pattern. In our modern age, we seem to prefer things with hard edges. For example, if I were to ask you for an example of a real thing, you are much more likely to point to a rock than to a cloud, a breeze, a storm, a weather pattern or your fear of thunder. A rock has the advantage of having a precise shape that doesn’t change much over the course of time. More important, it doesn’t seem to require much involvement by us humans to see it as one, unified thing, whereas the unity of a storm or a weather pattern seems to depend on a human perceiving and relating all the pieces. Likewise, we like to think of space as consisting of uniform, measurable distances, time as consisting of uniform, measurable intervals, and knowledge as consisting of knowable, indisputable facts — each with exact boundaries and hard edges.
This hard-edge thinking enables us to know exactly what we’re talking about. It enables a clarity that is both powerful and comforting. It lets the scientific community agree on the basic terms of the problems it addresses, and engineers predict with hair-slicing precision the effects of their solutions. It lets businesses draw lines around their products and transactions that lawyers can defend and accountants can use to allocate costs and profits. The problem with this hard-edged view isn’t that it’s false and certainly not that it isn’t useful. The problem is that it leads us to devalue that which isn’t hard-edged – little things such as social groups, relationships, the subjective, our messy involvement in our world, and everything else worth living for.
Now we come to the Web. By definition, the Web isn’t hard-edged. It’s hyperlinked. If the basic stuff of the real world is, supposedly, self-contained things like rocks and atoms, consider what the Web has done to its basic stuff, documents. Traditionally, a document is a container. That’s why we refer to what a document says as its “contents.” Yet this is as unlikely a metaphor as the Web’s idea that a document can be a “site.” A document, after all, isn’t a jar or a pot that has stuff inside; it’s primarily a two-dimensional rectangle with scribbles on its surface. So why do we think a document has contents? Possibly because we think of ourselves as containers of knowledge and documents as that into which we “pour” our knowledge so that others can “drink” of it, internalizing it. An expert is someone who can pour out his or her knowledge, and a person becomes an expert by taking in the expertise others have poured out. In fact, our educational system to a large degree is based on this idea of “transferring knowledge,” moving content from the teacher to the student.
But put a document on the Web and it explodes. Rather than being self-contained, it becomes hyperlinked. A page with no hyperlinks on it is literally a dead-end on the Web. But this is most remarkable, for it means that now documents get at least some of their value not from what they contain but from what they point to. And some of the most popular and profitable sites, such as Yahoo.com, get most of their value by pointing beyond themselves. The container – self-contained – model of the document breaks on the Web. Links rule.
Hyperlinks are not an incidental feature of the Web. They are what turn the Web from a library of pages into a web. Hyperlinks make the Web into a traversable place. Rather than being constructed out of hard-edged atoms and things, the new world of the Web is built thoroughly and completely out of the interrelationship of things. And therein lies the heart of the hope the Web offers, for the Web’s hyperlinked metaphysics is profoundly and unexpectedly moral.
* * *
If you had to guess based solely on random browsing, you’d probably conclude that the Web’s politics tends towards the hysterically conservative and its moral values tend towards the pornographic. But there is no single “Web morality.” While the geek ethos gave the Internet a certain set of default values – favoring openness of information and self-reliance, for example, without which the Web could not have been built – the moral sway of the geeks waned precisely as having an email address that ended in “aol.com” lost its stigma. You will find politics and morality of every sort on the Web, a fact that’s more important than the relative influence of this or that stance at any particular moment. Nevertheless, the Web’s architecture is itself fundamentally moral in a way that should give us heart.
At first glance, this claim is hardly credible. If anything, the Web has unleashed a torrent of scams and filth that our species will not be putting on its résumé. And moral questions seem to have come unglued on the Web, resulting in endlessly roiling controversies. But this ungluing is instructive. Let’s look at two examples.
In May of 1999, ThirdVoice, a Singapore-based software company, announced a new product. In typical Web fashion, it was free. And controversial. ThirdVoice (the name of the software product as well as the company) attached itself invisibly to your browser, loading automatically every time you started a Web session. The only sign of its presence was an extra button on your browser and some extra menu entries … until you went to a Web site and discovered “sticky notes” on it that you’d never seen before. Only users of ThirdVoice could create the sticky notes, and only users of ThirdVoice could see them.
If it were simply a matter of ThirdVoice users being able to deface other people’s sites, there wouldn’t have been much controversy. But it was actually much more complex than that. The sticky notes weren’t technically attached to the pages they appeared on. When a ThirdVoice user created a sticky note it was actually stored on a server ThirdVoice owned. If you had their software attached to your browser, every time you went to a site, it looked on the ThirdVoice server to see if anyone had left any notes for that site. If so, it worked with the browser to make it look like the notes were on the Web site being visited. The notes therefore didn’t change a single bit of the page they seemed attached to. Yet, if you were maintaining, say, the Apple site, you might not have been thrilled at the idea of your page looking like it was filled with notes that might have contained lies, slander, racist comments and rabid misinformation about the Apple Macintosh. And while your site would only look that way to someone who voluntarily downloaded the ThirdVoice software, when it was launched the product seemed like such a good idea that some people thought it was “inevitable” that it would become a standard part of every browser and thus everyone would see the comments left by others.
I started collecting emails and discussion group postings on the topic and found the following analogies from various people.
The notes are like yellow sticky notes (so they're ok).
The notes are like graffiti (so they're bad).
No, it's like you painting my house a new color because you don't like the old one.
No, it's like me wearing sunglasses to change the way your house looks to me.
No, it’s like posting reviews on the door of a restaurant … except you can only see them if you wear special sunglasses … and they’re not really on the door of the restaurant, they’re actually holographs projected from a satellite into the sunglasses of passersby … but they’re indistinguishable from real reviews … and maybe the human eye will evolve so that you see them whether you put on the sunglasses or not …
…and on and on and on.
The controversy was never settled, although it lost much of its urgency once it became clear that ThirdVoice wasn’t going to catch on. Indeed, the company closed its doors in 2001. But the arc of the discussion is quite familiar. It surfaced again with Napster where the analogies were batted back and forth like a shuttlecock in the world’s longest game of badminton: downloading music files is like taping a song off the radio, is like shoplifting CDs, is like sharing with a friend, is like setting up a free CD store next to a for-pay music store, etc. In fact, much of the argument against Napster was lost before it ever arose when we accepted the phrase “intellectual property” which itself draws an analogy between real estate and works of creativity.
These arguments are not the sign of sloppy thought. Quite the contrary. That’s how we think about moral issues. It’s even how the legal system works, at least in the case of our second example: BiddersEdge, a site that monitored eBay and 150 other auction sites, aggregating up-to-date information from them so that a user could find every site holding an auction for a particular product at a particular time. Users could locate precisely the products they want, sorted by the characteristics that mattered to them, such as the current high bid, price, geographic location, when the auction will close, etc. In effect, BiddersEdge helped users cope with the popularity of eBay and other auction sites.
Predictably, lots of people liked BiddersEdge. Also predictably, eBay did not. As the leading online auction provider, eBay saw BiddersEdge as a threat, drawing customers to eBay’s competitors: if you were searching for, say, a Princess Diana Beanie Baby, BiddersEdge might tell you that while there are three such auctions at eBay, there are another two at other sites where the high bid is lower and the dolls are in better condition. And so, even more predictably, eBay sued.
It’s hard to know whom to root for. As consumers, we wanted BiddersEdge to win: not only did it enable us to find the best deals, but it offered a check on eBay’s budding hegemony in the world of Web consumer auctions. Besides, BiddersEdge wasn’t doing anything that consumers weren’t doing by the millions every day: searching numerous auction sites for what’s available. On the other hand, every time BiddersEdge “pinged” eBay, eBay’s servers had to provide an answer, so eBay was in effect supporting BiddersEdge with information eBay didn’t want to provide. But, Kimbo Mundy, the founder of BiddersEdge, says that his site was in fact only using a tiny portion of the excess capacity of eBay’s computers. Mundy goes on to make the point that once eBay has granted public access to information, it can’t then hope to control how the public uses that information. EBay replied that this public information is far and away eBay’s greatest asset.
In April, 2000, this bewildering case reached U.S. District Judge Ronald M. Whyte, who threw out six of the seven complaints by eBay, including its claims that BiddersEdge violated its copyrights and that BiddersEdge’s searches cost eBay money. He found merit, however, in eBay’s claim that BiddersEdge is trespassing on eBay. He issued a preliminary injunction against BiddersEdge.
Now, no matter where you stand in the controversy, Judge Whyte's decision that BiddersEdge was trespassing on eBay is at least odd. Trespassing applies when someone willfully moves his body on to someone else’s land. But eBay has no land and BiddersEdge has no body. This can’t literally be a case of trespassing any more than it could be a case of pick-pocketing. It would appear that BiddersEdge was found guilty by metaphor.
Yet the judge’s decision doesn’t seem completely off the mark. There’s something about trespassing that makes sense in this case. Perhaps it’s because with trespassing, the same behavior by two people can be differentiated at the discretion of the land owner: you and I both set foot on Meg’s land, and she gets to say that you have permission but I’m a trespasser. On the Web, eBay deems it legitimate for you or me to search its site for auction information, but it also seems reasonable for eBay to decide that BiddersEdge just isn’t allowed. And yet, the more we think about it, the more confused we get. Trespassing without land. A core business asset that’s also public. Public information that can be controlled as if it were private. The situation is just too peculiar. (In March 2001, BiddersEdge settled the case and closed down its Web site. Trespassing in this case apparently carried the death penalty.)
In both the Third Voice and BiddersEdge examples, we rely on our age-old way of thinking about morality: analogies. But, our thinking founders in both cases because the Web is so new and unusual that the analogies are hard to draw. We end up either resorting to bizarre analogies (such as restaurant reviews on virtual doors) about which our moral sense is unclear or to clear analogies (such as trespassing) that we aren’t confident really apply.
Our default philosophy isn’t comfortable with this way of proceeding, although it is by far the most common way of thinking about morality, and it works in most cases. Our default philosophy thinks that morality is really about principles, not analogies. To think about morality, we’re supposed to find a principle and then apply it. Morality, we’ve been taught, consists of a set of rules. Follow the rights ones and you’re a good person. Get them wrong or don’t follow them and you’re a naughty, bad, wicked or evil person.
But where do the rules come from? The study of morality has moved in basically the same away ever since Socrates: put a set of indisputably good actions into one bag and a set of indisputably bad ones into another, and then find a moral principle that accurately puts the actions into the right bags. Say we come up with a principle that says that what makes an action morally good is that it increases the sum total of pleasure (or decreases pain); this is called “Utilitarianism.” Sounds reasonable. So we begin testing it by throwing examples at it. How about the poor, hungry child who steals a loaf of bread from a well-to-do chain store? The child alleviates a lot of pain while causing very little pain to the merchant, so Utilitarianism says to go ahead and steal the bread, and that doesn’t sound unreasonable. How about “pooper scooper” laws requiring dog owners to tidy up after their pets? A little effort by dog owners makes the town much more pleasant, so that makes sense, too. Or perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you factor in the pain of dogs no longer allowed to run free. Utilitarianism still seems to be explaining what makes something moral; we’re just disagreeing over the calculation of pain and pleasure.
Ah, but suppose our town passes a law that declares Christianity the official religion and outlaws expressions of other beliefs. Yes, the one non-Christian family in town will feel considerable pain, but the rest of the town is going to love the benefits of homogeneity – no pussy-footing around religious topics in school, no arguments about decking the town hall in Christmas lights, etc. The town’s pleasure is huge. In fact, we could just deport the non-Christian family and still be ahead in the pleasure-pain ratio. And suppose it turns out that getting rid of the “sexually deviant,” and the “defectives” work out to net gains in pleasure. Utilitarianism would tell us that therefore those are morally good policies. But this type of ethnic cleansing seems clearly to belong in the bag marked “Bad Things to Do” so we will reject this simple version of Utilitarianism because it counts as moral actions that we know are immoral.
Our moral reasoning thus turns out to fly in the face of our default philosophy that says that morality at its heart is a set of principles. Rather, we decide which principles to accept by consulting our pre-existing moral sense. If someone proposes a principle that says that what’s right is wrong and what’s wrong is right, we’ll reject the principle. Principles come late to the party. They are ways of expressing and making sense of our moral intuitions.
Note, however, that this is a dangerous idea. We know all too well that cultures have “intuited” as proper practices from infanticide to slavery that we now “intuit” as abhorrent. We have suffered through times when it has been “self-evident” that women ought to stay in the kitchen, that animals should be tortured for sport, that entire continents are “dark” and need the white man’s enlightenment. In a hundred years, our descendents may look on our behaviors with the same sense of shameful wonder as we look upon our slave-holding forebears. “They used to eat animals!” they may exclaim. “They made children sit in classrooms for twelve years!” they may say. “They used internal combustion engines and air conditioners!” “They had this weird notion of ‘fun’! Think of all the time they wasted!” “They actually felt worse about the starving family next door than about the starving family continents away. Can you believe Grandma and Grandpa’s distance-ism?!” We may be tomorrow’s moral monsters. History teaches us no less.
We needn’t feel completely unmoored. Morality only arises because we share a world with others about whom we care. If we shared a world with creatures about whom we cared nothing, we could do whatever we wanted without feeling any moral constraints. Want bread? Steal Tom’s. Want sex? Rape Pat. But we recognize that others have interests like ours and that their interests are as important to them as ours are to us. This doesn’t tell us exactly how to balance each person’s interests and needs, and what principles to apply to decide the hard cases, but without this fundamental caring and recognition of others, morality wouldn’t arise for us any more than it does for an infant or a squirrel.
Our caring isn’t a blind feeling, as if when someone in
Notice that the sharing that counts isn’t the fact that we all live on the same spherical tract of land. Geography isn’t what holds us together. What binds us is our nature as creatures that care about ourselves and recognize in our hearts the caring of others. But we’re on the Web also because we share interests. There’s no land beneath us, no planet spinning us, no sky beckoning to us. All that holds us together is what we’re interested in, what matters to us, what we care about. The Web gives us nowhere to hide from our caring nature, no convenient mistake by which we can claim to be stuck with other people against our will. Matter drops out and we’re left with only ourselves.
There’s that arc again. Our default philosophy says that we are primarily individuals who happen to share a planet. But we don’t live that way. Our moral nature shows otherwise. Our conversational nature shows otherwise. The Web comes along and makes clear that our default philosophy is just plain wrong. The Web helps us to embrace without embarrassment or hesitation who we really are. It returns us to ourselves. It arches over the alienation we’ve been taught to take as a sign of tough-mindedness. The Web’s movement is toward human authenticity.
* * *
“Authenticity” is one of those tough terms. It seems to mean something quite distinct and identifiable, but it also has a certain fragility, as if examining it too closely would cause it to melt under the lights. There is a seeming paradox at its heart, for it says that we can be who we are or not be who we are. The first seems redundant, the second impossible. But that’s just because humans are human in a different way than rocks are rocks. We can be inauthentic or authentic because part of what we are is how we understand ourselves. If we understand ourselves in a way that isn’t true to who we are as individuals or as people, we may end up inauthentic. But there’s more to the story than that, for being inauthentic isn’t simply being mistaken. It means living in a way that’s at a distance from who you really are. It means being alienated from yourself.
As countless poems, songs, novels, and works of philosophy have told us, we live in an age of alienation. Our default philosophy’s beliefs about the nature of the real world and our relationship to that world don’t adequately describe their subject. They paint a picture of us as primarily individuals when we are only possible embedded in a community and a shared history. They paint the real as that which exists independent of us when what counts most to us is the world in its involvement with us. They paint consciousness as a type of bodiless knowing when we can only think and feel because we are our bodies. They paint time and space as measurable, abstract quantities when we experience them as our life spent in places with significance to us. But these beliefs are not merely mistakes like thinking Jupiter has twelve small moons instead of thirteen. We draw conclusions based on these beliefs. We even view our lives through them: we think consciousness is a layer separable from our bodies, we think our customers are defined by their transactions with us or by their demographic segment. We can experience our world in a way that’s false to our experience because we are such complex creatures with a crazy awareness that’s aware of itself. Thus our default philosophy becomes something we live, and we become alienated from our own nature and we become inauthentic.
There is in addition an alienation built into human existence. We are creatures of passion and care born into a world not of our making. At the heart of our default philosophy’s over-emphasized realism, there is a truth so deep that it’s completely obvious: the world doesn’t care about us. The ocean that drowns us doesn’t care if we sink or swim, the ground that buries us can’t tell the difference between a sinner and a saint. Even the atoms that make us up will go on their way unchastened once our body dissolves. If God gave us this world, the world is still the given into which we were unwillingly born.
But the Web is ours. Like a book, we are writing it, filling the pages with our passionate views of our lives and world. Like a conversation, we are talking across and despite the distances about what matters to us, from the amusing to the life-enhancing to the death-defying. Like a language, it enables us to meet not in distance but in meanings. Like a world, it is an abiding place where we can accomplish together whatever it is that our caring natures put us up to.
Unlike the real world, though, there’s no nature in this new world, nothing into which we are born except what we have made for one another. Unlike the real world, we aren’t thrown into it but enter voluntarily, the clicking of our mice like knocks on a door. Unlike the real world, the new world of the Web is thoroughly and ineluctably ours.
* * *
The Web is ours. It has its greatest affect on the places where its nodes touch. And that’s the scope at which authenticity comes into place. Being on the Web doesn’t make any particular individual more authentic. We know for a certainty that people use the Web to fool themselves and to fool others. Any particular page or chat room persona may be as dishonest as a senior manager's expense report. If the Web is bringing us closer to human authenticity, it is doing so at the level of our species, not individuals. If space aliens want to learn who we are as humans, they shouldn't read our newspapers and they certainly shouldn't watch our TV programs. They should browse the Web.
It's of course not a perfect reflection. For one thing, since anyone with an email program and a mailing list can spam millions of people, a Web-only view of us would over-emphasize the importance of marketing. On the other hand, the prevalence of pornography probably represents our dirty, dirty selves more accurately than the transcripts of all our polite, sexless office conversations. Most of all, the Web is a more honest — because unguarded — reflection of what we are like when we seek one another out without the limitations the real world imposes on us. It’s not always a pretty picture. But, it’s a hell of a lot more fun than posing in your prom outfit for your entire life.
* * *
The Web is not the messiah dressed in cables and bits. It does not signal the apocalypse. It does not even make us all millionaires. But it is also more than merely another new technology.
If it were merely a technology that patched us all together, it would be a big deal – but merely the latest big deal in a history of technological big deals. But there is something special about it, for it will not only give everyone on the planet who has a computer or (in, the coming age of the wireless Web, a cell phone) access to everyone else similarly connected, but it creates a new, persistent public world that accumulates value with every interaction. It’s a world that we build simply by using it, and what is of worth stays and adds to the Web’s overall worth. We’ve never before had a second world, much less one so widely accessible and so logarithmically valuable.
But that is merely the infrastructure, or, more exactly, the opportunity. Once we are on the Web, we find the ground has dropped out from beneath us. The normal constraints, on which we have built the common sense that guides us, fall away. And so we get to invent, to improvise. Our most important constructions are not the pages we put up or the stories we tell or the poems we record or the videos we post. Far more important is the way we reinvent what it means to be together as human beings. We are sharing this new world not because we have to but because we want to. We are sharing this world not because we find ourselves next to someone due to the inevitable accident of proximity but because we have chosen to join with someone based on the common ground of shared passions.
In fact, it’s not quite true to say that we’re sharing the new world of the Web because we want to. We’re sharing the new world of the Web because that’s the type of creature we are. We are sympathetic, thus moral. We are caring, thus social. These facts are easy to miss in the real world where we can blame space and geography for our involvement with others. On the Web we have no one to blame but ourselves.
After Kenmore.com hires a new platoon of Web designers, and after Microsoft figures new ways to accomplish its twin aims of extracting the most money from us while shifting all blame, the Web will still be there and will still be ours. .Zannah will still be revealing what she wants in a casually ironic way. Helmig will still be offering updated handholding for people with networking problems. The people at VolvoSpy.com will still be arguing the advantages of DTC versus STC. The Web is fundamentally theirs. That is, the Web is fundamentally ours.
That – not dot-coms, mergers or the endlesss lust for dirty pictures – will draw the arc of the Web.