This week we examined the web through various metaphors. For me, the metaphor that was most interesting and agreeable was Chimero’s The Good Room, (2018) where he suggested that the web has transitioned from being merely a place we visit to a space in which we now live. In the following I will first explain why and how I agree with Chimero. I will then expand upon Chimero’s idea of the web as a space in which we live, and suggest that it is specifically a heterotopic space. Lastly, I will explore how this space shapes us, and how we can potentially reshape this space.
Part 1 Defining Space
To begin, I agree with Chimero’s suggestion that the web has transitioned from just a place we visit to a place where we now live, even if some of us don’t even realize it. It is much like a koan from David Foster Wallace of the fish who asks of another “how is the water?” to which the other fish replies “what’s water?” We are so surrounded by the web that it’s near impossible to see without first getting outside of it. Think of the terminology we use to describe things on the web–from “homepage” to “forum” to “chat room”, these terms reflect and imply a physical space where people meet and congregate. They are talked about as real spaces enclosed by four walls, discrete rooms with interconnected pathways between them, which we must navigate.
Growing up I always imagined the web as looking something akin to the Super Nintendo version of SimCity—a series of roads that connect buildings or spaces, both public and private. An ever growing network. It’s a simplistic simulacrum, but one that I have always found effective at understanding the web as a space (or a realm) where we roam. In his article, Chimero states (like my Sim analogy) that the internet is made up of spaces we choose to visit like a person popping into stores up and down the high street, but this not the only version of “space” that the web contains. Since the web is a ‘space’ is also must function in time and distance. In both cases, the web compresses and warps time and distance, or at times rendering them obsolete.
Part 2 The web as Heterotopic
To borrow an idea from Foucault, I would expand upon Chimero’s idea to say the web is not just a space but a heterotopic space. While I am not well versed in postmodern philosophy, I will try to break this concept down as simply as possible. According to Foucault heterotopic spaces are:
- Spaces where norms of behaviour our suspended–while he obviously used the example of a asylum or jail, I think we can all come up with examples of this online. (Just look at what anonymity does to the typical forum member or youtube commenter)
- Spaces that are reflective of the society which they exist—I will expand on this idea more, as I would argue that the current configuration of the web is a direct product of our economic structure
- Spaces that juxtapose real spaces simultaneously—he uses the example of a garden, showing that different plants from different regions can coexist simultaneously. Space in regards to distance is defied, much like space on the web connects people and ideas from all over the world.
- Spaces that are linked to slices of time – a place where time can either accumulate (like a museum ) or be transitory (like a traveling fair). The nonlinear nature of the internet fits in with this concept perfectly.
- Spaces which are not freely accessible – they must be entered with a gesture or some sort of ritual—for the internet this can simply be the very fact one needs a device to enter, and a lot of online communities have their own gate-keepers.
- Spaces that function in relation to other spaces that exist- either spaces of illusion or compensation (Jones, 2010)
In other words, the internet is not just a space where we visit sites, but it is a world within a world–one of warped space where time, distance, and social norms can be suspended.
Part 3 Reimagining Space
Like Chimero, I believe that our thoughts and experiences are shaped by our spaces, digital or otherwise. I also agree with him that we can reshape and redefine our spaces and the meanings we bring to them. Through creating alternative spaces on the web we can change our relationship with it and impose more culture into the commerce driven domain. But it isn’t quite this cut and dry. There’s often incentives to turn more cultural items into consumer products, to monetize your content, be it through changing the content itself, or through advertising. As Alan Kay said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it” (Gopnik, 2015). Although Chimero is slightly idealist in his view of the original web being a commonwealth built on strong social bonds and communalism, I agree that we can create more subversive spaces for creativity and reciprocity to shine.
Since we have the ability for expansive growth on the web, just imagine all the possible ways we could choose what physical web sites (or high street stores) we pop into, or what international communities we belong to, and what control we could have over our relationship with time.
Because digital space reflects the physical space in many ways it is fundamentally shaped by the broader socio-economic system. I believe this is why much of the web is a market place, built for subjects who have been socialized first and foremost as consumers. In turn, the web also influences the economic system – particularly in the way that it makes transactions instantaneous and creates new methods of distribution (such as amazon warehouses and a digital storefront replacing our old fashioned retail stores). It is hard to imagine a different web space without a different economic system. This is good evidence to support the thesis that we live in the web space rather than just visit it from time to time. The web is a structuring force in our lives, and it is so embedded in our society that it is hard to see the web change significantly without concomitant change in society more broadly.
If we agree that there is a strong structuring relationship between the web and the broader socio-economic system, then we can argue that changes made to the web (both cultural and economic) can have broader changes in the rest of the world.
Although here we would run into the same problem that Marxists have always argued about, which is if there needs to be a shift in the economic base in order to change the ideological ‘superstructure’ (culture and institutions) or if there needs to be a cultural shift before we can bring about change in the material base (capitalism / more of production). The web is just a space in which what Gramsci called the “war of position and the war of maneuver” takes place.
Chimero, Frank. 2018. The Good Room. Frank Chimero.
Gopnik, Alison. 2015. How an 18th-Century Philosopher Helped Solve My Midlife Crisis. The Atlantic.
Jones, Victoria. 2010. An Outline of Foucault’s Six Principles of Heterotopia. Youtube.