The Ideal Image of the web

Last week’s reading gave me an idea of how the web was originally defined and envisioned. What is it now? How is it being taken advantage of? How can we change it? And what does the future hold for us?  Before last week, I did not have a complete understanding of how the web started I never thought about it as a huge space, since I personally spend most of my time online on Facebook, Google, and other social media platforms. Along with our study readings, I am reading on the side books about the history of business which I found to be similar to the history of the web. So in this blog post, I will connect the models discussed in  these two readings in an attempt to think outside the “loop” and find the common ground. One model talks about how, before, people used to own their space on the web and the other looks at how people used to work for themselves and have their own land. Then it all changed to working for someone else and using other’s space and information.

 

During the Agrarian era, the concepts of companies and workers exploitation did not exist. There were farmers, bakers, butchers, and more. Each of them had their own space to work with and get their own income from(1). This is similar to how the web was in the past. Each website had its own domain and remained within it. Each would work, write, publish, and, most importantly, own their information and have control of it. I agree with what Kelly said when Chimero mentioned it in his article about the Good Room, the web was a boundless and shared estate. Also, as it was mentioned in the article “The weird thing about the internet today”(2) by Madrigal, O’Reilly wrote that the foundation of the web is basically hyperlinking where the “the web of connections grows organically as an output of the collective activity of all web users”. For me, that is the nostalgic idea I kept of thinking after last week’s readings.

 

Then industrial age came by and government and businesses started employing workers. Nowadays, we live in a world where we learn that there is one single right path to take: study, work hard get a great job, then retire and live happily ever after. Looking at it from my perspective, it is one big loop.  We are taught when we are young so it is not easy to change; it is very risky to move away from the normal/correct path. So basically, we are used to following what we see everyone does and what we think is normal. This is relevant to how the web is now: a space that is owned by big companies. Most of the users are in stuck in the loop because of the convenience and the easy-to-use interface. Nowadays Hyperlinking is not something we even think about. As Madrigal mentioned in his article:

most of the action occurs within platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and messaging apps, which all have carved space out of the open web”

 

The two models discussed here are comparable., and they make me think about what the web can become. People started going back and opening their own business to generate their own income at during the recession. When people are struck with the reality of being in the loop they might realize that is not the only choice they have. Thinking of the future web, am I going to wait for a huge online “bomb” to awaken us?  Or am I going to start looking at all the space that is available on the web to make something valuable again?

 

References:

Kiyosaki, Robert The Business of The 21st Century,2014.

Chimero, Frank , https://frankchimero.com/writing/the-good-room/,

Personality++

I came to internet consciousness while the blogging wave was kind of dying. Things moved rapidly from there. With Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube sucking up most of my online attention. Most of my age-fellows have a similar early memory of the internet.

However, the past few weeks have given the internet a personality I could not possibly have known about. Blogging-era sounds like a very mature, intelligent online space. A space where only people with some credit and a degree of intelligence were heard and had a voice. With no pictures, videos and similar gimmicks to distract the online user, the text had to be tasty. Bloggers were intelligent people, with smart, relevant opinions and a gift of the gab. That was how you attracted an online following. It was hard work that asked for diligence, time and consistency.

The contrast between then and now is stark. This contrast only emphasizes the fact that nowadays you just need to look a certain way to be internet-famous. The authors are right to be nostalgic since they would put in so much effort into one blog post and have it reach a small, interested audience; whereas now an “influencer” need only post a well-edited image and gain a wider audience that responds fiercely.

I appreciate this fierce response. I appreciate the fact that there is a little somethin’-somethin’ for everybody. Online, an old person with a passion for Salmon runs is as catered to a three-year-old’s crazy obsession with Baby Shark.

The authors’ reflections have brought about a change in how I feel about the internet: I feel a little warmer towards it. The internet is being sculpted into something new and I might be nostalgic about something ten years down the line.

No Place Like Home

The readings from this week have really made me start to question what I have been accepting at face value in the past. I see the web and the way it has evolved as an inevitable process, but I haven’t stopped to truly consider the effects that technological evolutions are having on my life and the lives of those around me, despite the fact that the web is something that most of us use every day and is rapidly shaping our societies right before our eyes.

The metaphor of the web as a place we live in such as a library as described by Frank Chimero in “The Good Room” doesn’t quite resonate with. Maybe it’s because of nostalgia I’m still hanging onto about my identity as a ‘print person’. I prefer reading on paper and getting my content and entertainment face-to-face/in person, which I attribute to the inundation of digital devices that I have to use in order to stay up to date and hold a job in society. Since I’m constantly glued to a screen for work, I want to be off of a screen for play. The web is a powerful tool, but as I use it now, it isn’t a place I feel at home in. Though it’s not a strong metaphor for me, it could be a trigger for the nostalgia some of the authors express in our readings including Hossein Derakhshan in “The Web We Have to Save”. Derakhshan misses the blogging communities of the past where he didn’t need to have a huge social media following to have his content read. Blogs to him were special diverse ‘places’ where unique thoughts and ideas flourished. I wonder if he would agree with Chimero that we should be purposefully shaping the web into places where everyone feels welcome, adding that a little piece of how things were before, should be preserved as the web evolves.

Echo made an interesting point on the Elizabeth Kolbert article, “Who Owns the Internet?” about Google being a digital colonizer. I found this quite compelling, because it is in direct opposition of Chimero’s concept of a “good room” for everyone on the web. “The Weird Thing About Today’s Internet” by Alexis C. Madrigal shows us how tech giants like Google and Facebook are, “the most powerful companies the world has ever known…” and they are absolutely taking over. They are the digital versions of the ancient empires trying to overtake as much land as they can, and make all people who operate on that land, follow their rules. Maybe that’s another reason why I don’t feel at home anywhere on the internet.

As the “Google and advertising” reading from week five by Richard Graham will also demonstrate that Google is discouraging diversity in languages on the web (perhaps inadvertently but it is an incredibly important consequence to consider). When creating for the web, this is something we need to keep in mind to make sure minority or ‘less profitable’ languages are not wiped off of the digital world. To be purposeful in the design of our spaces on the web, inclusivity plays an important role.

When we are purposeful with what we do with the web, we also need to make sure that we are not just labouring and producing content for other companies to profit. Google is determining what content is worth and not worthy of promotion and whether that content is a compelling factual essay on today’s political climate or an alt-right promotional video is of no consequence to them. We’re renting land from Google for the convenience of using their multitude of services, but we aren’t careful in considering what this transaction truly means for how content is disseminated.

I appreciate the opportunities that the web affords us and the excitement of seemingly infinite possibilities for its use. I believe there is so much good that it offers including bringing communities together, teaching people new information that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise, reaching out to people in rural areas, and developing products and services that truly do help humanity, but in order to ensure there isn’t some looming tech giant, twisting the underpinnings of those great services for its own needs, we need to be creating purposeful work and consider other possibilities that could allow us to operate outside the traditional capitalist focused models. This is a plug for the week four readings coming up on peer-to-peer services and platform cooperativism. Just because I believe what’s taken shape was inevitable, doesn’t mean I should accept it, and I am thankful to be learning about people who are shaking things up. We can be part of this change for the better!

Yahooligans to Decentralized Communist Internet

Over the past few weeks, I have really enjoyed reading all the articles about how the web has evolved and some of the nostalgia to past times. It has led me to question whether I’m nostalgic for anything on the web.

To be honest, for the first few years of getting my computer, I used it for Microsoft Word and playing CD-ROM games. In terms of the web, I remember it was connected to dial-up internet. I definitely do not miss that. There was also that fun search engine, Yahooligans, that I was taught to only use.

Though it looks fun, what we have now with Google is a million times better.  I remember it taking 30 minutes to download one song through Lime Wire. Not fun. I remember MSN Chat fondly. But I still do the same stuff now just on Facebook messenger instead. AIso I have the added bonus of video chatting and calling. And selfie filters.

I was still a kid when the Web was becoming widespread and I didn’t really use or understand its full potential or what people were hoping to do with it. I definitely wasn’t thinking critically about it. So reading articles from those who used the Internet as adults is really interesting. Similar to learning history, it is important to know what the Internet was like. So I don’t mind these nostalgia pieces. Even if they do romanticize it a bit – but that goes hand in hand with nostalgia.

Ther user-experience, user-interface, the speed, and our global connectedness has definitely improved over the years (at least I think so). I don’t mind the commercial aspect of the web as long as there’s transparency. Many of my friends have made a living off of the web by building an audience and selling content and I commend them for it.

I think what’s important to keep in mind is that these articles on the past are useful tools in looking towards and shaping the future. What comes next? In the Alex Singh twitter thread, there were some ideas thrown around: “decentralized communist internet”, “Industrialized internet”, “a shift to smaller communal and more personal or private online experiences”.   Looking at one of the B-side readings there was an article about peer-to-peer community run networks. The idea of looking back to the past to form a new future is highlighted in this quote:

“One thing that inspires me is that the original idea of the internet was a network of networks,” Hall says. “Different organizations like universities or the Defense Department would form their own network, and then they would join them together, and that is how the internet formed. We’re just getting back to the idea. We formed a network, and we join our network with other networks, and get rid of the ISP layer that we don’t really need.”

Using an idea from the past, people have been able to create their own mesh networks, changing the current systems in place.

I believe the same thing is happening with some new innovations such as Web 3.0 or decentralizing the web. In this Guardian article, it explains how Tim Berners-Lee (the founder of the web) is coming up with technology to store our data so that it remains our property. We are then able to move it around to different apps and websites without surrendering any control. It seems like a reinvention of what the web used to be where people owned their content and there was more privacy involved, just with some new technology.

I’m generally someone who enjoys change. So I’m looking forward to what the future has in store for the web. In the grand scheme of things, we’ve only had the web for such a short amount of time so we need time to make mistakes, improve, make mistakes again, and keep it evolving.

There’s No Place Like (A Digital) Home


When the web was in its nascent years I was too young to understand the possibilities it held. Although I did grow up digitally, and I think it helped that my dad was a computer programmer and our basement was packed full of PCs (at least 6 or 7) that he was constantly rolling his chair back and forth to. The whir of the fans was audible from the hall. Aside from coding he also ran a blog, one of those original blogs that Kottke reminisces over. According to my mom it was a place for him to vent and rant about all the things he disliked about the world, and there were other bloggers who hyperlinked to him and joined in the conversation. These are the times Derakhshan, Kottke, Meyer and Kolbert are nostalgic for, that they remember as golden years where the web was the next open space to pioneer. My personal anecdote was taking place in the late 90s and early 2000s to give context. To me, reflecting back on this now I see my dad as the equivalent to a cranky old man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn (digitally). At the time, I was none the wiser and was tinkering away on my own digital expeditions, dutifully typing in the URLs I knew by heart to take me to the websites deemed safe by my parents.

Since I was five-years-old I was learning the way of the World Wide Web and discovering the places I fit in. There was always something tangible about the web for me, that each webpage had its own feeling and some were more welcoming than others, so when reading Frank Chimero’s “The Good Room” I deeply identified with connecting physical space with digital space. At eight-years old I was already coding my Neopets page to my liking with simple HTML (putting in a little MP3 player, changing the background and type colour etc). At 10-years-old I was starting to explore beyond the designated websites to meet my curiosity and needs. I was (and am) a writer, and I wanted to find other writers because I wanted to get feedback and not feel like I was just writing into the void. A need to find a digital space that meets my current creative needs is always what has pushed me to migrate from platform to platform.

This is when I found a community of writing RPGs, where you could collaborate with other writers and develop your characters in the agreed upon setting. The platform we used was a repurposed chat-board (for the life of me I can’t remember the platform’s name), but the URL would look like www.RPG_name.platformname.com. There were limits with the look and construction of the website, but as I got older and found more digitally experienced communities it went from the default structure and colours, to a more customized platform where programmers had worked their magic with HTML to the point where these platforms barely retained their original structure. Of course, this added to the “feel” of the place, but what made the website home or not was the community who existed on the platform. We never knew each others real names, only our created monikers (which is a whole other tangent I could go on, about having the ability to rename yourself and create a persona that you want without judgment). But what we did know, was that we were a supportive network of likeminded writers who helped each other hone our writing styles. Where are they now, who knows? And those URLs have long since expired or turned to digital ghost towns.

With the fallout of these RPGs I migrated to Tumblr at 15-years-old, where I began to code the digital nook I’d carved out for myself. The complaint here, as discussed by Alex Singh, is that this nook isn’t really mine, that this nook that I’d created really belonged to Tumblr and I was a visiting guest while they profited off the content I created. Which is true, because look at that nook now. Since Tumblr went on a censorship kick it removed over half of the content I’d curated, and so what if I’d spent hours coding my “blog” to look and feel the way I wanted it to because Tumblr didn’t care. They don’t care about artists’ creative expression or the need to have a community to express that, all they (aka Yahoo, who owns them) care about is turning a profit and getting back on the App Store. These benevolent overlords are only benevolent so long as it serves them, and this is what happens when they decide a venture is no longer profitable: you get kicked off your digital plot of land. Now here I am, wandering the digital landscape again. I’ve been a nomad all my life, and the metaphor I’d use is more like a traveling bard hopping from village to village… and moving on when I either get evicted or the village burns down.

As time goes on I find myself seeking more and more “open” spaces where I’m free to build the place and community that I like, or to at least create my space where an already established community exists. This is why I currently feel un-homed, because for the first time in nearly 20-years I don’t have a digital space that feels like my own. Alex Singh’s twitter thread claims that we’re working under a digital feudal system––Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. where we create the content and the platform reaps the reward. Alex pines for the time of digital nomads, where we were free to roam. I can understand the desire to have a non-commercialized webspace that is that limitless space of possibilities it once claimed to be, instead of feeling like your choices are limited to bouncing between the various social networks. Because what happens when you don’t fit into one of those networks? Where does your digital-self belong? I’m still searching.

What in the web?

Madrigal was certainly nostalgic about the idea of an open web, which is a concept I realized this week doesn’t really exist anymore. I would definitely agree that hyperlinking is generally an after thought for most of us. As a reader, I tend to gloss over it. I personally get distracted when I see a hyperlinked text and are often tempted to see what it is. Although an interesting place where hyperlinking seems to be very much a live is in scholarly journals. While writing this I recalled how a layout editor had pointed out to me that a number of links did not work, which at that time I didn’t realize that it was an issue, but I proceeded to find an updated one anyway. Ironically enough as someone who had read numerous journal articles in my undergrad, I did not realize that these hyperlinks work. Had I known that, I probably would have come to appreciate how helpful it is at linking ideas together.

It is really interesting to learn their views on how the internet was and their outlook on it now. I guess growing up with technology I do have an expectation of the internet being there. I would probably say I’ve engaged with most parts of the web as we know it now being a member of a number of online platform and owner things Kottke attributes to being the reason the open web didn’t stand a better chance. I don’t know that I’ve been deeply entrenched it in. I feel like I’m still at a point where I could disengage with it, if we collectively didn’t  rely on it so much. Maybe this has to do with the fact that I’ve never really found a place in the web that had served as a “good room” no single platform has really held my interest long enough to continue being an active participant in it. Take Instagram for example, since I got it in 2013 I’ve maybe posted less than 75-100 times (I have deleted a couple of post since then). I have found that my usage on it and other social media platform have decreased in the last couple of years. I do see the point Chimero was making about “technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live.” As  the web has allowed for the creation and curation of different types of website to exist and what to engage in.

I Can’t Believe this Digital Feudalism is Free

The metaphor that resonated the most with me this week was Alex Singh’s analogy of the internet transforming over the span of 25 years from nomadic culture to a “mostly agrarian one.” An agrarian society involves the cultivation of the land. Singh notes the transition from HTML-only sites to CSS and JS, citing it as a move that shifted the power from the masses to the privileged and elite few. Initially, web users used to navigate from link to link, and site to site discovering new content. In this sense, the web used to be boundless. In utilizing medieval terminology for the analogy, Singh equates the emerging elite class with the “literate Priesthood,” arguing that the few at the top of the hierarchy can build, interface, and moderate the web, but the vast majority of users are “peasants” whose labour is exploited by the lords of the land, and whose convenience comes at the cost of their freedom.

 

Countless times on twitter and Facebook I have encountered posts where people remarked “I can’t believe this website is free.” It is possible some users mean it in an ironic way, but the reality is that most major platforms are not transparent about how they monetize their platform and what we, the lowly peasants, are sacrificing without our knowledge. The analogy makes me think deeper of how platform creators regard their own user-base and where the value of that platform is really generated from. Dragging Tumblr into the conversation once more, I cannot help but compare it to platforms like Youtube. I once read a post where users complained that Tumblr was the worst platform to invest one’s time into – unlike Youtube, where users can make a living off subscriptions, or Instagram where users can get sponsorships and leverage their popularity, Tumblr offers no monetary reward to its producers.

The platform is monetized through ads, but none of those funds are circulated to its content creators. Another Tumblr user complained that her posts had been screenshotted and shared on other platforms, including Buzzfeed, with listicle writers making a profit off of the free labour she has been providing for years. Tumblr’s userbase is becoming increasingly aware of their exploited labour while platform owner Yahoo becomes increasingly aware of how unprofitable it is to be the feudal lord or king of Tumblr. Yahoo’s likely solution? Abandon the land altogether or poison it until the peasants grow dissatisfied enough to migrate to the land of another lord.

For Tumblr, the greatest resource to mine is attention. But Facebook and Twitter have thrived at monetizing not only attention, but also data. We users, the peasants (or serfs), are creating videos, art, stories, and all while surrendering data to our lords (platforms) who are siphoning that data and monetizing it. As Zach Scott and Singh point out, this process is neither fully consensual nor voluntary. The “give me all your data so that I can sell it” part is usually buried in fine print. Any time people start mass migrating to a new platform, or a platform changes its rules and regulations (whether discreetly or publicly), there are usually a small group of users who take the time to thoroughly read through the policies before vocally raising flags about clauses and terms that the vast majority of us would have never noticed. In 2018, Tumblr released a safe mode that by default set every user account to hide any potential adult content. It was users who brought this new feature to light and who shared information on how to disable it. Another example is Snapchat, an app that surprised users by adding a feature that automatically tracks users’ locations and display them on a map. This, too, can be disabled, but the fact it is the default setting makes it ethically questionable. A user’s freedom to make choices about their privacy or online experience has been abused by lords who value their users only as labourers.

As Singh mentions in his tweet thread, there is also class and accessibility to consider. With websites shifting to CSS and JS, many of us do not have the skills and resources to code our own websites. It is a dilemma we discussed in class and not one that has an easy solution, especially since users have gotten used to having their digital services conveniently but dangerously centralized on a handful of platforms. And then there is algorithms. Instagram’s algorithm is a mystery and twitter has rallying against chronological feeds for years now, allowing popular posts to thrive while new posts get buried. Not only that, but our communication within the land is defined based on the restrictions of our lords – Tumblr now hates images posts, Twitter has a maximum word count, and Snapchat is near impossible to use as a chat platform.

In “I Can’t Believe this Blockchain is Free,” Michael J Casey writes:

“The challenge, then, is to design an architecture that allows the producers of data – we, the users – to become less beholden to these centralized aggregators and create a more decentralized digital economy in which we can trust each other’s data and make better personal use of it…should, in theory, result in better economic and political decisions for all.”

We have to bring the power back to the users. It is time for users to start demanding more transparency to ideally dismantle the feudalistic hierarchy by becoming less dependent on a system that exploits and polices us.

Sources:

Digital Feudalism
I Can’t Believe This Blockchain is Free
Web’s Neolithic Revolution

Introducing My Virtual Good Room

From last week’s reading The Good Room, Frank Chimero claimed that “in the last decade, technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live.” I was intrigued by this place metaphor. He also mentioned that “the web is a marketplace and a commonwealth, so we have both commerce and culture”. It reminded of an online “good room” I feel belonged to and I would like to introduce it to you because I think it is an interesting example where culture and commerce have been married successfully.

As we all know, Facebook, Twitter and a lot of other social media platforms have been banned in mainland China but the Chinese created (or shall I say “copied”?) its own version of social media such as Renren mimicking Facebook or Weibo mimicking Twitter. Among all the social media platforms, one of them is an original platform that I cannot think of a Western equivalent so far. It is called “Douban” which means “bean paste” in Mandarin. It has multiple functions: rating and reviewing books, movies and music; socializing with people who share the same interests on in the same city; providing FM broadcasting services and podcasts; providing self-publishing services; selling their self-designed items such as cups, calendars or clothing. Generally speaking, it is a comprehensive website including the features of Goodreads, Rotten Tomatoes, social media, podcasts, self-publishing services and markets.

The logo of Douban

 

After moving to Vancouver, lacking meaningful, long-lasting friendship has been a problem for me for a long time. I found it was very hard to find people who share the same interests as me. However, since I became a frequent user of Douban from 2015, I met other Chinese living in Vancouver who also like reading, writing or watching films (as I mentioned last week, I had known my best friend through this website!). And now it has become part of my identity. I pictured this website as a virtual street in a quiet neighbourhood where there are bookstores, theatres, coffee shops and markets alongside.

Culture is the core theme for Douban as it has been trying to connect people through books, movies and music. Its slogan can be roughly translated as “Douban, a corner for your mind”. Comparing to other Chinese social media platforms, Douban is a slow-growing company. However, as the young generation in the Western society moving from Facebook to Instagram, its Chinese equivalent also gradually moved from Renren to Weibo or WeChat. But Douban has always been there no matter what the trend is. I am curious about how Douban makes its profit and maintains its status in the furious competition.

According to my research, it has several revenue strategies. First, Douban profits from redirecting its users to Dangdang, JD.com or Amazon to purchase books or to buy movie tickets from online ticket sellers. Second, it gains income from ads. Douban values the users’ experience so they strictly select ads that fit its target users (young urban white collars or college students). Recently, Douban also launched a variety of paid online classes which covered topics like creative writing, calligraphy, photography, design and philosophy. Overall, these are some of its revenue strategies.

In my opinion, I enjoyed my experiences with Douban so far and I don’t mind seeing ads on the website as long as it still provides high-quality content. I found the users on Douban also tend to tolerate some of the commercialized steps that Douban had taken recently. For example, they would mock at the badly self-designed hoodies or socks that Douban was selling but still continued to be frequent users thereafter.

The socks mocked by most Douban users

I think it could be an example of the “lively and nourishing digital environments” that Chimero was talking about.

 

References

The Good Room

6 Chinese Social Media Sites You Should Know About

Decrypting China’s most wonderful website: What is Douban thinking? 

The Idealistic Room: Strengths and Weaknesses of Framing the Web as a Library

I think a lot of what the readings this week taught me is that there’s nostalgia for what the web used to be, owing to both its past infrastructure and its potential: What was the web going to be? What would it do? What would we make it? The web was originally a tool for the open and free (non-monetized) communication and dissemination of ideas[1], and the authors of our readings all seem to be yearning for a time when things like the Stream and rampant commercialization weren’t present in online spaces. That’s not to say all is lost, however: in his article “The Good Room”, Frank Chimero asks us to reconsider all the old, exciting questions—What was the web going to be? What would it do? What would we make it?—in a different context:

“In the last decade, technology has transformed from a tool that we use to a place where we live. If we’re setting out to change the character of technology in our lives, we’d be wise to learn from the character of places.”

Chimero’s metaphor for framing this conversation is to think of the web as a library. This is similar to Adam Gopnik’s conception of it, though instead of focusing on the beauty and openness of such a location, Gopnik describes sleeping among the stacks in a way that can be overwhelming. I really enjoy the idea of the web as a library, though I tend to imagine it as an infinitely ever-expanding room with shelves so high they can barely be seen from the ground, where knowledge and information are ripe for the taking. I like the idea of spending a large part of my life in this space, reading and interacting with people in the stacks, until I get sleepy. And so I agree with Gopnik, but Chimero’s point also resonates with me: wouldn’t it be nice if the web was designed like a library? I should note that I don’t mean all libraries, here—the one in my hometown is dark and dismal at best. I never did any work there. But I like the idea of a beautiful library; a space that serves as an open area for community engagement and is designed with the goal of making us feel inspired and relaxed. I also really like this metaphor because would allow those of us whose libraries and community centres are dark and claustrophobic the opportunity to inhabit beautiful, inspirational spaces and create/learn within them.

Still, I think we should exercise caution when framing our idea of the web this way. The web as a library is a gorgeous image, but libraries are bounded in a way that the web is not. Furthermore, the library as a space is often romanticized (whether or not the web suffers the same fate probably depends on who you talk to); it is a carefully curated collection housed in a subsidized institution—and if the idea is to create a space free of outside, imposed curation, this particular establishment might not be the best metaphor.

Even the idea of emulating how one feels in a library falls through when you think of current technology’s physical limitations. The library is a beautiful place you visit in order to read/learn/work, and the space is designed in a way that encourages groundedness and being present only insofar as it allows you to become engrossed in your work. Say I go to the VPL to read up on history, or science, or to start a fantasy novel… the ultimate goal is not to remain rooted in the space, but to become captivated by the material in front of me, and the space of the beautiful library eases that transition. Unfortunately, this translates poorly when using the web: my eastside apartment will never feel like a grand library reading room no matter how beautiful the website on my screen is—the feelings of airiness and openness can’t transfer. The harsh light of our devices is something to consider here, as well: our bodies become fatigued while looking at a screen in a way that they do not sitting in a reading room.

I think it would be fantastic to make the web a library; the idea of everyone inhabiting an open space designed to encourage creativity and community for all is something I wholeheartedly support. But I also think we should know the limits of this particular way of framing what we want the web to be.

 

[1] Note that the free exchange of ideas was still very much subject to who had the financial means and overall ability to use the technology available. Unsurprisingly, most of these individuals were white men.

Less “What Was”, More “What Is” and “What Can Be”

This readings for this week, in conjunction with the previous week’s readings, have encouraged me to think about the web more critically. I’ve grown pretty tired of the “something precious has been lost forever”, good-old-days rhetoric, but these readings have caused me to think about the web in a way that recognizes its fluidity as opposed to taking for granted a static sense of status quo.

I wrote last week about my frustration with the aforementioned something-precious-lost narrative, but for the purposes of this entry and this topic, I want to mention one other issue, and that is the rose-coloured-glasses effect of nostalgia. While the web of yore did definitely function in a way different from the web of today, and while some of the differences could probably be seen as a decline in [insert virtue here], I think it’s also important to recognize that romanticizing the past often has a tendency to focus on what was good instead of what was not-good. I’m a little out of my depth in this subject area, but I’m sure that there were things about the Web that Used to Be that aren’t so desirable.

That all being said, this examination of the history and evolution of the web has shifted the way in which I think of things in a way that I’m more mindful of the the fact that the web is a structure with architecture and technology behind it. It seems obvious, but the way I conceived of the web before was a lot more like a mountain—an inevitable landform resulting direct and indirect forces, but essentially inevitable, fixed, and to a certain extent, organic. The readings from the last few weeks, however, have encouraged me to think of the web more as a series of scaffolds—intentionally built and maintained by human engineering, very much un-fixed, and essentially mutable. The web as we know it today may not be functioning exactly in the way that the original architects envisioned, but the functions and structures that exist exist because someone (or, more likely, a team of someones) decided that this function or structure would benefit the overall whole of the structure or user base. No part of the integral design of the web has been accidental or organic. The web does not design itself.

This paradigm, where the web is fluid and built by humans (it of course seems so obvious when you put it that way). Is a much more empowering relationship to have with technology in general. It’s easy to take technology and the web especially for granted when you’ve grown up with it and you’ve also sort of grown and evolved in step with technology—it’s easy for it to all feel inevitable and fixed, but it very much isn’t. And if it isn’t, then it can be better.

 

On Using Historical Metaphors for Technological Change

Overall, the reflections that this weeks reading inspired in me haven’t necessarily changed my perceptions of the internet rather than strengthening a lot of my old perceptions and beliefs. I’ve known for a long time that the internet is not the ideal that a lot of people want it to be. That isn’t to say that it is bad, it just isn’t necessarily a place of free information where kings & popes have the same rights as serfs & fools, so to speak. Based on that horrible joke, you can infer which of the metaphors I liked most for the internet in this week’s reading. 

I really enjoyed the twitter thread by Alex Singh that compared the internet of the early days to the nomadic system and our current situation to a  more feudal system. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that summed up and clarified my image of the internet better. I must admit that I am a major history nerd, particularly medieval history, so I found this reading to be very interesting. I particularly liked the observation about the internet “nomadism” where people “had to navigate the web like nomads: from point to point, from link to link” and the comment about more tech-savvy users working as a kind of priestly privileged class that can navigate more freely than other users (Singh). This metaphor does a brilliant job of illustrating the power that companies like Facebook and Google hold over the proverbial layman of the web, ie the common user. The feudal lords do everything in their power to limit the power of the people by offering them something like a house, land or free internet space. The layman has no idea that he is getting the bad end of the bargain, only that he is being supported by the feudal lord. I think this idea makes it very clear just what kind of system we’re working with. 

It also makes me excited for what possibilities exist for the future. If we are now in the feudalistic part of the historical timeline, how will we advance? Will we become a democracy? A communistic system? A meritocracy? A constitutional monarchy? I think that by examining tech through the lens of history we revitalize it in many ways. We also give it historical significance, which is super important, especially in days like these with the news mirroring the 1940s and 50s in dark twists. 

I also really liked the fact that Singh didn’t really favor either of the systems. He had pointed things to say about both nomadism and feudalism. I really like this perspective, as I think it is the most realistic and unbiased, allowing readers to make their own judgments about both systems. 

Work Cited

Singh, Alex. 2018. On the Web’s transition from nomadism to feudalism. Twitter.