Disrupting the conceptual metaphors of the web
Written byJeremy Keith. 10 comments
We've developed an array of metaphors for talking about the intangible spaces of the web. Maybe it's time to unshackle ourselves from some of them.
Distance is a bother. While we might enjoy arriving at our destination, the process of getting from A to B can be tedious. Science fiction gives us a way to think about this tedium. Let’s roughly divide the genre into two categories — those that abide by Einstein’s theories of relativity and those that don’t.
Those in the Einstein camp are faced with problems of time when getting from star system A to star system B: characters age at different rates, the plot moves at a set speed, time passes.
Those who ignore Einstein’s theories simply circumvent the light barrier, pass through wormholes and other creations, warping space and time.
We can think about this second approach more practically. Take a piece of paper. Mark an A on the paper. Then mark a B somewhere else. Getting from A to B usually involves travelling across the sheet of paper. The superluminal solution is to fold the paper so that the points are touching. If space can be warped like a piece of paper then travel becomes meaningless. Not only are points A and B connected, every single point in the universe, from A to Z, are potential neighbours. Distance collapses. This is how the internet works.
The conceptual metaphors of the web
The internet is a physical thing. It is made of machines. Distributed across the planet, it is laden with the baggage of mass: resistance, latency and lag. The internet is the physical vessel of the world wide web. But our consensual hallucination is not hampered by the restrictions of space. Cyberspace, like hyperspace, collapses distance. Hyperlinks are the wormholes that can potentially connect every single resource on the web.
Our brains have evolved over thousands of years to deal with the physical world. Our thinking is bounded by the spatial dimensions of our environment. When we are confronted with theoretical constructs, we employ conceptual metaphors to map them onto physical space. Time, for example, is intangible. But we talk about time as if it were a physical thing: we take it, make it, and save it.
We have used conceptual metaphors since the birth of the web. We talk about web ‘sites’ and information ‘architecture.’ We use verbs of movement like surfing, browsing, and visiting. Faced with the limitless potential of an unbounded medium, we use language to erect our own boundaries.
Disrupting the metaphors: Ajax
Occasionally, a technological shift is so great that it requires a corresponding change in our conceptual metaphors. Ajax is a linguistically disruptive technology. The traditional web is ‘navigated’ by the user, moving from location to location. But with Ajax the metaphor needs to change because the user’s location remains constant. We apply verbs from the world of the desktop: creating, editing, deleting. In a faint echo of Ted Nelson’s ideas of transclusion, in an Ajax space it is the information that now moves, called up by a stationary user.
Many of the design challenges thrown up by Ajax aren’t technological problems. Instead, they are caused by a clash of conceptual metaphors. Why doesn’t the back button return me to the previous state of the current page? Why can’t I bookmark the changed state of the current page? The back button and bookmarking both rely on the browser’s history stack. But the history stack is an artifact of the conceptual metaphor of the web as a place. It is a map of your travels. If, thanks to Ajax, you no are no longer travelling, you don’t need a map. There are no maps for these territories.
Conveying “presence” on the web
The web is not a tangible place. Without physical dimensions, there is no way to convey presence. Presence is a by-product of location. In our everyday three-dimensional world, our senses are attuned to notice when others are sharing the same space as us. We are aware of their presence. We can further subdivide presence into units of proximity: near, far, and everything in between. That subtlety is lost in the dimensionless realm of the web.
There have been quite a few attempts to attain presence in non-dimensional space. Virtual worlds like Second Life go to great lengths to replicate the concepts of near and far. Most of the effort involves producing a three dimensional environment on the two-dimensional plane of a screen. The more convincing the graphics, so the thinking goes, the more realistic the environment.
This same thinking drove development in another area where ‘virtual reality’ has historically been chased as the ultimate goal. The gaming industry has spent years aspiring to more advanced visual realism and graphic complexity. While Microsoft and Sony were locked in this battle of the polygons, Nintendo took an entirely different approach with their Wii console. Despite the comparatively weak graphics, the experience of wielding a wiimote as a tennis racquet, a guitar, or a steering wheel can be incredibly immersive.
Immersive online experiences are not necessarily going to be found in virtual worlds like Second Life. The feeling I get when I check Twitter is the closest I’ve ever come to jacking in to the Matrix. Twitter isn’t graphically rich. It isn’t even textually rich; communication is limited to 140 characters or fewer. Yet those nuggets of text convey more presence than I could ever get from the Metaverse. Where Second Life seeks to reproduce the physical boundaries of the ‘real’ world, Twitter is making good use of the distance-collapsing nature of the web.
The recreation of barriers on the web is often held up as the very paragon of innovation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the creation of so-called Rich Internet Applications. Rather than making use of the limitless nature of the web, many of these applications seek to recreate the confined boundaries of the desktop. Is this the limit of our imagination? Faced with a medium that has literally no limits, we seek to impose the limitations of other environments; the fixed dimensions of the printed page, the single user model of the desktop computer. The desktop environment may have rich surfaces, but as Nintendo and Twitter have shown us, it’s the experience that counts.
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