There Is No “There” There

This article appeared in the second issue of Scroll magazine. The theme of the issue was “place.”

This article was written for Scroll magazine number two, on the theme of “place”, where it appeared in edited form as Disrupting the Conceptual Metaphors of the Web.

Distance is a bother. While we might enjoy arriving at our destination, the process of getting from A to B can be tedious. This problem is thrown into sharp relief in the speculative realm of science fiction.

The sci-fi sub-genre of space opera can be roughly divided into two categories. Stories that abide by Einstein’s theories of relativity can never transgress the speed of light. Getting from star system A to star system B is not only tedious, it brings with it all the problems of time dilation. The narrative difficulties of constructing a story in which characters age at substantially different rates are extremely challenging. The second category of space opera avoids the time dilation problem by circumventing the light barrier.

Theoretical MacGuffins like Einstein-Rosen bridges and Schwarzschild wormholes are brought to bear on the bothersome business of interstellar travel. The details may differ but these plot devices work in much the same way. They warp space.

Take a piece of paper. Make a mark somewhere on the paper. Now make another mark somewhere else. Getting from one point to the other 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 web works.

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 millennia 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 metaphor 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 metaphor 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.

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 / visitor / ugly bag of mostly water, moving from location to location. When Ajax is introduced, the metaphor must change. Now 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, it is the information that is moving now, called up by a stationary user.

My definition of Ajax is fairly broad. Anything that can communicate with a server without refreshing the entire document is Ajax in my book. It could be JavaScript-driven but it could just as well be implemented with Flash. Every time you embed a YouTube clip on your blog, you are opening a wormhole to the YouTube cosmos. A visitor to your site can peruse content from YouTube without moving from your URL.

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 artefact 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.

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 in a Red Queen’s arms race of ever-increasing 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, distributed by people I care about, 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.

Alas, not only is the recreation of barriers on the web seen as a desirable goal, it 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 instead to recreate the confined boundaries of the desktop. The desktop environment may have rich surfaces, but as Nintendo and Twitter have shown us, it’s the experience that counts.

The experience of using web applications masquerading as their desktop counterparts can feel downright creepy. There is something distinctly uncomfortable about using a web app that is almost, but not quite, like using a desktop app. Users find themselves in an uncanny valley of interaction when they must carry out desktop actions in a non-desktop environment.

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.

We can do better. We haven’t even begun to tap the potential of hypertext.

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