Essay: Web of Paradox

The World Wide Web is more than technology, more than modems, bandwidth, computers. It is a thing made of language and of history, a Web of Metaphor.

Of course, we view all new technologies through perspectives or metaphors that limit our understanding and obscure intrinsic qualities and possibilities. Nothing inherent in the internal combustion engine required that the first cars resemble horse-drawn carriages. That beginning was dictated by metaphor, by inherited notions of conveyance, by centuries of carts and wagons and palanquins. (My father, 92, remembers driving an early Ford whose elaborate leather dashboard was fitted with a pocket for the handle of a buggy whip.)

So, too, though more dangerously, the dominant metaphors deployed to describe our experience of things digital constrain our understanding, limit and channel our inventions and even our speculations. Consider such rich but also limiting descriptors as cyberspace, highway (or the bilingual neologism infobahn), market, space, site, frontier.

Am I wrong to think that these are especially American and capitalist metaphors, carrying an undersong of adventure, of risk and speed and danger, of entrepreneurs or starfleet commanders or homesteaders braving the wilderness? Like the early popular Nintendo computer games, discussed in a 1995 essay by Henry Jenkins and Mary Fuller of MIT, such figures implicitly celebrate motion, activity, acquisition, the conquest of space. Odd at first thought, but deeply instructive on reflection: that such swashbuckling metaphors should define the essentially sedentary experience of sitting at a computer terminal with mouse and keyboard at the ready.

Think of the acerbic point, made a decade ago by the cultural critic Gerald Graff, that if the self-preening metaphors of peril, subversion, and ideological danger in the literary theorists' account of their work were taken seriously, their insurance costs would match those for firefighters, Grand Prix drivers, and war correspondents.

In this same spirit of skeptical realism, might we recognize a resemblance between computer users and long-haul truck drivers, strapped in behind the wheel from L.A. to Memphis, listening to country-and-western songs of cowboy truckers, the great American highway, faithful wives? Are the drivers who buy into the sentimental mystifications of such songs victims or eager and sometimes creative collaborators in a mythology that converts the actual confinement and tedium of long-distance truck driving to an experience of freedom and masculine fulfillment?

Marx and de Certeau would supply alternative answers. But they would agree on the paradox.

Just so, we might say, do computer users and Web surfers navigate or maneuver across (or down or through) a superhighway, a teeming marketplace, a frontier, the vasty deep of cyberspace -- yet all the while situated physically in safe domestic or professional cubicles, tethered to the computer screen, perhaps in the dark, maybe tracked and surveilled by their bosses or by the merchants and other strangers whose sites they have visited.

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This awareness of contradiction or dissonance between our celebratory, heroic metaphors and the physical -- and moral and intellectual -- actualities of computer use grows still more paradoxical when we consider the computer or the Internet in explicitly political ways. We use words such as support group, interest group, news group, chat room, market, subculture, community, society to designate some of the ways people link together on the Internet. These and similar terms try to name the Web's participatory, activist potential, its power to create new communities and theoretically to permit isolated minorities to find one another across geographic and political boundaries.

But we clarify and complicate this sense of the Web's powers when we add the necessary adjective virtual. As many have noted, this is a deep paradox, fundamental to our experience of computers: virtual environment, virtual community, virtual reality.

These puzzling tropes point toward something of the immense promise but also the immense peril of the Web: its apparent power to gratify vastly divergent tendencies and yearnings. The Web is kind to impulses often at war in our selves and in the social world. It allows us to traverse the globe, to convene for many causes, to converse intimately or publicly with many persons. Yet to accomplish these interactions we must sit, solitary, at the computer keyboard, interfacing deeply not with a human other but with Windows 95.

The computer encourages joining, interaction, sharing, the creation of communities of interest; yet it is also congenial to our uncivic preferences for isolation, the avoidance of human contact, solipsism, "lurking," voyeurism. Through its power to confer anonymity, it feeds instincts for scandal, revenge, name-calling, surveillance, pornography.

It is the best of Webs, the worst of Webs. It promises, simultaneously, to become the Agora, True Democracy, but also Big Brother. Do I contradict myself? says the American poet, very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.

It is easy to misconceive the import of such discourse about the Web's contradictory nature, and especially its power to threaten such vital conceptual and psychological boundaries as "near" and "far," "presence" and "absence," "body" and "self," "real" and "artificial."

Prompted by the adventure myths embedded in our vocabulary for cyberspace and also by the futurist, technological aura of the whole enterprise of computing, we may be led to see these profound paradoxes as part of the future, uniquely modern, uniquely ours.

But of course, and of course paradoxically, the reverse is true. The new grows out of the old, repeats the old, embraces, reimagines, and extends the old. To understand the Web, I'm saying, to understand our emerging digital culture, we need a continuity, not a discontinuity principle.

From the aspect of continuity, of history, then, it becomes possible to recognize that this supposedly unique and certainly central aspect of our experience of the Web reenacts a distinctive joining or blurring of "true" and "false," of "connection" yet "isolation," "public" and yet "private" that is also at the root of our experience of the movies, of television, yes even the book. (Reading this, my son, 33, a historian, insisted rightly that these formulations are excessively literary and leave implicit such equally relevant precursors as the telegraph and the telephone, collapsing space and time by enabling instantaneous communication over any distance.)

From this angle, then, as from many others, this World Wide Web of paradox is not at all new, at least in some of its defining powers, but instead undertakes and carries forward the cultural work of its predecessors and ancestors.

This is no quibble, some minor casuistry. I'm saying the experience of hearing stories, reading novels and poems, attending plays, looking at paintings, watching movies -- all are in a fundamental way virtual experiences, where actuality is re-presented, tested by hypotheses, experienced vicariously as metaphor and spectacle and make-believe.

Dr. Johnson's retort to complaints against Shakespeare's failure to observe the neoclassical unities of place and time is a famous crystallizing of this durable idea of art as a site of "play," of "let's pretend." It is absurd, Johnson says, a breach of our contract with the very idea of theater, to credit the objection that it is implausible for successive scenes to take place in Rome and then halfway round the world in Egypt (or for ten years to elapse in a play instead of a few hours) but then to think that the entirety of sets, costumes, actors, audience -- the whole environment of artifice -- is not a far stronger cause for disbelief. We do not rush from our seats like Don Quixote to save the puppet-heroine because we understand and embrace the enabling convention of all drama: that its world is imaginary, a virtual site.

I find it instructive, I find it consoling to think about Jules Verne's Captain Nemo and Star Trek's Captain Kirk -- of course they are also emblems for their audience, for book readers and TV watchers -- navigating unexplored and perilous universes even as they sit in the familiar confining safety of the captain's chair, on the captain's bridge, joystick ready, watching the screen.

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