From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

July 20, 1999*: falling straight to not being in Kansas anymore

With this column I mark three full years of monthly Boidem columns. That means three years of playing around with this format, examining various issues related to online life, reacting to developments in internet use, and reflecting on how internet use affects and changes our relationships to information and communication. I suppose that three years is sort of a cause to celebrate. So after three years perhaps I can allow myself to reach a few temporary conclusions about the lure of the web. Perhaps I can allow myself to mix a few metaphors along the way, and even invite a few friends to join in the festivities.

Each of these friends has brought along with her or him a slightly different approach to relating to a web essay. More approaches undoubtedly exist, but these three basic elements exemplify for me what makes the web such an enjoyable adventure. I have always been attracted to parachuting (though I've never jumped), and I imagine that there's a similarity between free fall parachuting and surfing the web. It's not exactly the danger, since, when all is said and done, the greatest danger that a protracted web surf offers is a stupendous waste of time. What's more, with free fall you know that you're going to hit ground in the end, while with a web surf, there's no telling where you'll end up, if at all. Still, it seems to me that a good web essay creates in us the same sort of feel that I imagine one gets in free-fall parachuting - the breathtaking sensation of heading toward something tangible, but in a somehow intangible manner, the knowledge of the undeniable fact that you're headed toward something, but an almost total lack of knowing just when (or where) that will be.

So falling has a web equivalent, and Alice has justified her participation in our little party. But is there any clear connection between reading a web essay and progressing along a straight path that validates Pooh's presence? Admittedly, the search engine method of searching for information let's us get straight to what we're looking for, but is there really much fun in that? Going straight seems to be defeating the purpose of the web. Ah, but if we're going to bring Pooh into this column we're going to have to do it on his terms, and Pooh has his own (hardly ever truly straight) way of doing things.

Those terms are the opposite of going from WAYIN to WAYOUT. Though we're told that one goes straight to the animal he loves the best, the path described is actually quite winding. Quite the opposite from the seemingly straight line path that's originally hinted at in the route from WAYIN to WAYOUT. For Pooh, it seems, going in the direction straight entails wandering "through dark passages and up steep stairs", and that's much more to my taste. We may know precisely where it is we want to get to, but that doesn't mean that we can't get in some wandering along the way.

Thus in a roundabout sort of way going straight, or Pooh's style of going straight, is also a defining characteristic of the web experience. And what about Kansas? Finding an equivalent to Kansas would be pushing things a bit too far, but the sensation of suddenly noticing how much ones surroundings have changed is quite central to clicking. Seeing as how the Munchkin population of Kansas is statistically insignificant, Dorothy's wonderful exclamation simply has to be accepted as the plain truth. And it's forever thrilling and enticing to discover that with only one click we've arrived in uncharted and unfamiliar territory.

Writing about jazz, the critic Whitney Balliett (about forty years ago) coined the term the sound of surprise. Stealing freely from him, perhaps we can define the web experience as "the click of surprise", or better, "the surprise of click". Via our clicks we fall (or at least stumble); we go straight by first drawing a line, only to discover later that our line connects two points that had no logical connection between them beforehand. Then, like Harold with his purple crayon (hey, he's invited as well) we walk along the line we've created, looking around us and realizing that something has changed, even drastically so. When we read a book, even if it's a novel with a plot that draws on fantasy, the possibilities for what might happen are within the pages of that book. It never happens that suddenly we get sent from the pages of that particular book to some other volume in the library, from there to a magazine article and only possibly then back to what's between the binding of the first book. Numerous signs, such as the number of pages in the book, exist that define for us the limits of that particular reading experience.

And one more element deserves to be mentioned. The web, more than any other medium I can think of, allows for the integration of personal stories with information that we might otherwise find in a detached and cold manner in some other medium. A number of months ago, when searching for information on Hans Christian Andersen I came across a web site devoted to his stories on a server at the Technion in Israel. The site was extensive and impressive, a small internet treasure. But I found the true treasure at the bottom of the site's main page. The site's author had built it as a memorial for his son who died at the age of 20 of sudden heart failure. The Hans Christian Andersen stories were there to be read without any obligation to read any other information linked to that main page. But those few additional clicks led me into another story that touched me at least as much as the Andersen tales. I unexpectedly clicked upon another world. Thus it can happen that when we fall straight into the realm of the unanticipated and the unknown, we meet fascinating people with human stories to tell, and their lives touch ours.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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