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

April 29, 2003*: Are there refrigerator doors in cyberspace?

One of the ongoing themes of these columns has been what I refer to as "metaphors of the internet". The internet was, when we first encountered it, without a doubt, something new, something different. But not necessarily something indescribable. One of the tasks I set out for myself was to try and describe what that "internet experience" was like - in terms that would be clear to us from prior experience. Six years ago I devoted a column to an examination of the similarities and differences between a web page and a printed page, and I've also questioned how viewing the internet as the information superhighway affects the way we use this tool. The commons, and what's called The Tragedy of the Commons has served me as a metaphor for cyberspace and peer-to-peer networking. It was, however, while pondering the enormous quantity of jokes, wise-sayings, cartoons, inspirational texts and the like that inundate my inbox that I started to realize that this never-ending exchange of information might best be compared to a refrigerator door.

But though a Google search brings up a plethora of references to refrigerator doors on the web, it seems that the vast majority of these are very simplistic metaphors, along the lines of "my web page as a refrigerator door". What interests me is less the one-to-one correspondence between a particular web page and those doors, but instead the process of distributing and disseminating information that the refrigerator door once offered us, a process that today by perhaps been superceded by the internet.

Let's put it this way: When I place a favorite poem or story or wise-saying on my refrigerator door it becomes a cause for reflection for myself, and also for those who visit me and sit in my kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee, visiting with me. One of those people will ask me for a photocopy of that poem which he or she will then post on his or her refrigerator, and when people visit him or her they may read it and request a photocopy. Slowly but surely, that snippet of wisdom starts to make the rounds, and chances are good that one day I'll find it displayed on the refrigerator door of someone whom I visit.

A system such as this pretty much ensures that the cream rises, that only the best will survive. After all, how much room do people have on their refrigerator doors. It's also a rather slow process, one that takes off only when something strikes a very common nerve. Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten is a classic example of this sort of folk knowledge.

But cyberspace has a different dynamic than that of refrigerator doors. Because space on the refrigerator door is limited, it's necessary to remove an old pearl of wisdom from the door in order to make room for a new one. In cyberspace this spatial clutter isn't a problem. In its stead however, conceptual clutter abounds. Cyberspace also tunnels the distribution process, disseminating in days what before might have demanded months. When this happens, content tends to separate from context. If in the past we identified a particular story or joke with the person who told it to us, today these stories become detached, disconnected from any framework. We ourselves, no longer the tellers, but instead simply the distributors of these stories, cease to identify with them. In the best case scenario we change our own perceptions of ourselves as we distribute different, contradictory, messages. In the worst, we simply lose any distinct identity.

We're still learning that the fact that e-mail can transmit anything doesn't mean that it should. Judging from the amount of material that I receive in the course of one week, it would seem that for many people this realization is still far off in the future. Is part of the problem grounded in the false correspondence that people find between cyberspace and refrigerator doors? In other words, do we permit ourselves to innundate the mail of others with hundreds of items because we incorrectly assume that e-mail is an extension of those doors? I may bemoan the fact that so much information is transmitted through mass postings that it's hard to separate the gold from the dross. I may yearn for a simpler time when one well-phrased and touching vignette stayed with us for a month or more. I may regret that the more personal, one-to-one, sort of communication that used to develop when we sipped coffee near the refrigerator door doesn't take place in cyberspace. But I'm certainly not about to close my e-mail account because of all this.

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

Jay Hurvitz

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