I look forward to this Correspondence. We have only met briefly, in passing, at a conference on “Theorizing the Web” that took place at the International Center of Photography exhibition space in New York on the Bowery. At that time it was a pre-museum, a raw space with empty walls and folding chairs and, as I remember, a small area for children to play. In the physical emptiness, the echoing rooms, it seemed there was the psychic space in which new thoughts could be imagined, new ideas presented. Time had a chance to reassert itself in its passing, less interrupted by the beeps of cellphones and the nearly constant rain of emails. It felt like a cave Plato might have inhabited, where the images were kept indistinct and at bay, and imagination was, for once, to be called into play.
This is similar to how the Web felt to me in its earliest days in the 1990s, when we went from the non-visual Internet to the Web with its capacity for photography and video, limited at the time, by slow uploads from telephone modems. The Web, rather than being fast-loading and multitudinous, a consumerist fantasy in which every link would provide new, if not always interesting, delights, seemed for a moment a manifestation of human possibility that could be made widely accessible in which meaning could be elicited slowly, more like reading a book on Web “pages” or contemplating a painting than the speedy attention-deficit electric surfing that would soon be enabled via cable modems and wifi. It was an era of stand-alone CD-ROMS in which experiments in hypertext were being conducted, poems and artworks produced that had to be read in non-linear ways, authored by individuals who took responsibility for the pathways that would emerge and open. It was not like watching tv then, channel surfing, but rather more like looking at a specific work or publication and spending time dedicated to exploring it in some depth.
“for the most part the Web seemed an exercise in efficiency, in giving the consumer (the “user”) an array of choices, making it easy for the viewer to immediately click and be rewarded with another screen full of something else, whatever else, as long as there was more”
The speeded-up Web that followed, dominated by content-management systems, in which the templates predominated over the idiosyncratic visions of an author, seemed like a fall from grace. Suddenly the mentality of the corporate brochure, the rigidity of a supermarket with its aisles and departments, began to efface or at least diminish the taste and the vision of the individual. Certainly there were always exceptions, artists creating sites that had far more to them than a manifestation of a template, but for the most part the Web seemed an exercise in efficiency, in giving the consumer (the “user”) an array of choices, making it easy for the viewer to immediately click and be rewarded with another screen full of something else, whatever else, as long as there was more. I remember teaching in a graduate program at the university where students were told that in building Web sites they had to make it obvious for the viewer to click within three seconds, or else the viewers would leave their site without having engaged. I remember telling my students that if the viewer could click within less than thirty seconds their site may be a failure – I wanted what was shown on the Web to challenge the viewer, just like reading Dostoievski, or looking at an abstract painting, or listening to John Coltrane, had challenged me, an experience that took much longer than three seconds.
Digital media, with its emphatically anti-hierarchical bias, its encouragement of the individual to be both reader (or perhaps skimmer or scanner is more accurate) and producer, began to resemble a warehouse—a jumble of possibilities radiating a sense that there might be a treasure somewhere if one only looks long enough (this seemed to me a possibility that would be of interest to those with large amounts of free time rather than those whose days were less flexible, taken up with work and other responsibilities). Curation and editing, the filtering that focused the attention of both large and small segments of society, was largely abandoned for a “democratization” of media that also seemed a virulent form of nearly out-of-control consumerism. Rather than trust the taste of others (as in a retail store, or a museum, or a newspaper) social media adherents began to deride specialists as exemplifying a form of vacuous elitism. The power needed to be with the people, and as we segmented and splintered into a myriad of special-interest groups, this was articulated as the prerogative of the individual in a democratic/consumerist societies, a displacement of the public square into, if you will allow me, a vast mosaic of individual pixels. Of course this is exactly what we are complaining about now in the populist politics of this moment, including the red state-blue state, rural-urban divides within the United States, a splintering that led to the election of a reality-television star as president.
“Information now appears and disappears within minutes in a 24-hour news cycle, with little chance for a coherent narrative, as images are appropriated and re-contextualized (with and without permission). Authorship is challenged.”
I am certainly aware of the limitations of the analog media, with its politics of exclusion, its parochial tastemakers coming from only certain classes. But I am also aware that by focusing society on certain issues to the exclusion of others, it was possible to have a civic dialogue in which large numbers of people shared certain of the same reference points. It was also a way for the individual writer or photographer or filmmaker to benefit from the expertise of a larger group pre-publication rather than the more profligate self-publishing we see today, even if that larger group could at times be insensitive, repressive and unhelpful. We could concentrate on the war in Vietnam for example, with front pages documenting its progression, and rally to stop it—unlike the war in Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan, where much of what happens seems a blur of competing narratives, taken in as fragments with little sense of the context or the history (why did we have so many iconic images from the war in Vietnam to rally around and against and none from the war in Afghanistan, for example, even if it is now the US’s longest war?). Information now appears and disappears within minutes in a 24-hour news cycle, with little chance for a coherent narrative, as images are appropriated and re-contextualized (with and without permission). Authorship is challenged.
I am not trying here to be overly nostalgic. I am aware that the Web offers enormous possibilities that transcend much of the mundane uses that we are seeing today, but what troubles me is that so few are being realized. I see the Internet as a quantum universe of probabilities and possibilities that differs profoundly in its logic from the Newtonian cause-and-effect universe of the analog, a coded environment that, as I have written before, offers enormous opportunities to explore what it means for us to be coded, DNA-based beings. But I do find that the “aura of the original,” the sense of specialness and even of the sacred, are difficult to find when confronted with trillions of images and a multitude of words. And I find that the many artists aggregating the proliferation of images and words on the Web as a new archive do not often move us into new ways of understanding the human spirit and its potentials.
I think more these days of the great picture magazines of the 1920s and ‘30s, such as Vu and Life, in which imagery was placed on the page, designed with a sense of scale and contrast, the printing controlled, the typography selected so as to enhance and emphasize particular meanings from the photographs themselves. Form interacted with content both within and outside the rectangle of the photograph, creating a dynamic that was more than the sum of its parts. Now the Web tends to showcase photographs that vary in size depending upon the screen each person is looking at, from that of a cellphone to a laptop, with uncontrolled color palettes and bland typographies. There is little meaningful interplay between form and content, but more of a sense that one is looking at a great deal of “stuff” that can always be abandoned and replaced with a fast click of the mouse. So the most vivid photographs are placed at the beginning of a slide show, hoping that the viewer stays longer, rather than creating a visual rhythm that aids a more nuanced expression of the work in which some of the strongest images are shown at the end.
Where I think that the Web offers more than the analog can provide is in the non-linear narrative, hypertext, an intelligent “interactivity” rather than a facile one. We should not be creating ATM-like “interactivity” that is more about the click than the result, but an interactivity that leads to more complex and unexpected experiences. This is a different form of collaboration than that between a writer and reader in a book, or a painter and viewer, or a filmmaker and her audience. This is a non-linearity which allows the reader/viewer a freedom to roam, to explore, and in doing so to add meaning to the relationship with the text and its author. This is more of what I had hoped we would be getting online.
I am interested in your responses, to have a sense of where you think the light is at the end of this digital tunnel. The Web’s capacities for aggregation and efficient distribution are evident—what I am searching for is more of a sense of discovery of the transcendent and the transformative, a potential for expanding not only data and information but also knowledge and wisdom, in whatever forms they might emerge.
Next “Correspondence” by Nathan Jurgenson will be published in May 30th.