Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Nam ... Rep ... Us!


The first person I ever heard about whose life made any sense to me was Superman.  He had come from an alien planet, Krypton, and wasn’t really related to Ma and Pa Kent, or anyone else on Earth for that matter.  Still, his parents were good people, and only wanted the best for him, so he had to figure out how to mingle in with Earth people, so that he wouldn’t get in trouble.  In one of the comics I had, there was a story-line where Superman had to tell the truth about everything – fortuntately, no one asked him about his secret identity.  Still, he had to tell the people around him what he really thought of them, when he could see with his superior intellect and x-ray vision that they were all in some way flawed or pathetic.  After one day of honesty, there were “down with Superman” rallies all over the country.  This was around the same time that everyone was burning their Beatles albums because John Lennon had said they were ‘more popular than Jesus.’  So much for honesty.

Another thing that fascinated was one of Superman’s lesser-known enemies, Mr. Mxyzptlk. Mr. Mxyzptlk was always trying to trick Superman into saying his name backwards, which would instantly transport him to the fifth dimension.  One time, Mr. Mxyzptlk tricked Superman into announcing the winners of a cricket race that worked like a horse race. He then bribed the cricket jockeys so that horses named “Nam,” “Rep,” and “Us,” would be the first three winners.  Superman went ahead and announced them, but he didn’t suddenly get zapped into the fifth dimension.  Mr. Mxyzptlk was beside himself with rage, but Superman explained that it hadn’t worked because “Superman” wasn’t his real name.  His real name was Kal-el, so in order to send him to the fifth dimension, he’d have to say “Le-lak” (of course he didn’t really say those last words).  Foiled again.

Then there was the Bizarro world, where everyone looked like cubist paintings of their ordinary selves.  Not only that, but they all talked and thought backwards over there, mixing up “I” and “Me” and doing everything the opposite of the normal way.  There was even a Bizarro code: "Us do opposite of Earthly things! Us hate beauty, us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World."

Everyone who existed in the regular Superman world had a counterpart in the other: there was a Bizarro Superman, a Bizarro Lois Lane, a Bizarro Jimmy Olson, and so on.  For some reason that, even now, I can’t precisely identify, the Bizarro world made sense to me too.  The Bizarro Supermen were all married to Bizarro Lois Lanes, and their Bizarro super-kids were expected to do bad in school. If they did well, they were given Superman bad-tutors (complete with mortarboard hats) who taught them how to do it all wrong again.

Of course there was another code beside the Bizarro one, which was even more bizarre: the Comics Code, instituted after the moral panic over the evil influence of comic books on teenagers. No one could actually shoot anyone, no one could get killed, and bad guys always finished last.  Maybe it was the narrow restrictions of the Comics Code that drove writers to invent Mr. Mxyzptlk and the Bizarro World -- maybe not.  But if you could accept a guy in a blue suit and a red cape who could leap over tall buildings in a single bound, you could accept anything.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The End of the Web (not)

Self-appointed computer 'visionary' David Gelernter has news for us -- buzz buzz! -- the end of the Web is coming! Well, not exactly, but there will be no 'next' browser or web protocol; instead, we'll stop thinking spatially, in terms of 'pages,' and start thinking in a time-based manner, in terms of 'streams.' Presumably, our metaphors will change as well; we'll no longer speak of "going to" or "visiting" internet resources; neither will we 'surf' or 'browse' or 'explore.' No, we'll just swim in the stream, merge one stream with another, blend streams into a custom cappuccino of information, and search streams using exclusionary paradigms -- his example is a stream which we tell to temporarily edit itself so that it displays only those moments that mention cranberries. We won't use any of the old search language; instead we'll dynamically edit constant real-time streams. We will, however, do a heck of a lot of "scrolling."

But of course there's just one problem with this: we won't. The metaphors of information are, and have been, spatial ones, since the era of hieroglyphics and cuneiform. Our minds are, it seems, programmed for a sort of visual/spatial thinking -- it goes back, doubtless, to our very old days as hunter/gatherers. Whereas time, that seemingly old friend of ours, is quite a recent invention, and an annoying one as well; until well into the modern era, with the invention of the bimetal strip, which led to reliable and affordable pocket-watches, no one, quite literally, knew 'what time it was.' Time, although it exists in our minds as a constant flow, is in fact made up of all kinds of disparate material that our conscious minds work to stitch together; it is a production, not an exterior condition.  And, when it comes to the past, time gets murky; studies have shown that each time we recall past events, we alter our memory of them; it's the reason eyewitness testimony is often unreliable. A "line" of time, unlike a horizon-line in an image, is very much a cultural construct. 

Beyond that, we have some very suggestive empirical evidence that Internet users don't like to interface with life this way. Facebook has tried this with their "timelines" and the result has been almost universal hatred. Gelernter points to blogs, and to Twitter, as time-stream paradigms, but in fact the vast majority of Tweets that have any lasting impact contain URL's to more 'static' web resources. Blogs do indeed self-archive, and put the newest postings first, but people rarely search through these archives; if they come upon archived pages, it's usually through lateral links such as those generated by a search engine. Who among us has read a blog from start to finish?  Who would want to?  But Gelernter goes even farther; he expects that everyone will be accessing everything through streams that constantly flow in real time.  But do we want that either?  The number of Facebook users who leave or quit, frustrated with the continual barrage of 'news' and 'likes' suggests that this paradigm isn't going to be a crowd pleaser.  And isn't the current web founded on the pleasure of crowds, whence comes their (often unpaid) labor? 

But the other reason that the spatially-metaphored web isn't going to come to an end in favor of a time-metaphored one is that, to paraphrase Sun Ra, it's after the end of the world.   We already make time for our online doings, and whatever we do online becomes, if you want it to, part of a stream.  Those who want to access it that way already have all kinds of software to do so; if you'd like to get real-time updates to all the blogs you follow as an RSS stream, you can do it.  And more: if you want to think of the internet as a creature of time and flowing data, you already can think of it that way, model it that way, study it that way.  But while you're doing that, most of the people who are using it will be using it with spatial metaphors, and software to match.