Some time ago, during one of those conversations that I have wanted to relate here but not had the time, Dave Humphrey and I were reflecting on the parallels between the rise of written text and the rise of electronic text.
Written text. of course, was not always as useful a thing as it is today. The first alphabetical writing was just a series of letters without any of the textual apparatus that we now take for granted. There were no spaces between words, no paragraphing, no punctuation. There were certainly no tables of contents, no indices, no appendices, no footnotes, no annotations. Without this textual apparatus, reading was an activity for the initiated only. It took considerable skill and practice to decode written text. One of the proofs that was given as evidence for the brilliance of Julius Caesar was that he could read without speaking aloud, a technique used by most ancient Roman readers so that they would have audio clues to assist their reading. Without the textual apparatus that makes reading so natural for most people today, written text remained little more than raw, incomprehensible data.
There are analogies here to the web. Though the individual parts of the web are readable to most users as text or video or audio, the web as a whole remains largely a mass of raw, incomprehensible data. There are, of course, a number of textual structures that already attempt to provide an apparatus for reading the web. The search engine is by far the most powerful of these, replacing the static printed index with a flexible generated one. There are also smaller scale tools that enable me to search the text of a site. There are tags that let me organize information in databases. There are bookmarks for the websites I visit. There are RSS feeds for blogs that I read. All of these tools make the web more readable. Without them I would be reduced to the modern equivalent of the ancient Romans, reading aloud, sounding out each word, trying to make sense of what would be little more than a mass of data.
Even with these tools, however, there is much of the internet that we are reading aloud, so to speak, because we still lack the conventions that would make it seem natural to us. The most recent wave of innovations, mostly having to do with social media and user driven content, has only exacerbated this problem, producing ever greater amounts of data at ever increasing speeds. Even assuming that most of it is not worth reading, an amply justified assumption in my opinion, it still remains that I need to find and read and connect those bits of the web that really are worth reading, and there is a need for innovative tools that will allow this sort of reading. There is a need, in short, for a more sophisticated textual apparatus for the web.
I have already mentioned some of what I would like to see myself: programs to manage the content I encounter and ways to map and share the paths that I make as I find my way through the web. Lev Manovich, in an interview that I will discuss at some later time, talks about mapping cultural flows through the web. Whatever conventions the web adopts and adapts as it grows, it is these tools that will enable it to be experienced less as a stream of data and more as a comfortable text. It is these tools on which the usefulness of the web will rely, and we need to be conscious of their significance as we develop them.