The Web as Space

I just recently read a summary of Wendy Chun’s book Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics, and she confirms an argument that I made several weeks ago, that the web is not actually a space at all and is misrepresented by the spatial metaphors that we use to describe it.  She says essentially that a term like ‘cyberspace’ offers only “a metaphor and a mirage, because cyberspace is not spatial,” and she shows how these metaphors have nevertheless become the basis, nor only of everyday language about the web, but also of regulatory legislation for the web, which perhaps explains why this regulation is often constructed so ineffectively.

At the time when I first suggested that the language of spatiality was inappropriate to the web, I saw the implications of this argument primarily in relation to the possibility of being at home on the web.  However, Chun’s recognition of the legal implications of this language has prompted me to think a little more broadly about the effects of misunderstanding the web as a space.

1.  As I have already argued elsewhere, it encourages an inaccurate conception of how we inhabit or make ourselves at home there.

2.  As Chun indicates, it becomes enshrined in the language of the legal system, and this contributes to the difficulty of developing useful and effective laws to govern the web.

3.  It conceals the real physical structure of the web.

4.  It conceals the fact that the web itself is product and that to use it is in fact a consumption, even if this consumption appears as a kind of participation in production.

5.  It promotes the illusion of mobility and activity through the web, concealing how the web essentially immobilizes its users in front of a monitor, even and especially if that monitor is mobile.

6.  It constructs the web as an alternative to the physical world rather than as an extension of it.

I recognize that this list is probably very partial, but I think that it should go some ways to indicating the effects of a language of spatiality being misapplied to the web.  Our whole social conception of the web is at stake in these kinds of metaphors, and it is necessary that we begin to adopt a language about the web that is more aware of its real physical and social structures.

Though I am perhaps biased because of my own academic background, I might suggest that more appropriate metaphors for the web might be found in the figures of reading and writing.  Not only do these concepts reflect much of the activity that is actually conducted through the web, and not only are they used to perform this function in varying degrees already.  They also have the connotations of production and consumption, of a physical and localized structure of communication, and of the immobility imposed by a medium on its consumer.  Might these textual metaphors also permit a more effective legislation of the web?  Might they encourage a more critical and interpretive approach to the web?  I am interested to know what others might think about these possibilities.

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