Marshall McLuhan once said: “The medium is the message.” If this is so, then what is the message the web provides by being a medium?
The web is not a medium, not in the traditional sense of the word as one-way-transmitting of content from an active sender to somehow passive receivers. And it is not an assemblage of two-ways-media either. It is not an assemblage of millions points being sender and receiver at once. So, if the web is not a medium, then what is it?
It’s not a place either, even if we like to imagine it so. And this for a very simple reason: There is no there there. A place has a location, some coordinates in space and time. Perhaps space and time are only its material foundation (as are the servers for the web, the radio- / tv-stations and editorial offices for the media, the publishing houses and print shops for the books). But a place is more than its coordinates in space and time, more than its material foundation. A place, endowed with beauty, significance, history, is more. The web is not a place because we can not meet there, because its locations don’t provide for memories (as places with significance do).
The web is not a place.
Rather it is an allotted, outspread dream in which people imagine that they converse with other people they don’t see or know. These are dreamed conversations — conversations as they happen in dreams, when we only dream that we’d confer with those other people. But at the same time this dream is spread out over the world, repeated in every participant. And that’s astounding, discomforting. Because ususally we like to say that a dream (or a hallucination or a vision) is something occurring only in one person alone. It can not happen in two persons at once, at least not the same dream (or hallucination or vision). If it happens to be in more than one person, then that is a sign it is not a dream, even if it may have dream-like qualities (like the beauty of a place or a piece of art). We then call it real. So in a sense the web is like a dream and not like a dream.
The web is something people simultaneously, and with the help of technology, imagine: a coordinated assemblage of dream-like conversations. But what is such an assemblage? Can we find something similar in the world apart from the web? Ideologies? Fashion? The so-called “memes” (that don’t explain anything)? What is it that people can have coordinatedly in common without it having to be real? Customs? Morals, attitudes, upbringings ….?
The web is like a daydream in which the persons we dream about can answer and influence our life. A daydream — with its capacity for addiction. (The web as being a dream may hinder us to act. And we fall for the web in order not to act.) The web is the first identifiable, locatable, outspread daydream in our history. The web is a dream that covers the earth. Like a cloak. The web is dreamed up by the people. We dream its contents into existence. We dream …. the shallow versions of dreams.
If we don’t know or don’t recognize that we dream then we are like Claire and Sam in Wim Wenders’ Bis ans Ende der Welt / Until the End of the World (1991). I never realized how important that film is. I always loved its Sci-Fi-Roadmovie-character. But it tells us something important about manifested dreams (like his Lisbon Story (1994) too but from a different angle). It shows us their dynamics. How did he know? How could he know? How could Wenders see so many years in advance the importance of understanding manifested dreams?
Manifested dreams. Not like in art, not like a sculpture, not like Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1652). More like in my favourite picture of a banquette: different parts (guests, staff, logistics) come together, form one “organism”, one assemblage, one “Luftgestalt” (a being of air) that stays for an amount of time, and vanishes when the evening grows old and the morning is young.
The web changes the reality, the world, by adding its dream-like character to our understanding of what the world consists of. In a sense the world grew richer. In a sense it became more unreal. And that is not astonishing: What is real is not possible (or is no longer possible), and dealing with a magnitude of possibilities is dealing with something that lies beyond what is real at a given moment. The possibilities augment a “given” reality, imbuing it with aspects, colours, meanings. They add layers, strata, dimensions, directions, fields, landscapes that are not there (or at least not visible) in the moment we concentrate on the world “at hand”. (In some way the distinction between real and possible is of the same kind as that between us here and the world there. More about the latter here and here.)
(That’s the reason why we can not act in the face of looming disaster. Because we can not unterstand it being real until it is real and accordingly too late. Before that it is a rumour ….)
We can not really distinguish our life from the world. (Because that distinction was already made with the help of our mind.) And so we struggle to distinguish our dreams from the world. Now the web renders the distinction between dreams and world pointless.
In a sense we know that dreaming without the soul is playing with images, playing with the wishes of our egos, playing with our ambitions, our desire to be important, to be special, to have influence. (At least this is how I take Wenders’ Until the End of the World.)
We need the dreaming. And we need to recognize that ingrained in us as a species is a tendency, ability, and desire to dream collectively. We know that this desire can be used by smart people. We know that this desire plays a role in mass-movements. We know that we need to cultivate this ability as we need to live this desire. We do this in mass-events — from sports to concerts to theatre, from processions and pilgrimages to festivities. These are not so much ways to dissolve or get rid of the ego-boundaries; they are much more ways to enact a collective dreaming, a Common Mind.
But at home, at the screen, the experience differs. And we act like attending the Oracle of Delphi. We ask something …. and miraculously we get an answer.
What is the web? — Something that places itself between our dreams and the world by being a manifested dream …. out there, without a there there ….
Postscriptum 2010.10.16 : In a conversation @brightbyte pointed out to me that there is a good sense in which one can speak about the web as a place or a connection of places, namely in the mathematical sense of a topology with its structures and points. I agree with that. But I want to add that although it is a good factual description it doesn’t do justice to the way we feel the web and its places to be a landscape. In a sense I was more into a kind of phenomenological description that encompasses both form and our appreciation of it, not a mathematical or structural one.
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