Stuck in the middle, or perhaps the medium?

The earth at night is a really beautiful thing. People glow.

Looking at my artfully constructed diagram a few minutes later, I realize I got it a little wrong. It’s easy to locate Bakersfield; the thin ribbon of the grapevine connecting it with LA is easy to spot by satellite. I put my star on Tulsa, Oklahoma by mistake. I’m actually a few dots lower and to the right. The final “e” in “here” must be above Memphis, and Little Rock would be somewhere below the “he”. It’s perfectly understandable though; consciousness doesn’t translate well to map space.

There is a lot to like in Chapter 2, “Space” of Small Pieces Loosely Joined by David Weinberger. However, I find myself locked in refutatio. Traditional space is not a container. Maybe it’s because I’ve moved closer to the middle of the North American Continent, and spent time traveling in the deserts and open spaces of this mass of land, standing in places where optical law takes over before the planet ends. I do not think of space as finite, enclosed, containing much of anything except what my senses can take in at a moment. Space doesn’t end in the “real” world. Our senses mediate space to construct a closure which is largely an illusion.

Ah, but this is the distinction between “measured space” and “lived space” which Weinberger makes in his book. Once again, I don’t see this as a phenomena unique to the Internet. When I think of California, where I spent most of my life, I do not think of the 1678.26 miles which Mapquest tells me separates my current location from my memories. They are right here, right now. The locations in between are “sites” in my memory which vary in detail dependant on the amount of experience collected there. Perhaps “measured space” is not nearly so crucial to our perception of the “real” world as he implies. We always experience space and time through a mediating agent, be it memory or sense. With this distinction in mind, it seems as if the Internet is closer to the space of memory than the space of sense, at least the sense of space that we feel when enclosed. But this is only a subset of the total phenomena of “real” space.

This gets me where I was going. I was amused by another one of those definitional stasis things today. Just a reminder, for those who haven’t followed my train of thought lately, I’m using stasis in the Greek sense [from the OED]:

a. Gr. standing, station, stoppage, f. – to stand.

Whenever a word gets twisted so far from its original meaning as this, it gives me pause.

The argument is:

Let’s summarize the Top Three Reasons Why the Web Isn’t a Medium.

1. A medium is something we send messages through whereas our talk of the Web indicates that we move through the Web – we go places, we surf, we enter sites.

2. When you call it a medium, the broadcast boys get erections. (And the broadcast girls get more head lumps from jumping up against the glass ceiling.)

3. The Web is “content” – us writing stuff to and for another another – not the transmission medium.

Wait a minute. Okay, so using this logic, television isn’t a medium. We surf the channels. We stop at programs. We enter into the dramas and comedies already in progress. Books aren’t a medium. Because they are composed of content, not the dead tree pulp that composes them. How ridiculous can you get?

So, discussing media means that we must exclude anything composed primarily of content? Uh, it seems to me that the media, or mediating agents of that content are as important as the content itself. To fall back on McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message” or better still, “The Medium is the Massage.” There is a lot of stroking going on about how different the Internet “non-medium” is. To make this twist in definition means going to the fourth definition of medium in the OED:

4. a. Any intervening substance through which a force acts on objects at a distance or through which impressions are conveyed to the senses: applied, e.g., to the air, the ether, or any substance considered with regard to its properties as a vehicle of light or sound.

The intervening substance of the Internet does indeed exist; electrons through wires, and phosphors on screens. The transmission of brainwaves from site authors to readers does not occur instantaneously (just yet, at least) and hence the proclamation in the “Space” chapter that normal spatial concepts don’t apply to the web seems a bit myopic. It just depends on which “normal” you’re talking about.

I think that the usage of the word medium is too good to lose, particularly in the second subset of this meaning:

b. The application of the word in sense 4 to the air, ether, etc. has given rise to the new sense: Pervading or enveloping substance; the substance or ‘element’ in which an organism lives; hence fig. one’s environment, conditions of life.

The Internet represents a new environment, to be sure, even if its a purely figurative one. I don’t believe that we can overthrow the definition, different from the ones previously listed, which I believe Weinberger is really attacking:

5. a. An intermediate agency, means, instrument or channel. Also, intermediation, instrumentality: in phrase by or through the medium of. spec. of newspapers, radio, television, etc., as vehicles of mass communication.

We “visit sites” through the medium of the Internet. It is an intermediate agency, a non-hierarchal one to be sure, but still it is an instrument, not something new. Why throw out a perfectly good definition when it exists to help us make sense of the road we’re on?

The Internet is a vehicle, through which we navigate a space that is much closer to the space of mind than the space of roadmaps. Space is different here, yes. But not unique. I’m not buying that yet.

I’m still working with that rural pen, and staining the water clear.