|Quo Vadis, Internet User?|
|Wednesday, 30 May 2012 17:03|
How does your typical day begin? You wake up in your bed, make coffee in the kitchen and drink it on the way to work. You weave through the streets, stopping briefly to buy a pack of chewing gum at the kiosk roughly half-way between your house and the office. When you get to your place of employment, you sit down at your desk and go online. Where are you now? You’re physically motionless, but you are not entirely where you were a second ago. Henry David Thoreau once remarked that “He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all”, and those words have become true in a way that not even he could have predicted. While we sit motionless, interacting with the world on the screen we enter into a sort of quasi-movement through a virtual world. And this is something that puzzles me immensely. I consider myself to have a firm understanding of exactly where I am until the moment I open my web browser, and then it all goes a bit fuzzy. Where am I when my experience has shifted from my physical surroundings into a virtual space? How do we define virtual space, and is it possible and preferable to create an accepted virtual topography?
The term telepresence has often been used to describe one of the largest benefits of instant media. In the earlier parts of the 20th century, long distance communication was remarkable enough, but the multi-medial character of the internet has brought about the ability to project ourselves instantly into other people’s lives in an even more remarkable way. We can broadcast our ideas with comparatively small amount of effort and cost, share in experiences of music, literature of video and even the most mundane online games enable us to commune with people all over the globe as we entertain ourselves, all while holding instantaneous access to immense archives of knowledge at our fingertips. And yet, there’s something strangely detached about our current experiences of virtual reality. The prefix “cyber”, one that so many of us overuse to explain complex socio-technological phenomena, takes its roots from the old Greek word describing the act of steering a ship. And while we can certainly agree that the analogy of holding a ships rudder may make sense in relation to a control device such as a keyboard, it takes much more imagination to picture ourselves in the middle of a vast ocean, navigating the internet as if it were a body of water. There has always been a tendency to predict future technological development as moving toward a system of full-body immersion, a system that will enable us to completely enter into a virtual environment and become fully mobile within the machine in a naturally intuitive way. However, although such technology may not be fully realized and available yet, it does not mean that we have not entered into an era of “virtual movement”.
Visualizing the internet has always been a challenge for both written and visual media. In some ways, it sounds like a failure of human imagination to say that we cannot come up with an adequate visual metaphor for something almost omnipresent in our daily lives, but it turns out that coming up with an accurate description of the internet may be so unintuitive that it actually goes against our accepted understanding of how it all works. There have been numerous attempts at “mapping” the internet, both in 2D and 3D, but the vastness of the subject matter is so perplexing, it’s sort of like mapping out star charts, the relative size of the entire system in relation to a human individual is so immense that it turns us into entities smaller than pixels, and thus invisible.
The terminology in play doesn’t help either. “The web” “digital networks” “cloud computing”, it all sounds so ethereal. In fact, there is a nuts-and-bolts character to the way that the world-wide information networks function, and that reality usually crashes into our minds each time there’s a power outage or some form of maintenance work. But even ignoring the physical infrastructure doesn’t excuse us for making clumsy metaphors for how our virtual worlds work. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard words like “democratic“ or “user-generated” used to describe the power of mass communication media. It’s particularly prevalent in describing the “web 2.0“ phenomenon, an industry that looks new, but is often run in a very traditional way. The somewhat hierarchical organization of many corporate organizations that make their money solely from these ethereal forms of social life and commerce on the internet are more often than not very similar to any other large corporation, and a reason why it’s best to be a bit more conservative in branding any new technological development as transformative or inherently beneficial. This is why we still might need a good metaphor, an understanding of the web in a more “tactile” sense that will enable us to really survey our surroundings and understand other people’s positions in relation to ourselves.
Allow me to take you back to the beginning: we’re back at the office, and you’ve just gone to work. Suddenly, your boss barges through the door and demands that you tell him of your movements over the past weekend. Where have you been? Who with? What did you see while you were there? Is there any particular reason he should ask? No. He just wants to know. Seems like a remarkably brazen violation of your personal life, doesn’t it? In fact, what our imaginary employer did is in some ways similar to what many web-based services already do in collecting traffic and usage information from their users on-line. All of this is perfectly legal thanks to some clever legal language in the terms and conditions of use that so many of us just scroll through and accept. On the other hand, there is a more benevolent and kind way to understand the analogy of real and virtual space, and the monitoring that occurs at the hands of internet giants. Much like urban traffic engineers rely on traffic data in order to come up with solutions to traffic jams in populous urban centers, so too do the web-engineer rely on knowing how we spend our time online in order to create a more streamlined and personal experience. There is a sort of safety in numbers, in fact, that comes from knowing that our personal data is simply bundled with millions of people like us and just used as a representative aggregate of an average user that may not warrant full-on paranoia just yet.
We may not yet be in an era of full-body immersion in virtual environments, but that doesn’t mean that our virtual movements have no consequence. As the legislation of digital goods, intellectual property and access in general continues to become more refined or even more restrictive, there is a need for the average user to understand how such measures affect them. For some, including myself, it’s hard to really understand all of the processes that occur to make our daily interactions with technology possible, and it seems like most of the advancements in technology make it easier for the end-user to interact with, but more difficult to understand. For better or for worse, this trend doesn’t seem likely to change, but we may yet benefit from constructing a virtual topography of virtual space, if only to better understand where we go every time we go on-line.
Borna Pleše is a sociologist and anthropologist, interested in various topics ranging from prehistoric to futuristic, and involved in studying virtual communities and new media. He currently lives in Zagreb, Croatia and can be reached atborna.plese[at]gmail.com
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