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The unframed Net

It’s clear that we don’t know how to explain the Internet. Is it a medium? Is it a culture, a subworld, or a parallel world? Is it a communication system? We bounce around, and we disagree.

Nevertheless, I am not as worried about our lacking the right framing for the Net as are some of my friends and colleagues.

For one thing, the same refusal to be pinned down characterizes everything. What something _is_ depends on what we’re trying to do with it, even within a culturally/linguistically homogeneous group. You can try this exercise with anything from terrorism to television to candy bars. (To pin myself down about why I think we can’t pin things down: I am sort of a phenomenological pragmatist. I also think that everything is miscellaneous, but that’s just me.)

So, we assimilate the Internet to existing concepts. There is nothing slovenly or cowardly about this. It’s how we understand things.

So, why does the Net seem special to us? Why does it seem to bust our frames ‘n’ paradigms? After all, we could assimilate the Net into older paradigms, because it is a series of tubes, and it is a communications medium, and it is a way of delivering content. Not only could we assimilate it, there are tremendous pressures to do so.

But for pragmatic (and Pragmatic) reasons, some of us (me included) don’t want to let that happen. It would foreclose cultural and political consequences we yearn for — the “we” that has flocked to the Net and that loves it for what it is and could be. The Net busts frames because it serves our purposes to have it do so.

This is why I find myself continuing to push Internet Exceptionalism, even though it does at times make me look foolish. Internet Exceptionalism is not an irrational exuberance. It is a political position. More exactly, it is a political yearning.

That’s why I’m not much bothered by the fact that we don’t have a new frame for the Net: frames are always inadequate, and the frame-busting nature of the Net serves our purposes.

In that sense, the way to frame the Internet is to keep insisting that the Net does not fit well into the old frame. Those of us who love the Net need to keep hammering on the fact that the old frames are inadequate, that the Net is exceptional, not yet assimilated to understanding, still to be invented, open to possibility, liberating of human and social potential, a framework for hope.

Eventually we’ll have the new frame for the Internet. It will be, I will boldly predict, the Internet :) In fact, open networks already are the new frame, and are sweeping aside old ways of thinking. Everything is a network.

The Internet will transition quickly from un-frameable to becoming the new frame. Until then, we should (imo) embrace the un-frameability of the Net as its framing.

11 Responses to “The unframed Net”

  1. ??????????????

  2. Well, McLuhan was able to frame media of his time in his lifetime. In some paradoxical sense your books and thoughts provide such a framing, though it is different from the framing we, so far, had known.

    After EIM I axiously await 2B2K, just because it seems to provide another kind of frame to some aspects of the net.

  3. Interesting, Mirek. (And thanks for caring about 2b2k :)

    I’m not saying that there are no insights one can have about new media, and McLuhan certainly had some. He had a rich, general theory of communications that framed various media, highlighting particular properties of them. But that’s not exactly the sort of framing I had in mind in this post. I’m thinking more of the George Lakoff sense, especially in its applied form in which framing is somewhere between conceptualizing and branding.

    And I do think there is a framing emerging. I was serious when I said that the Internet is becoming the frame. Everything is being re-conceptualized as a network. The network is the frame. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that open networks will prevail.

  4. Here are a few rather random responses to your ideas. As you know, I have no background in computers and know very little about much of the technology you discuss on this blog. I write here because I do believe that the internet while not a paradigm shifter, is a game changer. Our world has changed considerably in only ten years and I am fearful that not all of the changes are for the good.

    I have never been immersed within the media. I have never subscribed to a newspaper except for the local paper that contained extensive high school sports results for Track and Field which I coached for 34 years. When I divorced, I bequethed my TV to my former wife and lived without television for 25 years. I am an avid and eclectic reader yet none of the books I read are anywhere near the bestseller list. I occasionally go to the Independent movie theatre to see a film like – Tree of Life – which most of the people leaving the theatre hated and which barely grossed enough money at the box office to justify its existence. I do not own a cell phone yet my car has a built in phone where I have unlimited calls for $12 per month.

    Media mediates. Mediation can be a process of conjoining or it can be a process of disjoining. In the reading of a poem, I can reach an interpretation which conjoins me with the subjective consciousness of the poet and so the printed book of poetry mediates and conjoines two consciousnesses separated in both space and time. Your blog has allowed me to “speak” and “know” Mirek whom I have never met and who lives in Poland. I follow his blog and connect with him because he is an avid reader of and listener to books. Your blog also allows me to read and interact with your expert discussions about technology and the internet that stimulate my own thinking. In the last three years I have posted 70 pages of writing on this blog. As a retired recluse living in the wilds of New Hanpshire, it has been intellectually stimulating and satisfying to travel to Poland and Harvard Square all in an hour.

    My students who watched many hours of television each week asked why I had no TV. My standard response was that when I was watching TV, I was watching someone else do something. I prefered to do something myself. Of course I included reading about fictional characters who are other people doing things for themselves as something I was doing because I believe that reading is an activity of doing. My favorite activity to explain this difference would be to place a book up on the chalkboard tray and to sit in a student’s desk. After some time the students would ask what I was doing. “Today we are going to Watch a book”. Reading requires activity on the part of the reader and the more one interacts the more one experiences. Many of my students thought they were reading merely because they were passing words in front of their eyes and because they remembered what happened. Yes they had successfully learned that the purpose of reading was to pass the test to be given by the teacher.

    I think what something “is” also depends upon what it intends to do with us. And I believe that is what you are fighting for, i.e., for the best things to be done with us and for the best uses to be found for the technology. I will just mention two best uses and two worst uses.

    When through e-mail, blogs, skypes, etc., the consciousness of one person can conjoin with the consciousness of another so that there occurs a communication and understanding then this is a best use. The internet in this way replicates the letter, the essay, and the autobiography. There is a human predisposition to express our deepest selves as well as a curiosity as to the deepest selves of others.

    The ability to instantaneously access all of the cultural knowledge of civilization through an online library of Literature, Photographs, Artistic Images, Scientific Research, Historical Records, Dictionaries, Encyclopedias, etc., is also a best use. I have found writings on-line in an instant that are out of print and that would have required either an expensive book purchase or an expensive travel excursion to a distant library. The internet in this way replicates the functions of a good library.

    Yet neither blogs or Wikipedias drive the internet. Advertising drives the internet like it has driven, newspapers, magazines, and televsion. Newspapers are going out of business not primarily because they are losing their readers, but because they are losing their advertisers. Facebook has become successful not merely because the public likes and uses the social platform it provides but because advertisers like the very specific marketing information they receive. The comfort of “privacy” settings does not mitigate the flow of personal preferences, even if provided anonymously, to advertisers. So my view is that corporate capitalism is one of our prevalent paradigms and that the internet reinforces and strengthens that paradigm rather than trandcends it. Advertising is so ubiquitous in the media, on our shirts, on our handbags, around the ballpark, that we no longer even consider it an intrusion or a problem.

    During the Red Sox game last evening there was a young boy seated directly behind home plate. He was a Texas fan and they were losing by a large margin, yet he was paying more attention to the cell phone he was holding than he was to the game itself. There is a new commercial for the i-pad which showcases a boxer with an i-pad in front of his face. The images on the i-pad change as he talks until at last the image switches to his own face. Media mediates and therefore can interject itself between the self and the world. One no longer is a self, but an on-line persona. One no longer is present at a ballgame but is absent-mindedly someplace else. The more we ‘frame’ our lives through our interactions with the screen the more the real world fades from our attention. This phenomenon has been researched in several recent books concerning ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’. The media of course is not the only culprit here. Immersion within media as reflected in more and more hours of the day spent watching screens or interacting on-line is changng the psychology of the self in ways that may become not only distracting but even pathological.

    The best hopes and uses for the internet are those which order our lives and our minds. The worst uses are those which disorder our psyches and our selves.

    I have spent a most enjoyable hour writing and thinking about these ideas and now I am going outside and prepare for the hurricane!

  5. First I thank you Raymond for nice words about me :-)

    Coming back to framing – well I now understand you David a bit better. I know about Lakoff’s “conceptual metaphor” concepts even though I still did not read his “Metaphors we live by”. Unfortunately, I started with his recent “Political Mind” which left me with mixed feelings (my review).

    In that sense, indeed Internet (or maybe rather WEB) with all its concepts, with networking and broadcasting (two slightly different) indeed becomes the frame for everything else.

    Will it become the frame for entire human knowledge ?
    The field I now work (also professionally), i.e. Semantic Web has such elated aims. If every concept and every object and every THING is identified by URI (some sort of Web address to simplify it) – then well, all will soon be framed by the Web (semantic or not) but by the web.

    On the other hand, that does not explain what Internet (web) is for culture and the reality – so your question you started the post is unanswered, and your friends who wanted to frame Web by concepts they used to, are still perplexed.
    There is big problem with that understanding. I recently heard so many voices, even from mouths of distinguished artists, politicians and scientist that “the web is a cloaca of human culture”.
    So we’ve got to keep going and explain it, protect its exceptionality, prove its merits….

    So let me once again say, that I think of your insight, that started first from “Small pieces”, through EiM and to expected 2b2k, as providing such frames.
    It is not cajolement, maybe it’s my modest encouraging for you to write “Small pieces 2.0” :-) to help our friends to understand it better.

  6. The Internet is a tool. No more, no less. You do the world a disservice, David, by trying to make it sound mysterious.

  7. Brett,

    I strongly disagree.
    The Web (sometimes incorrectly called The Internet) is more than a tool. David does not show it mysterious.

    He shows it is more important to our culture than any one before him.

  8. This says it all: “Internet Exceptionalism is not an irrational exuberance. It is a political position.”


  9. Tools change us. And when has change, or tools, ever not been political?

  10. […] The unframed Net- David Weinberger, August 23, 2011 […]

  11. thank you for the beautiful icons !

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