The Hyperlinked Metaphysics
of the Web
Draft date: Dec. 3, 2000
HTML fixes and Creative Commons license: Apr. 26, 2006
Discuss this essay
Summary The Web hasn't been hyped enough. It is changing our culture's basic concepts, our metaphysics. Our culture's metaphysics is based on dividing the world into discrete objects. It's a container-based metaphysics. But this doesn't reflect our experience. For example:
Tools are only tools in a referential context. If truly self-contained, a tool wouldn't be a tool.
Words are only words in a referential linguistic context.
Awareness is always of something beyond itself. Self-contained individuals are only conceivable because fundamentally we're social. The basics of the Web are hyperlinked, not self-contained. For instance:
A page without links is a dead end on the Web.
Web space isn't the container of all containers. It's held together by links.
Because Web space is hyperlinked, it's fundamentally moral.
Web time is non-sequential and shattered. It doesn't consist of bead-like moments.
The something more we sense at times in our life is the basic movement of spirituality. And it is the basic movement of the metaphysics of the Web. But is there anything beyond this facile formal similarity? Geography builds strong selves, but at long last play may be injected straight into our deadly earnestness about our selves. As the Web becomes a new world that we take for granted, we will recognize that its geography is that of hope. Note: When it comes to philosophy, I've been way out of touch for about 20 years. So, let me preemptorily acknowledge that at least some of these ideas almost certainly have been occurred to other, smarter people who have already written them down. Let me know and I'll give ‘em a link. (Students of Martin Heidegger will certainly recognize a lot of his influence.)
The Web hasn't been hyped enough. Beyond the numbers applied to the Web — the millions of users, the billions of email messages and the trillions of dollars — and beyond the endless, important discussions trying to predict the Net's effect on our institutions, the Web is touching us in ways so deep and so personal that we might as well give in and call them spiritual.
I don't pretend to know what the word "spiritual" means beyond saying that it seems to have to do with the sense of what's over and beyond our everyday concerns. I think of it as the something more that we sense that gestures to us at our best moments and our most trying moments, and sometimes like a bolt from a cloudless sky. The Web's implicit promise that has set our culture on fire is, I believe, a whisper to our spirit. We can't quite articulate the promise. Like the spiritual itself, it gestures beyond itself to something more.
I personally can't address the spiritual nature of the Web head on. For reasons undoubtedly having to do with my personal history, predilections and character fault lines, I can only get there by trying to think about the way the Web is altering the concepts on which we build our world view. One word for these integrated set of concepts is "metaphysics."
1 Web metaphysics
Let's not begin by casting our eyes back to ancient Greece where Aristotle coined the term "metaphysics" either to refer to what is beyond (meta) the physical or to provide a catchy title — "After (meta) Physics" — for the sequel to his best-selling "Physics." No joke — philosophers don't know which is right. Maybe both. It doesn't matter because we're going to skip the definition of "metaphysics" entirely and be satisfied with using the term to scare off timid readers.
Our culture's metaphysics is based around dividing the world into discrete objects. This process of division rarely is conscious. It's accomplished through language, which is itself shaped by poets of various stripes, including scientists, politicians, marketers and rebellious teenagers. Fundamentally, our metaphysics has to do with containers. This is built right into our language and perception. For example, if I ask you for a paradigmatic example of a real thing, you'll probably point to a rock. This is precisely what Dr. Johnson did when asked about Bishop Berkeley's idealism which says that our perception can never reach the material world because matter and thought are just too different; what looks like matter must still be really a mental idea. Dr. Johnson kicked a rock and said "I refute it thus," one of the truly great cases of missing the point. We like our things to have sharply-defined edges in space and time; that's why a rain storm is not a paradigmatic example of a thing. The best examples of things are clearly distinguished from the rest of the world, which is, after all, the point of being self-contained.
Our metaphysics is not something that affects only philosophers. Consider how much of our educational system is devoted to transferring knowledge from one container to another. Knowledge management systems often are based on the same idea, thinking that the person is a mere container while the content is the real value. Many of our psychologies assume that people are primarily sharply-edged individuals that contain a brew of emotions and urges; an alternative might begin with the fact that we are first and foremost out in the world of others, for example.
Our metaphysics also prefers things contained neatly in time. The paradigmatic thing is finished, or completed if you prefer. This hearkens back to the ancient notion of perfection as something's being fully what it is, without lack or defect. If an item achieves perfection, any alteration will be a diminishment; thus, God's perfection implies His eternal, unchanging nature. Perfection implies constancy. It is no accident that the epitome of thing-ness — the humble rock — is also a symbol of that which resists change. Time affects reality, of course: according to our ancient metaphysics, the divine is the most real because it is eternal, while this world is "merely" one of ever-changing shadows.
Then, there is the connection to morals and values. Much of our history has been dominated by people trying to "perfect," "fulfill," or "actualize" themselves, all taking perfection as a morally desirable thing. And when entire countries try to be all that they can be, can war be far away? Ah, excellent: we can die in service of our metaphysics. That's how I want to go.
* * *
The container model is, we all suspect, inadequate. It simplifies experience too much. Let's take a look at some examples.
At first glance, a hammer or a can opener might seem like a good example of a hard-edged, self-contained thing. But, in fact (as Martin Heidegger pointed out), tools only make sense in a referential context — hammers can only be hammers if there are boards and nails. In fact, hammers are hammers for us in a broader context that includes saws and screw drivers, trees and metal, and natural vs. artificial things. In a world without wood and nails, a hammer might still be useful (perhaps to open coconuts or the skulls of people who disagree with your metaphysics) but it would no longer be the hammer as we know it. And a hammer understood purely as a self-contained object without reference to this context would literally be nothing at all — or perhaps we should say, it wouldn't be understandable at all.
Language itself is obviously contextual. Every word has its place in the context of other words. If a word has no such place, it literally isn't a word in the language.
There is a container view of language, however, that sees words as simple signs that are connected to the things they signify, like a price tag hanging from a blouse. It may even be that we learn language by associating sounds with things — although the fact that babies imitate the social aspect of language by babbling before they utter their first words makes me doubt it. Even so, that wouldn't mean that once we learn language, we use it the way we learned it. Count me among those who see language as the basis of thought, not the mere expression of it. In either case, words would be unintelligible if they stayed quietly inside their own container rather than echoing throughout a deeply referential linguistic web.
We human beings clearly have an outside that contains an inside and delimits our bodily self quite nicely. But when you consider our minds as containers, you run into problems because consciousness is always consciousness of something, so it seems by its nature to straddle the inside and the outside. The result is that, under the metaphysics of containment, we draw patently ridiculous pictures of how consciousness works, thinking that we're really looking at an inner picture of the outside world, even though this runs counter to our every moment of experience and threatens to turn us into solipsists who believe the entire world is in our heads. No, when I kiss my wife, I'm not kissing an inner picture of her, and when I smell the salt spray of the beach, I'm not smelling an inner smell of the ocean, whatever that would mean.
The container view of our social lives is that we're fundamentally and really self-contained individuals; social organizations are secondary and perhaps not even real. Libertarians and Ayn Randian "objectivists" carry through the political and moral implications of this radical individualism.
I understand the self-serving motivations of this view, but its plausibility has always escaped me. Rear a child on an island without any visible human contact and you'll end up with a howling monkey in human form. Everything that makes us into recognizable humans, that marks us as people, even that grants us our peculiarly modern view of individuality, we get from our culture and especially from our language. And who we are as particular individuals seems to have a tremendous amount to do with our family. We are an insanely social species.
"Ah, but only individuals are real. Social groups are fictions!" To which I reply: No, Freedonia (in the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup) is fictitious. France is not. And if you can't tell the difference, you have a serious problem that can't be solved by metaphysics. If, on the other hand, you mean that social groups are intangible, well, of course! You must also be thinking that only material objects are real, in which case your definition of "real" is so constricted that you're missing literally everything that counts. Even our nice, self-contained, matter-filled hammer only is a hammer because of its immaterial position in an immaterial context of material tools. Materialism and radical individualism make no stinking sense and can't explain the most obvious of facts.
2 Hyperlinked Things
If you point your finger at where your dog's bone is, your dog will look at your finger. When it comes to gestures that point away from themselves, Fido just doesn't get it. We, on the other hand, get it so much that we think the arrow symbol is a natural, literal pointer when in fact it's only about 150 years old. Somehow or other — we can let the naturists and nurturists beat each other up about this — humans understand what it means for something to point beyond itself.
It's my contention that the container metaphysics has all along failed to capture the way we experience our world. Our world is a context in which parts are understood only in relation to the whole: the quarter in my pocket only makes sense because I also understand money, equivalencies, and work, and the caterpillar on the leaf only makes sense to me because I understand moths, insects, and seasons. Within this world of things-in-context, things are only understood as things that point beyond themselves.
The Web is especially rich in these explicit pointers. That's not surprising. The Web only exists because of hyperlinks. Without links, we'd just have a set of computers housing pages. To move from site to site, we'd be back typing in pathnames, as in the bad old days of the Internet. Even though there's little technical magic to links, they transform this set of computers into something like a world through which we can move. Links make the Web spatial, as evidenced by the language we use to talk about it: going to sites, home pages, navigating, staying at a site, leaving it. We use these terms without hesitation even though at the most literal level, the Web is so not a place that it isn't funny. Hyperlinks make the Web a web and give it its basic character as a place.
They do this through documents which have long suffered under the container metaphysics. Even the idea that documents have contents is evidence of this. This is a truly unnatural idea made inevitable by the ancient idea that writings somehow parallel the author: the book represents the contents of the author poured into a new vessel.
Our view of experts is wrapped up in this. You prove yourself an expert by writing the book on the topic. In so doing, you are externalizing your internal contents. By consuming lots of books on the topic, I can become an expert myself. Then maybe I can write a book of my own.
And our educational system is also based around the notion of transferring knowledge. We test children to see if the content of their text books has made it into their young heads. In fact, we test them by having them write down the content of their heads so that we can compare it to the content in the text books.
Web documents, of course, are a bit different. They have links on them like fingers pointing somewhere else. Sure, you can post a page with no links, but it will not only seem like a dead end on the Web, it will literally be one. In fact, if no pages had links, there would be no Web at all.
Because of the looseness of the Web's links, the covers are blown off of books. The reader can hyperlink around as she wants, so a book is no longer a stroll through a landscape being led by the hand by the author. Information is strung together much more casually. Narratives and tightly constructed essays are hard to accomplish on the Web. Our literature, educational system and epistemology all are going to change...because documents are no longer tightly bound containers.
The most important fact about the Web considered as a space is that it has no outdoors.
We conceive of space as an all-embracing container within which are arranged locations. Container space can be described mathematically by dividing it into uniform segments in three dimensions — Cartesian coordinates, named for Rene "I think I am" Descartes back when to be a philosopher also meant being a scientist. The fact that every place has one and only one objective location accounts for much of what's nasty about life. Without container space fixing locations we wouldn't have rich and poor countries, communities held together by the accident of location rather than similarity of interests, or drive-through Wendy's. If all places were equally close, our history would be unimaginable. All of this because the real world has an outdoors.
The Web is like a set of rooms with magic doors. Imagine I'm in a room devoted to the lyrics of Jim Morrison. I see a door labeled "Ring the bell to go to the Doors' discography." I press the button and I'm instantly in the discography room. The door is, of course, a hyperlink. Web space consists of an arrangement of places without a containing space. In fact, Web space is constructed by adding links: every time someone posts a page and links to another page, she is expanding the size of the Web, not adding more content to an existing container.
Hyperlinks compare to the Cartesian coordinates of real space. Not only are hyperlinks much messier than the unnatural regularity of Cartesian coordinates, they're dynamic, not static. They are pointing fingers, referring beyond themselves. That is their nature and that is the requirement for there to be Web space at all.
Because Web space is hyperlinked, it's fundamentally moral.
Philosophers have looked for what makes some behaviors morally good and others morally bad by trying to find principles. But, just as science proceeds by making hypotheses that are proved by our experience of reality, so does moral "science" propose principles that are measured against our experience of good and bad. Moral philosophy is only possible because we already have the experience of good and bad.
For example, I might propose Utilitarianism as the principle of morality: something is good if it increases the sum of pleasure and bad if it decreases that sum. But, a bright hand goes up and points out that under this rule, we could imagine a case where killing an innocent child might increase the sum of happiness. Oh, sure, we might have to come up with a very unlikely set of circumstances, but if indeed Utilitarianism allows us to kill children in the name of goodness, then something's wrong with the principle. We thus test our moral philosophies against a sturdy sense of what's right and wrong.
This isn't to say, of course, that we always know what's right and wrong, or that that sense doesn't change over time and across cultures. Of course it does. That's why moral philosophy isn't a science. There are even times when a moral philosophy brings us to change our perception of what's right and wrong. But that's an exception. Our pre-philosophical sense of right and wrong guides our attempts at moral philosophy.
Now, we could maintain that this moral intuition is culturally relative and there end the discussion. But it seems to me that there's more we can say about it. We know, for instance, that moral statements are different from statements of fact. Accepting a moral statement — "It's wrong to wear fur" or "You should donate 10% of your salary to charity," for example — places you under any obligation. You feel moved to act. Where does this power of "should" come from?
I believe it comes from a peculiarly human capability. One of the ways we seem to be unique is that we are able to see the world through the eyes of other people. I think of this as "sympathy," albeit not in the usual sense of feeling good or bad about someone else's feelings. Rather, I think of it in its root sense of "feeling with," especially by seeing the world the same way as someone else does. In this sense of sympathy, the individual's emotional state is secondary. What counts is seeing the world the way she or he does, including the values and thus the feelings. Sympathy here is a way of revealing the world from a particular point of view. For example, an Israeli may feel bad when he hears about a Palestinian hurt in a protest. But if the Israeli were truly able to see the world through the Palestinian's eyes, he would go beyond everyday sympathy ("It's too bad when someone is hurt") to a true sympathy that is based on an understanding of the world of the other. The Israeli might reject the Palestinian's perceptions, but the sympathy would still be deep. It is this sympathy that gives the moral "should" its force. The impetus we feel comes from the felt interests of other people. (By the way, it's just as incumbent on the Palestinian to see the world the way the Israeli does.)
Here's a moral precept: It's always good to expand your sympathy. This is as close as we can come to progress. We used to think it was perfectly fine to kill prisoners of war or turn them into slaves. We — American citizens — used to think enslaving Africans was God's work. We used to think that we could keep animals locked in cruelty because their flesh tastes better that way. Bit by bit, our sympathy has expanded. Sometimes over the course of generations it contracts, but moral progress means expanding your ability to see the world through the eyes of others. This is good because it expands our grasp of reality; goodness here gets its force from truth. (Now if we could just get beauty into the mix!)
Sympathy — turning to the world with others in feeling — is, I believe, at the heart of morality. It is how we come to our moral intuitions, and these intuitions then guide our more abstract reasoning about morality. Sympathy, however, absolutely does not fit the container model. In sympathy, we're doing the impossible as individuals: we're transcending our own container to live in the world as an other does, if only for a moment, if only incompletely.
Now consider the Web. The Web is a voluntary activity. We go online by and large because something there interests us. But nearly everything online was created by a human for humans. Someone posted the page or the message because she wants someone else to read it and to turn to the world the way she does. The Web is a deeply sympathetic place — clearly not in the "nice nice" sense of sympathy, but rather in the sense of people turning to the world in a common way. At the very least, on the Web we read writings on topics of shared interest, and at the very best, we are led to a new understanding by being turned to the world in a way we might not have imagined. It may be through an email exchange about sports or an argument over the best way to transplant zinnias, or it may be a cancer patient support group, but in every case, the ability to hear others, to see the world or a tiny slice of it as others do, gives the Web its interest.
Of course this happens off the Web also. It happens every time two people engage in a conversation that has some passion in it. The Web, however, is a purely social space; we are only there because of shared interests. And, as everyone knows, certain inhibitors to understanding are scraped off as we squeeze through the Web's small pipes: gender, age, race, physique, etc.
At an architectural level, the Web only exists because of hyperlinks. At the human level, however, the Web is only an interesting place because it's so social, so filled with people who want to show us their world and — perhaps — look at ours. It is not a Utopian social world of perfect, selfless sympathy. Not hardly. But it is a world in which the sympathetic underpinnings of all sociability and all morality are evident and thus harder to avoid.
Compare the Web to the real world. We are thrown into a world of rock, soil and sea that profoundly doesn't care about us. It preexists us and will continue after us. If we manage to scratch some marks into it while we live, it won't notice as they wear away. We build a social world between the the crags and runnels of this alien stone. The earth onto which we are born is neither moral nor immoral. The Web, on the other hand, is a world we've invented to be with others because we share interests and hope for understanding. The Web in this sense is a moral world. It is more our world than the earth. We have made it in our image.
There's one more thing that our metaphysics thinks is self-contained but that isn't: time.
We think of time as a series of points. The past is the set of moments that are gone. The future is set of ones that will or may become real. The present is the moment that's happening now. We all have played the game as kids of trying to catch the present moment, the now. Whoops, almost had it that time!
Yet against this ticking of the clock — each tick capable of being divided into infinitely many ticks — there is the time that we live. We don't experience the present as an infinitely small slice of the timeline but as a loosely bounded stretch that connects forward and back. The present is only what it is because of its "links" to the past and future. My experience of sitting in front of the computer and writing (which is, obviously, what I'm doing at the moment) depends entirely upon our history and what I've learned from our culture about computers and writing and sitting and fronts — and "of" and "the," for that matter. And I'm sitting in front of the computer in order to accomplish some goals in the future: writing the last section of this paper in order to be able to publish it on the Web in order to accomplish some wider personal aims. My present is thoroughly informed by my past and my future. (Don't fight it; this is really just common sense.) Indeed, all of our purposive actions are concerned fundamentally with the future. The present moment only gets its shape and meaning from our heading into the future. Our present behaviors gesture beyond themselves towards the future. Our present Now is not a self-contained moment but one that is constructed from the past and into the future. (If you haven't glommed onto this yet, this entire paper is heavily influenced by the philosopher Martin Heidegger. This particular paragraph is just about cribbed directly from his writings. What I'm calling "hyperlinked" he would call "ecstatic.")
Web time does not start with the notion of self-contained moments. There are two key aspects of Web time (as opposed to Net time which is merely faster than normal time): it's non-sequential and shattered.
Non-sequential. We typically think of the self-contained moments of time as sliding along a time line, like pearls on a necklace, as the cliché would have it. The perfect instantiation of this in the real world is waiting on line. One of the attractions of the Web, however, is the ability to break the sequential nature of time. Instead of having to wait, you can hop around wherever you want. If you get three quarters of the way through your investigation of a Web site, you can hop "out of line" and return when you want.
Shattered. With this new freedom in time, we are more easily distracted. If we see a glittering link on a page, we can hop off and start down an entirely new path. As a result, we develop the attention spans of mayflies, and this in turn shatters the way we view our own timelines. For example, over the real-world dinner table we can recount the day's simple sequence of time: "I got to work late, went to lunch at Biff's, had a big meeting about Project X, picked up the laundry on the way home…" Try doing that for a day on the Web: "I checked my email, visited the page of someone who wrote to me with some dumb joke, clicked on a banner ad by mistake, clicked on a link to what I thought was a site about a dinosaur discovery but was really about herbal supplements, and then in my fifth second on line I..." We can move around so freely that we lose sight of the pathway that helps us to hold together our "story" of the day. So, we feel dissolute and distracted and without a center. That's one reason why narrative is such an important element on the Web: stories make sense of events by showing how they unfold, how the end was contained in the beginning (breaking the container model); narratives bind us back together after being shattered by the Web. Yet long narratives don't work well in a hyperlinked space, so we're seeing a proliferation of short narratives and personal stories. And that's also why jokes are so common on the Web, for they are a type of exploding narrative in which the story takes a sudden turn and turns the unexpected into the revelatory.
But neither stories nor jokes will make time whole again. It turns out that space is what's been holding time together. Having to travel some distance from A to B to accomplish a goal at least keeps us focused on the goal; if we stray from our purpose, we may have to start all over again. Without space, we're unmoored, pinballing among sites as rapidly as our attention can be switched. This is why the Web is more like entertainment than like information: entertainment generates interest in us that we didn't start out with. While we certainly can pursue our interests on the Web with a single-minded doggedness, my guess is that the Web mushroomed not because we've all turned into focused information wonks. Frequently, we allow ourselves to be pulled hither and yon by what we weren't expecting to find. This is called "browsing" and it's no accident that it is the term generally used to cover Web activity. Is this willingness to be distracted a good thing? Doesn't seem like it to me. But I never thought tides were such a good idea either.
On the positive side, on the Web we're pulled hither and yon by human interest — an interest in humans and our expressions. It's easier than ever to connect with strangers, with like-minded individuals, with other-minded individuals with whom you share an interest. Of course, you can also while away your time bouncing from porn site to porn site. It's up to you. Your time on the Web is under your control. The content is "always on," unlike the programming coming through broadcast media. Unlike the real world's distances and detours, on the Web the diversions are all voluntary. And our attention is itself taking on the characteristics of an insanely hyperlinked Web.
3 The More of the Web
The things of the Web (pages) point beyond themselves.
Web space exists only as a set of pointers gesturing away from themselves.
The Web as a social world is created by people looking beyond themselves at the world with others.
Web time breaks the containers of moments.
The Web at every step breaks the container model and brings a new hyperlinked metaphysics.
Spirituality we defined at the beginning as the something more of life.
I think you can see where we're going with this.
* * *
You know that hollow sense you have when you've just had a great success at work? The empty feeling as someone praises you for an accomplishment? The tremendous sadness that can invade even as you're wrapped in love for your family? You know that disturbing feeling so profound that we have to use German to name it: Angst? This is the sense that, for all that's good and even magnificent in one's life, there's something more.
The something more is what I will call the "spiritual." We experience it as a longing, a yearning, an horizon of the world that is.
This something more is the basic movement of spirituality. It is the basic movement of optimism called by its proper name: Hope. It is the basic movement of the metaphysics of the Web.
* * *
Let's stipulate that there is a formal correspondence between the hyperlinked metaphysics of the Web and the transcendental movement characteristic of spirit: both break out of simple boxes and only make sense insofar as they're understood as already connected to something more than and beyond themselves. But is there anything beyond this facile formal similarity?
I think there is. But I'm not very comfortable talking about this, first because I am not a spiritual person and, second, because it's really hard. But, what the heck. It seems to me that there are two areas in which the hyperlinked metaphysics of the Web genuinely touch spirit.
We in the West invest an enormous amount of our energy in building and preserving a consistent public self. From our choice of clothes to our choice of friends, the catalog of decisions made for the sake of public appearances is enormous. But matters would be far different if we weren't tied to space. It's because we live in persistent communities that we allow ourselves to feel constrained to live within a foolish consistency. If every day we were with a new set of strangers, we wouldn't feel nearly as obligated to stay within the expectations we set yesterday. Geography builds strong selves.
The Web is, of course, a space without distance. So it's far easier for me to try out being witty in one chat room, obnoxious in another, and romantic in a third. I can write myself a new persona, which I can abandon or embellish with perfect abandon. This sense of play makes clear exactly how much of our real-world persona is also a construction, something we've willed into existence rather than that which undergirds our existence. At long last play may be injected straight into our deadly earnestness about our selves.
Look at it this way. We have always taken our ideas about ourselves from our technologies. The Greeks thought of the soul as air, the same stuff that moved their boats and thus powered their commerce. In the industrial age, we've thought about our minds in terms of the steam engine, so that we actually feel under pressure and can practically hear the hiss of the vapor when we "let off steam" or "vent." What will our selves be like in the Age of the Web? We can already begin to hear ourselves think about memory lapses as "bad links." Suppose in a couple of years we create semi-permanent "avatars" on line as a way to coordinate our interactions with the sites with which we deal, as well as to provide a layer of protection. Will we begin to think of our public selves as avatars, things we've constructed, allowing us to have multiple selves? Will our multiple selves be attached to different "buddy lists" and other social congregations, so that it'll be clearer than ever to us that who we are depends upon who we're with? Will this weaken or increase our sense of the public nature of the self?
Nobody knows. And if someone does know, we can't yet know that she knows. But we are likely to be in for a substantial change in our understanding of our selves.
My guess is that, for reasons we're about to discuss, the self will be pulled even more out of itself, towards the world and towards others. Self-transcendence is going to be very In.
The Web is built for others. With rare exception, everything there was placed there for others to see, use or play with. At commercial sites, the interests of others may be ultimately subordinated to one's own, but at least at the simplest level, even Web stores are built to meet the needs of others.
We've never had a world like this. Our social world — the world in which we care about one another — has until now been built on a geography that is radically indifferent to us.
As a result, we're seeing a reversal in the role of strangers. The stranger has been a fundamental touchstone of cultures at least since Abraham and Sarah invited weary road travelers into their tent only to find out that they were angels in disguise. The Odyssey, too, is a meditation on strangers and hospitality: Odysseus experiences different ways of being a stranger on his way home while the suitors abuse every rule of hospitality in his own house. It's easy to see why strangers are so important: a culture's attitude towards them expresses its understanding of its position in the world of social groups. In our culture, we're suspicious of strangers. They're a threat. They lurk in shadows. On the Web, however, strangers are the source of everything worthwhile. Strangers and their utterances are the stuff of the Web. They are what give the Web its matter, its shape, its value. Rather than hiding in our tents and declaring our world to exist of the other tents near us — preferably with a nice tall wall around us — the Web explicitly is a world only because of the presence of so many strangers.
We human beings are thrown into a world not of our making. We have carved our world out of this bedrock of indifference, we have sheltered in its crannies, we have traipsed across its plains, we have created cultures and histories on this sharp-edged ball — cultures and histories kept apart by the earth's inhuman scale. Now we have a world that is purely our own. Strangers aren't those who grew up over the horizon; they are the horizon.
We don't yet know what to do with this world, what to make of it, but there's no hurry; the Web still smells of the foam peanuts it was shipped in.
Every encounter on the Web between a person and the work of another person — whether it's a Web page or a chat — is a turning of two people towards an interest that they share. The nature of the turning is as varied as human intercourse — I may put a page up to convince, persuade, refute, entertain or annoy you. I may do it to sell you something or to trick you. But in every case, the encounter is based on a feeling-out of mutual interests. Interests, however, are all we humans have. Attention — which is the heart of consciousness — goes beyond mere passive receiving of sensory impressions; attention is a way of caring about things. Attention is, in other words, itself a connection — a linking — based on passion. The Web is constituted by humans caring about their world and about others with and for and towards the strangers on the Web. The "earth" on which the Web is built, the geography within which it dwells, is not the indifference of rocks and sand but is the explosive movement beyond themselves of hundreds of millions of people.
The Web is something more.
This is why it speaks to our spirit. And this is why its metaphysics is that of optimism and then hope. For, optimism and pessimism are only incidentally about views of the future. Pessimism is a crabbed withdrawal into one's shell because the tides are too vigorous and persistent. Optimism is expansive. That's why optimism is more coherently expressed as hope. Hope not only includes uncertainty, it embraces it: there can only be hope when we don't know what will happen. To live in a world hopefully is to enjoy its otherness. The pessimists stay at home in their certainty that things will turn out badly for them, and, as for the rest of us, well, that's not the pessimist's lookout. The hopeful don't know how the world will turn out but are willing to take the risk of meeting in the common ground because openness to what is beyond our control is the condition for joy. Hope enables transcendence. Hope is itself transcendental.
The Web is a new page. We can be optimistic or pessimistic in our predictions about how it will turn out. And, indeed, everything bad we can imagine will occur on the Web, and more good than we can imagine will occur there in the course of time. But as the Web becomes a new world that we take for granted, we will recognize that its geography is that of hope.
Thoughtful readers have raised issues that have caused me to alter the article above. Thank you. But some comments and objections worthy of reply are hard to address within the body of the article. I've written them up here.
Note: If you'd like to discuss this article, please visit our discussion board.
In case you're wondering, yes, I am working on a book, tentatively titled "Small Pieces Loosely Joined," about the topics raised here. I'm supposed to have it finished by August 2001 and it's due out in the Spring of 2002 from Perseus Books.
© 2000 David Weinberger.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.
This article may be circulated and reproduced any way you want so long as you don't make money by doing so, and so long as this paragraph (acknowledging that David Weinberger wrote it and that his Web address is http://www.hyperorg.com) accompanies it.