In the age of wooden television, media were there to entertain, to sell an advertiser's product, perhaps to inform. Watching television, then, could indeed be considered a leisure activity. In our hypermediated age, we have come to suspect that watching television constitutes a species of work. Post-industrial creatures of an information economy, we increasingly sense that accessing media is what we do. We have become terminally self-conscious. There is no such thing as simple entertainment. We watch ourselves watching. We watch ourselves watching Beavis and Butt-head, who are watching rock videos. Simply to watch, without the buffer of irony in place, might reveal a fatal naivete.
But that is our response to aging media like film and television, survivors from the age of wood. The Web is new, and our response to it has not yet hardened. That is a large part of its appeal. It is something half-formed, growing. Larval. It is not what it was six months ago; in another six months it will be something else again. It was not planned; it simply happened, is happening. It is happening the way cities happened. It is a city.
Toward the end of the age of wooden televisions the futurists of the Sunday supplements announced the advent of the "leisure society." Technology would leave us less and less to do in the Marxian sense of yanking the levers of production. The challenge, then, would be to fill our days with meaningful, healthful, satisfying activity. As with most products of an earlier era's futurism, we find it difficult today to imagine the exact coordinates from which this vision came. In any case, our world does not offer us a surplus of leisure. The word itself has grown somehow suspect, as quaint and vaguely melancholy as the battered leather valise in a Ralph Lauren window display. Only the very old or the economically disadvantaged (provided they are not chained to the schedules of their environment's more demanding addictions) have a great deal of time on their hands. To be successful, apparently, is to be chronically busy. As new technologies search out and lace over every interstice in the net of global communication, we find ourselves with increasingly less excuse for . . . slack.
And that, I would argue, is what the World Wide Web, the test pattern for whatever will become the dominant global medium, offers us. Today, in its clumsy, larval, curiously innocent way, it offers us the opportunity to waste time, to wander aimlessly, to daydream about the countless other lives, the other people, on the far sides of however many monitors in that postgeographical meta-country we increasingly call home. It will probably evolve into something considerably less random, and less fun -- we seem to have a knack for that -- but in the meantime, in its gloriously unsorted Global Ham Television Postcard Universes phase, surfing the Web is a procrastinator's dream. And people who see you doing it might even imagine you're working.
Before the Web we were already used to sitting in front of electronic boxes for hour upon hour. The boxes have now changed, but they are still boxes. Of course the things we do on the Internet are different from those we did (and do) in front of the TV. But it’s important to remember that they are only different; they are not new. Think for a moment about what you do on the Internet. Not what you could do, but what you actually do. You email people you know. In an effort to broaden your horizons, you could send email to strangers in, say, China, but you don’t. You read the news. You could read newspapers from distant lands so as to broaden your horizons, but you usually don’t. You watch videos. There are a lot of high-minded educational videos available, but you probably prefer the ones featuring, say, snoring cats. You buy things. Every store in the world has a website, so you could buy all manner of exotic goods. As a rule, however, you buy the things you have always bought from the people who have always sold them. You play games. There are many kinds of games on the Internet, but those we seem to like best all fall into two categories: the ones where we can kill things and the ones where we can cast spells. You look things up. The Web is like a bottomless well of information. You can find the answer to almost any question if you’re willing to look. But you generally don’t like to look, so you get your answers from Wikipedia. Last, you do things you know you shouldn’t. The Internet is great for indulging bad habits. It offers endless opportunities to steal electronic goods, look at dirty pictures, and lose your money playing poker. Moreover, it’s anonymous. On the Web, you can get what you want and be pretty sure you won’t get caught getting it. That’s terrifically useful.
The closest analogy to how ISPs operate on the Net is how banks operate on the terrestrial plane today. In most countries, banks are highly regulated, and they have a duty (in most countries) to know their customers. Although their primary mission is to serve their customers, to some extent they operate as (sometimes reluctant) arms of government. They are supposed to report not just illegal transaction, but also questionable ones--whenever someone shows up with more than $10,000 in cash, for example. Banks do not particularly like this duty to oversee their customers, but it is a function they fulfill in exchange for their banking license. Now, I would not want to require ISPs to get a license from their local governments, but they do get equivalent, decentralized authority from the willingness of other ISPs to exchange traffic with them. In effect, they are guarantors of their customers' behavior. (Likewise, there are rogue banks that law-abiding banks refuse to do business with today.)
It may be fun to surf the Net and follow things randomly, but there's value in structure. The Net is a playground of entropy--the structurelessness that occurs when energy dissipates from a system. Yes, the Net also fosters self-organization, when individuals apply their energy, selectng and filtering information for others (aided by search and filtering tools). But there's rarely uch internal structure to what's selected; the structures created by links are usually webs of cross-references rather than a clarifying analytical framework. The Net is good at showing that things are related, but not how. Does this item support that one, or refute it? What was de Gaulle's role in history? What mistakes did he make that we can learn from?
There's much more logical power to an argument about abortion than to a set of pictures of fetuses, on the one hand, or interviews with women whose lives were ruined by unwanted children or with those unhappy children themselves. Yes, the latter can make us feel, but can they make us think rationally? Pictures can give us texture, but they can't expose the logic of the arguments or the trade-offs implied. What is the cost of raising all those unwanted children, in money and in blighted lives? What would have been the alternatives? How can you show a hypothesis?
The world "mother," with all its resonance, is far more powerful and meaningful than pictures of a single mother or of several. Moreover, a picture may have unintended side effects, as when the picture looks like a particular person rather than the reader's own mother--which is presumably what the creator intended the recipient to think of. Often, you want teh universality of a symbol rather than the particulars of an example