stating the obvious archives | about

Confusing the Word with the Web
Jun 24, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

I need a vacation from my vacation. Returning from two weeks away from the office, I find my snail mailbox stuffed to the gills with PC Weeks, Web Weeks, junk mail, more junk mail and a host of conference and trade show announcements. (Strangest piece of mail: an unsolicited cardboard envelope from Microsoft containing a single CD-ROM -- the Windows NT 4.0 Beta 2. With an airtight license agreement, but without documentation. Of course.)

The electronic inbox was stuffed as well -- mailing list digests, news headlines, stock recaps, and messages from confused Obvious readers ("where are you?").

But sitting on my desk at work was a red file folder, with a yellow post-it note attached: "Required Reading." You see, for all the agent technology out there, for all the content personalization that is promised by the Affinicasts of the world, the best content filtering happens between friends. ("So, have you seen the new Schwarzenegger movie? It sucked.") And, of course, I looked through that red folder before anything else. In it: a Doonesbury comic, a New Yorker article, and an essay re. the web from the New York Times Book Review.

In an essay titled "The Word and the Web," Edward Mendelson discusses the connection between the web and the Bible...a connection that is not limited to the home page of your local church or synagogue. According to Mendelson, "medieval manuscripts of the Bible were the first books to be interconnected by a system of cross-references -- marginal notes that directed a reader from one biblical passage to another, perhaps to a passage written at a distance of hundreds of years from the first."

(Memo to IDG Books: I can see it now -- "Biblical Marginalia for Dummies.")

As "systems," Mendelson puts the Bible and the Web on equal footing. "The marginal references to the Bible and the hyperlinks of the World Wide Web may be the only two systems ever invented that give concrete expression to the idea that everything in the world holds together, that every event, every fact, every datum is connected to every other."

But when comparing the actual "content" of the two systems, the Bible, of course, gets top billing. In the good book "the connections between early and later books signify covenants that a personal God has already kept and promises that will be kept in the future." The Web, meanwhile, is "a world where connections are everywhere, but mostly meaningless, transient, fragile and unstable."

Hmmm. The fact that the web is full of meaningless connections is supposed to be news? We're supposed to be shocked by the news that the web we've been surfing -- the web with the mindless PR, with the endless navel gazing, with the ads -- is without meaning?

Wait a minute. Something's wrong here. The web hardly existed three years ago, and he's making serious comparisons between it and Exodus?

Mendelson wants to have his cake and eat it too. While praising the web as a "system" out of one side of his mouth, and then disparaging its "transient connections" out of the other, falls into an easy trap. It's like blaming democracy for the choice we have between Clinton and Dole. It's fruitless, because -- as every high school civics teacher worth their salt will tell you -- voters get the politicians they deserve. And, similarly, we've got the web we deserve. Because we built it.

The real problem I have with Mendelson is that he used the New York Times Book Review as a place to shoot his easy layup -- and to fan the neo-Luddite flames. As a system, of course the web holds great possibility -- bottom up connectivity, a level playing field for the means of production, hypertext holding it all together. But in reality, we have the web we created. And this web, while a wonderful waste of time, is meaningless, fragile and unstable. It is -- as Mendelson says -- just "words written on the transient phosphorescence of a computer screen."

Which is exactly why he has no business comparing it to the Old Testament.



Other pieces about miscellany: