Why is there no Horizon on the Web?

David Abrams’ The Spell of the Sensuous:

We stand in our bodies.  We stand on our earth, on the locale where we are.  We perceive this through our senses, taking in through all of our capacities what we can of what we are and where we are.  We place ourselves this way.  This is the basis of any action – even simply the basis of being – before any action is even contemplated.

This is the primary stance of any being, but it is also, significantly, the primary stance of a designer.  Any being may or may not be aware of its stance and still express its being, live out its existence.  A designer makes claims to a higher order of awareness, a claim that she can imagine, develop, create and position new systems, things, places that will enhance her fellow’s lives.  To do that requires knowing where she stands, knowing what fundamentals we all have in common and must deal with.

Where do we stand?  That’s the first question in design.  I was struck by how this insight reflects on our condition as we navigate the Web.

Our on-line experience is based on the computer desk-top experience.  This was the first stage, it took us out of the dark hole of the command-line – I’m reluctant to call it an environment – by making the analogical leap out of an abstraction of reading and writing code, like playing Pong against the computer on a black screen; to create the impression that we were manipulating items on a desk-top.  We’ve spent around twenty years adjusting to this environment – here the term is appropriate, this is a virtual space, however “heads down” and corporatist.  It’s funny, I think the desk-top came before the modern cubicle, at least by the time Office Space came out, it was at the center of that regimentation.  Sure, writers, artists, philosophers, even mathematicians have always spent time in a close communion with a small narrow space, a cell, a studio, a corner with a desk; but somehow that’s not what the desk-top proliferated.  Even then what was missing was a horizon.

What the desk-top model and the cubicle don’t give us is a chance to look up and see outside.  I’m writing at a table with swans and geese and ducks paddling in a tidal cove in the middle distance.  Later the tide will go out, there’l be glistening mud and a rim of glazed ice.  The sky changes bringing hints of the weather on its way, it looks like snow for later….

Why does that matter?  We tend to think such things as “nice,” perks not necessities.  “Get down to business!”

That’s an attitude that values short-term efficiency over what’s now called sustainability, but might be more honestly labeled as simply a full life.

We each have our tolerances for the harsh, for situations that are inherently unpleasant, that make our sensually based selves recoil.  DOS was like a narrow and dark mine-shaft.  Those thick-skinned enough were able to descend into that hostile cavern to mine the value they could wrest from it.  As with any prospectors tunneling into crevices, their perspectives kept closing in, they fed their predispositions, that allowed them to tolerate this absence of sensation to the point that they were  consumed by it.  Life in a DOS world leads towards the dungeon of a barely flickering screen in a basement chasing after ever-narrower rewards.

The desk-top does lead beyond that.  There’s room for a visitor’s chair.  Notices about meetings “down the hall.”

People tend to put up “wallpaper,” or screen-saver slide shows that bring some semblance of what’s beyond and at least an artificial randomness to what comes into view.  For most of us, most of the time, this is tolerable.  The value of what we get by tending our desk-tops seems worth the hemming in of our view.  We’ve spent a long time adapting to this, it almost feels normal.

Then came the web and 2.0.  We find more and more content and make connections we can conceive of as “outside.”  We can conceive it; but we still can’t embody it.  Our senses are still stuck looking over/looking down at our desk-tops.  The outside comes at us as a series of “pages” either stacked, occluding each other, or reduced beyond legibility side by side.  It’s as if we were in a library; but a library without passage ways, where we had to travel through it by going through the stacks, themselves  burrowing from page to page.  The only thing making this literal/virtual book-worm existence palatable being the url “portal” and Google’s worm-hole, allowing us to jump through the hyper-links.  Still, like everything that came out of Star Trek, this experience is jejune, attempting to make up for a lack of a place to stand through juvenile paraphernalia that gives us the semblance of super-powers.

Deep down we don’t want transporters and warp speed, we want to know where we stand, to look around and see what’s up-close and what’s far away, to be able to walk from here to there without loosing track of the scenery or our intended goal.  We haven’t left the Savannah, that’s what we want.  The computer or the web don’t give us that yet.

I know, you’re thinking of virtual reality.  Either Minority Report or Second Life, either a set of shimmering transparencies hovering in front of a buff new Gestapo, or a soft, low demand I Dream of Genie virtual “Pad” where we can strut our banal fantasy selves and see “What’s Happenin’!”  Maybe put the two together in a shoot-em-up Extreme World of Lethal Action!  Think about it, do these really take us any further?  Each basic model has a metaphoric connection with some level of actual experience, a series of trade-offs made at the sensual level in some attempt to woo us into an acceptance of that trade-off and then a set of consequences for having made those trade-offs.

As designers, we are being naively obtuse if we fail to see these dynamics, and we are being arch if we see them and just shrug and join the league of what Kunstler calls the “Oh, just Fuck-it!” brigade.  The banal and criminally lazy element that has brought us the world of no-where, that actual manifestation of reductivist, label-based, content-less greed-scape that makes up so much of the modern built landscape – maybe all of it?

Here’s where the challenge lies.  How do we make a conceptual leap, create a new model for how we interact with “the machine” in ways that lead to a more open-ended, and at its heart, more human sensual experience out of our interaction with the virtual?  It comes out of a study of the fundamentals and the creation of a model, only then does it proceed to an interaction with hardware, with what’s on the shelf, either to use or adapt to make it happen.  Designers need to push beyond what’s immediately recognizable as feasible, grasping at some “neat!” frisson to make the results seem palatable.

That’s hard!  Yes, and no.  It’s hard to break with old habits, it gets easier as you progress.  We’ve done the Easy, and it’s just not good for us.  It leads to passivity, to weakness, and to unsustainability – what’s that?, Oh yea, that’s the denial of  committing to simply leading a full life! Is there a better goal?

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