I remember very clearly the first time I used google. It was 1999 I was working in a studio and was not happy with the results I was getting from alta vista or yahoo. Someone suggested I tried this new one called google. I remember thinking, stupid name, terrible logo, can’t see this taking off. I did however like the ‘feeling lucky’ button. I used that button once. I wonder how many times I’ve used Google since then?
Back then websites were a novelty, they were powered by dial up connections and many thought they would never catch on.
6 years later I read an article that turned my brain inside out and changed the way I think about the virtual world (for want of a better term). The article was about the rising trend of massive multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs). It talked about the development of real economies within these virtual games. I thought this was such a funny, crazy idea, until I read that one of the ‘worlds’ Entropia, had built a virtual space-station and were planning on selling it for $100,000. Of course I laughed, such a great tale. About a month later it was sold for the asking price. A man called Jon Jacobs mortgaged his house and bought the old pile of pixels. 5 years later, he sold it for $635,000.
Needless to say, after that point I thought very differently about the idea of a virtual world and what it meant to us. As I thought about that article I formed the idea that it was like the wild west again. A new frontier. Of course ‘gold rush’ terminology has been used so often in reference to the various silicon valleys, republics and roundabouts that it’s become a cliché.
I saw Bill Thompson talk last year. He’s part of a team in charge of digitising the entire BBC archive. No small feat. I’d always framed the times we were living through as being defined by the shift from industrial to information age. Bill is more ambitious stating it’s most important time since development of printing press. Regardless it’s an incredibly pivotal point in human development and it affects everything we know and thought we knew.
Design (I think) is about the way things fit together. How a typeface fits on newsprint at small sizes, how a leg fits a chair, how the materials used in the production of the chair fit with our sense of the environment, how we fit in houses or on streets. In this regard, the digital world provides an unmatched set of possibilities. The effect it’s creating is starting to look to me like a post-pigeonhole environment. A place where you don’t have to compromise being uniquely you in order to fit happily into the underlying systems of the world. You’re a globe-trotting, travel-writing, dog-training historian with a unique knowledge of russian prison tattoos. Funny, that’s exactly what I needed and when I put it into google, I found you. Well maybe not quite yet, but you get the idea. In essence this new system creates billions of small endlessly interconnectable people-shaped islands and the gaps between each of them is fertile ground.
To just think about the possibilities of that for a second is mind-blowing. And this is before we start to contemplate all the ways the digital and real world can potentially fit together. Wikileaks is a great illustration of a digital action with real world effect. Technology gave access to the files and allowed them to be collated, easily smuggled and viewed in a manageable format. The real world press then provided context and gave weight to the stories.
And then we have the real world effect of this digital action. It’s been argued that Wikileaks played a role in arab spring and the occupy movement. Not beacause of the information itself which was strangely unaffecting but the action of it. It sent a message that was we’re not powerless any more, we don’t have to be cogs in the machine, the system can be held accountable. And along with social networks like twitter this made us feel connected, part of something bigger, relevant.
An article I read recently helped click another part of this huge jigsaw puzzle into place. In fact it was the catalyst for this whole train of thought. It was an exploration of ‘the fundamental question of the web’. It proposed that to date a lot of people have been making sense of the web pretty badly. People in traditional industrial ivory towers think it’s been sent to destroy them and can’t understand why they can’t make it work for them. TV people think it does TV, Publishers think it does books, music people think it does music. But the writer says, each medium has it’s own niche and the internets niche is — Why Wasn’t I consulted? He points out that humans have a need to be consulted, engaged and exercise their knowledge and that no other medium has ever been able to offer this as well as the internet. I was skeptical at first but he goes on to set it out and illustrate it with a list of the most succesful websites in the world. Sure enough, they all have WWIC at their heart.
It got me thinking about was how little sense we’ve made of this digital world. Most weeks I read an article, see a website or project that melts my brain and makes me have to rearrange everything I thought I knew about how this new virtual space fits together. While I as much as anyone is excited by all the new possibilities and challenges offered, I think it’s important to think as much as we act. To consider how it fits together, not just physically but conceptually, ethically and philisophically. Maybe if we’re a bit more careful and thoughtful in our development of this digital world, we’ll make less of a mess of it than we have of our real one.