Journal: News & Comment

Tuesday, November 12, 2002
# 11:22:00 AM:

What is the Internet?

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Is the Internet a medium or a place? How you answer that question determines a lot about how you might see it evolving. Doc Searls expands:

[Some people talk] about a medium here. So does Hollywood. So does [the U.S.] Congress. So does the FCC.

Some of us also talk about the Web as a place. Different metaphor. Radically different, in fact.

One sees the Net as a distribution system for content that is addressed for delivery by downloading or streaming to an end user or a consumer.

The other sees the Net as a commons with locations and sites with adresses, where people connect when they link or point or talk or blog or surf or post or put something up -- all of which one does when one is located somewhere.

The prepositions are the give-aways. By one metaphor, the Net is something you go through. By the other metaphor, the Net is something you go on.

Of course, both apply. Both are true. Most subjects are understood in terms of many different metaphors. What we need to remember is that we never stop thinking and talking in terms of them. Every metphor brings its own vocabulary, even its own morality.

I think as time goes on, and more people who've grown up with the Net spread out into the power roles in society, we'll all understand it more as a place than a medium. While e-mail goes through the Internet to get from me in Vancouver to my friends and relatives in all sorts of other places, I never think of the Web as something to go through. It's always a place to be on, or in. When I'm instant-messaging with someone, even my wife when she's at work, we seem to be sharing a virtual place that is neither here nor there, but of itself.

That's why the old "information superhighway" metaphor seems out of date now. Highways aren't places you hang out. For those of us who use the Internet all the time, it's more like a village (or sometimes, sadly, a mall), or a city, or a country or continent. There are parts of it that we know intimately, like the streets we rode our bikes on as kids, and other parts that are unfamiliar and foreign, and sometimes scary or repulsive. We tend to stay near home, but most of us go off on an adventure sometimes.


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