Elephants Crying on Trees in the Desert: Notes for an Ode to the Web (Part I)

In the beginning was the web. Today, there are some who claim that it is a relatively recent phenomenon[1]. This is wrong. It was always there: The space where everything is everything, everything is nothing, nothing is everything, and nothing is nothing[2]. Then, there was some curiosity, then some tinkering, and eventually some infrastructure emerged: Ἀκαδημία here, γυμνάσιον there, forum here, þing there, monastery here, market place there, all the way to the legacies of Haussmann, Schumacher, or Speer[3]. And then email, websites, social media, mobile apps. Variations on gross appearances as a stage for the (gross and subtle) plays of human endeavours.

A lot of critical things can be said about the web in its current form[4]. And a lot of good things as well[5]. What isn’t said often, however, is that the web is beautiful[6]. In this post (and most likely in one or two future posts), I want to make up for this shortcoming by sharing some notes I collected in an ongoing project to compose an Ode to the Web[7].

Trees in the Park: The web is George Berkeley’s trees in the park, imagined for the sole purpose of showing that “the trees […] are in the garden […] no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them”[8]. Is the web there when nobody is around to perceive it? And if not, how can we pretend it is there when somebody is there to perceive it? And if we can, how can that somebody pretend they are there when they’re not perceiving the web? And if they can, how can they pretend their perception of themselves is in any way different from their perception of the web? Who is responsible around here[9]?

An Elephant on the Merry-go-round: The web is Rainer Maria Rilke’s merry-go-round – “Ein Rot, ein Grün, ein Grau vorbeigesendet, ein kleines kaum begonnenes Profil. Und manchesmal ein Lächeln, hergewendet, ein seliges, das blendet und verschwendet
an dieses atemlose blinde Spiel”[10] – and, above all, the white elephant who appears again and again, with every turn, the fusion of endless repetition in circular motion and the bright surprise of a new detail spotted from a different vantage point[11], a dance of colours, lights and sounds infused by energies of coming and going, attraction and repulsion, joy and sadness.

The voice that cries in the desert: The web is the voice that cries in the wilderness, sometimes not heard at all, and sometimes the cry that announces that highways are built, valleys are filled, mountains and hills are flattened, that the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain[12]. It is unforeseeable whether, how, and when a single sound on the web is gently echoed back, acknowledged, reflected, amplified, distorted, joined by a chorus of sirens or hyenas – or whether, how, and when it is simply dying a fading death (in which case it is equally unforeseeable whether, how, and when it is reappearing, rising again, reincarnating as a melody or as a messy cacophony[13]).

The void, the dance, and the seed of sound. A reflection, a ripple, a rhyme.

“Und dann und wann…” – and now and then… [to be continued].

[1] For an extensive overview of this theory with plenty of sources, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Internet [retrieved Mar 13, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT

[2] A beautiful summary of the corresponding theory of interdependence can be found in Gunilla Bergström’s “Hur långt når Alfons?” (2002). BACK TO TEXT

[3] And so many other places, palaces, and professionals instrumental for creating the structures in which human interaction occurs – alas, too many to even attempt to mention them all.BACK TO TEXT

[4] For a pithy and beautiful illustration of this line of thought, look at Socrates’ tale of god Thoth and king Thamus in Plato’s Φαῖδρος; once you’re there, re-read the whole dialogue.BACK TO TEXT

[5] Two nice and thoughtful books about the advantages of (technical and other) progress are Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist” (2010) – which includes the wonderful analysis on how many hours of work earn you how many hours of (reading) light across centuries (p. 20) – and Clive Thompson’s “Smarter Than You Think” (2013).BACK TO TEXT

[6] When searching “web is beautiful” [searched Mar 13, 2015], I got a number of top hits for sites that link to beautiful web pages (clearly, an instance of group attribution error on the part of the search engine I used), and the top image was a link to an image on the (pretty) site http://www.informationisbeautiful.net [retrieved Mar 13, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[7] It seems this title is not taken. If it is taken somewhere outside the web (where, for obvious reasons, I was looking), I apologise to the owner. There is a nice Ode to Browsing the Web by Marcus Wicker, published in Poetry (2013) here http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/246482 [retrieved Mar 13, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[8] These trees made their first appearance in “A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge” (1710) and since became famous as the tree that falls in the forest when noone is around, reportedly discussed by eminent thinkers such as, among others, Albert Einstein or Lisa and Bart Simpson.BACK TO TEXT

[9] The last quote is adapted from “Duck Amuck” (1953) – https://t.co/kJO4cuOirQ [retrieved Mar 11, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

[10] “Das Karrussell” (1906) – apologies for quoting in German, there are plenty of translations available on the web for those who prefer other tongues.BACK TO TEXT

[11] As an aside: The white elephant is an interesting beast in and of itself, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_elephant. It also often gets confused with the elephant in the room (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant_in_the_room) or the pink elephant (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seeing_pink_elephants). And then, of course, there’s also the elephant that appears differently to the five blind men who try to describe it (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant).BACK TO TEXT

[12] If this sounds a little threatening to you, listen to this interpretation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIkMIw1wz7A [retrieved Mar 13, 2015] .BACK TO TEXT

[13] A story uniquely told in John Miles’ “Music” (1975), well before the web had its current form – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egwARrX1ik8 [retrieved Mar 13, 2015].BACK TO TEXT

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