Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom

Digital Media and the Internet

Navigating cyberspace

On the one hand, the hierarchical distribution of information that limited the scope of print culture has been disrupted. Randall Davis, professor of computer science associate director of the artificial intelligence lab at MIT, explained in an interview that "publishers and syndicates can worry because it is now possible for authors and poets and artists and other information providers to bypass the traditional distribution infrastructure which is incredibly cumbersome, and which favors the few. We are witnessing the shift from oligarchy to meritocracy." The hierarchical system only allows a small number of people to get their information out and actually make some money out of it. The Internet, he argues, turns everyone into a private publisher, a distributor, a warehouse.

On the other hand, while we celebrate this free flow of information, we don't want to get lost in the morass. This literary renaissance in which the masses can distribute their information without having to be chosen or favored by the powers that be is theoretically appealing, but it can be utterly overwhelming to try to navigate. By the very nature of the distributed network, no web site is any less accessible than another --- that is, the web sites of celebrities or political giants can exercise no preeminence over those of ordinary people. We may enjoy the concept of having the world's information at the tips of our fingers, but actually absorbing it --- finding the sites that particularly interests us --- is another matter altogether. Search engines such as Yahoo may limit our quest for the ultimate destination to several thousand entries, but we still remain aimless.

We do well to remember that, although all web sites are equally accessible in terms of their ability to be called up on the computer screen, they are unequal in terms of notoriety. The popularity of web sites can be assessed by number of hits-per-month, and the dominant institutions of culture today, such as magazines, popularize those statistics inevitably and influence the meanderings of net wanderers. Again, we are in the beginning stages of all this. Companies with the financial backing to advertise gain the upper hand with regard to notoriety over private web site owners who can just pay their online rent. The real way to gain power in the distributed hypertext network is to make sure that a lot of links lead to one's web site. The popular notion about cyberspace is that it is infinite and unbounded. But it, too is limited by the amount of human attention available in it. Does a place in cyberspace exist if no one visits it? What makes any kind of real estate valuable? Esther Dyson, in her oft-quoted Release 1.0 article, examines the development of major hubs in the Internet's infrastructure, and the value of the content they produce:

The initial appeal of real estate may be proximity to other space --- it's easy to find on your way somewhere else. The net equivalent (more or less) is a listing in someone's guide, for example, a pointer in a web page, or highlighted availability through a service such as Compuserve or Poland Online. The virtual space near any particular location is limited --- just like the retail space along Fifth Avenue in New York, Bond Street in London, or Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg. There are just so many services to highlight and point to a particular location.

But you can build your land up so that more people want to pass through it. You can add restaurants and tony shops... The question of what happens to intellectual property on the net can be summed up like this: value shifts from the transformation of bits rather than bits themselves, to services, to the selection of content, to the presence of other people, and to the assurance of authenticity --- reliable information about the sources of bits and their future flows. In short, intellectual assets and property depreciate while intellectual processes and services appreciate. ("Intellectual Value" 139-41)

On the Net, content can draw people in, and people draw more people: they exist as content that no one owns, but content that is sold to other members of the market. Content and people (like goods) that get visibility in favorable locations gain in popularity, and can thereafter be used in other locations to raise value elsewhere. The gold rush for popularity among web sites on the Net to which Dyson refers seems to belie the basic principles of Democracy. But a profound shift is taking place nevertheless: value lies in the ancillary market; success lies in favorable relationships with --- links to --- other web sites. The insular world of print is being forced into a state of interactivity.

The question remains: Does a place in Cyberspace exist if no one visits it? What good will democratized literary expression do if the voices are never heard? We must resign to the fact that we need to rely on some authority to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. Randall Davis comments:

We need to have some sense of all of the information widely available, but there remains still a necessity for editing, for putting faith in a credible source, and I think we are already beginning to see the same sorts of structures build up in the Internet world which are, in effect, critics and people who can vouch for or against the various information sources...anyone with a laser printer or an ink jet printer can pass out their leaflets on street corners, but why do millions of people read Time magazine and only an handful of people read those leaflets?

Davis alludes to the fact that for now, we rely on filtering systems, and in today's world that means relying on brand names. So we find major media conglomerates jockeying for a position , trying to create a brand name, trying to establish their preeminence as erudite guides, quality information providers. Does this mean that, just as the traditional systems of hierarchy co-opted the anarchic expression of the pamphleteers, cyberspace will find itself fragmented into a series of information dictators?

No, the mere fact that we cannot, by our very humanness, absorb (indeed we may even be expected to read) an entire world of information, and that we must therefore prioritize among the planetary scope of possibilities in order to suit our interests, does not doom us to a future of rigid hierarchy. In the first place, the hypertextual format itself means that we will encounter, on our journey to uncover whatever information we are in pursuit of, far more ancillary knowledge than we have ever had access to. If all goes well, the hypertextual format will encourage a prevailing suspicion about hierarchical trends in culture and the immutability of meaning.

Contents Next Works Cited