When I was a kid, the internet came in 26 volumes. It was called the World Book Encycopaedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica.
My dad, futurologist that he was, was sceptical about the value of ownership because of the rate at which knowledge was updated, but nonetheless he acquiesced and bought us the World Book.
Back then, encyclopaedias were sold door-to-door and the salesman in our neighbourhood was one William J Deards, my sixth grade teacher. Mr Deards was 64 years old, due for retirement the following year – or not due, as he’d claim, by dint of the fact that his birthday was February 29th, meaning that he had a birthday every four years and therefore was only 16 rather than 64. Gags like this would get a polite reaction in class the first time round, but always fell a bit flat the fourth time round. Anyway, with an eye on retirement income, in addition to his pension, Mr Deards would bring the papier mache internet into homes locally. Mr Deards was the Virgin Media of his day.
A year or so later, the World Book and Encyclopaedia Britannica faced a bit of competition with the arrival of a lower-cost option called Funk and Wagnalls. The company behind Funk and Wagnalls threw a fortune behind TV advertising and some genius there came up with the strap line ‘Look it up in your Funk and Wagnalls’. This, consequently and not surprisingly, became the question of choice in classrooms all over Australia. If a kid answered a question correctly in class, a chorus would erupt from the back of the class: “Did you look it up in your Funk and Wagnalls?” Try it out. You’ll get a sense of why it went viral.
I loved the World Book. Growing up at the edge of the Australian bush made the books into life rafts. I’d stand in front of them, pick a volume at random with my eyes closed, sit down and look through it. Not sequentially, randomly.
It was an antidote to what I perceived to be the staleness of the world immediately around me.
The World Wide Web was like that, before it was indexed and algorithemed to oblivion. It was the World Wild West, a bucket full of the most bizarre combination of things.
My worry about the inexorable rise of the algorithms is that they increasingly give us subtley different versions of what we already know or have experienced.
Back in the earlier days of the web, I’d wander accidentally to sites that specialised in sending toast by post or sites that aggregated links to stories or flights of fancy that were genuinely imaginative and varied. Less so now. Everything seems narrowed to my perceived ambit.
On Netflix, for instance, I am served particular flavours of distopian sci-fi, usually involving people travelling silently to avoid detecting by aliens. Or crime movies set in post-industrial locations. Google, helpfully, reinforces my narrowness in its recommendations in my app. I get better at knowing what I already know.
This baked-in consistency creates a framework for habits to grow and tighten their grip. It might be partly why all online debate seems to be binary, with no give and take. Our communities are reinforcing bibiographies of what we already firmly believe.
Attempts to engineer spontaneity into the Web have not been altogether successful. Google’s homepage includes a button labeled “I’m Feeling Lucky”. This feature originally enabled users to type in their search query, click the button and be taken directly to the first result, thereby bypassing the search results page. Subsequently it was changed to serve as an advertisement for Google services. One estimate was that Google lost $110 million in revenue per year due to use of the button, which bypassed advertisements.
My go to places on the Web include Arts and Letters Daily, a site devoted to a set of links to stories, articles and ephemera recommended by academics. Another is McSweeney’s, a showcase for lots of interesting creative writing, including a whole series of imaginative lists. My all-time favourite is the list of ‘my status updates now that my mother became my Facebook friend’. They include ‘Scott is making good, well-informed decisions.’ I also like Brownielocks, which is a lovingly collected compendium of commemorative days, weeks and months. I write this on World Sauntering Day at the tail end of Duct Tape Days in the middle of Turkey Lovers’ Month. Halcyon Days. I realise I am weakening my own hypothesis that the Web is narrowing, but maybe I’m not. I have found some geographies that I’m comfortable with and don’t know how to go further. There are other sites, of course, that I go to routinely: the New Yorker, Washington Post, The Times, The Guardian and the BBC website. All are expanding and narrowing in equal measure. I guess it’s about boundaries and borders, about questions and answers, certainties and uncertainties.
The digital world is built on structure and discipline. We can drape our inconsistencies and curious interests on it, but it seeks to structure them in rigid and coherent ways, even when we crave some incoherence and chaos. The trouble is that it’s so pervasively and inescapably there, wherever we are. Mobility and ubiquity. Off grid is what we need, or an algorithm that is able to capaciously encompass all that we might be interested in. Tracing a line with no evident guiding symmetry. Otherwise, our regulated worlds can become as stale as toast by post.