The Problem With the Web and E-Books Is That There’s No Space for Them
Imagine leaving your house to find that all your neighbors are gone, houses and all, replaced by a new stock of neighbors and their houses. You get in the car and begin driving to your favorite coffee shop, but the road is different, taking you to parts of town it didn’t go to the day before. Imagine, furthermore, that each day is like this, a variant of Groundhog Day, but rather than time starting over, space gets reset, and all the spatial structure gets redistributed.
That initially sounds like a nightmare, but this world comes with an upside: you can beam any place you wish by simply naming it aloud. You can’t physically find your way to the cleaners? That’s OK — just beam yourself there by uttering “Clancy’s Cleaners.”
That would be a strange world, indeed, one our brains did not evolve to accommodate.
And yet it is not fiction! It may not apply to the structure of our cities, but it does help describe a place we now spend more of our time: the web.
We don’t navigate the web so much as beam hither and thither within it. Can’t find your way to the ticket site? No matter, you can Google-beam directly there by typing in the name.
And not only is the web not spatial or navigable, but the new reading experiences within documents have lost their spatial sense as well. Html and variants used in e-books shift their location relative to other text depending on font and window size. Need to jump to that part of the book where they discussed cliff jumping? You will get no help from the local topography, but you can beam yourself directly there via a within-document text search.
The web, from its text-shifting sites to its entire large-scale structure, is navigated with little or no actual navigation, and a lot of teleportation.
In nature, information comes with a physical address (and often a temporal one), and one can navigate to and from the address. Those raspberry patches we found last year are over the hill and through the woods — and they are still over the hill and through the woods.
And up until the rise of the web, the mechanisms for information storage were largely spatial and could be navigated, thereby tapping into our innate navigation capabilities. Our libraries and books — the real ones, not today’s electronic variety — were supremely navigable.