10 March 2002

No Particular Place to Go

David Weinberger has been thinking in public again, giving us plenty to chew on. I’m with ‘most everything he says. I had been wondering for a while before I read these remarks, though, about the applicability of spatial metaphors to the Web.

I’d been tempted to reject the notion altogether before I read what David has to say about the Web’s “persistence.” He points out that our experience of the Web’s “persistence,” its durable continuity, grounds our perception of the Web as a place — in contrast to such modes of interaction as telephony and ham radio (and he might have added in light of Friday’s talk, instant messaging). That’s a good point, and I hadn’t been thinking in those terms. Still, wonder if our sense of the hyperlinked aspect of the Web (DW’s point #3) doesn’t far outweigh our sense of the Web as an enduring spatial domain. “Space” typically entails “extension” for everyday life; space has dimensions of height, breadth, depth, all of which are absent (or extremely different) with relation to the Web. Our first round of metaphors helped us grasp the notions of linked compositions (hence, a “Web” or a “superhighway”), but the very metaphors that communicate “linking” also imply distance. In physical reality, we need links to connect two remote locations; in the Web, though, our pages are not so much physically far from one another; for all we know, the pages we read and write are being served from the caches of a single server.

I’m not about to supply a newly-minted, copyrighted Superior Metaphor. None has come to mind. But one of my concerns as we modulate into the new regime of hyperlinked presence involves the ways our leftover metaphors constrain our behavior under different conditions. Davids’ talk seems to draw on an etymology of “Utopia” as eu-topia, from a Greek compound that would mean “good place” (DW fretted with the possible/impossible extent of “perfection” in the “new” and “fresh” Web), but one might also derive “utopia” from ou-topia, “no place,” and that line of thinking appeals more to me. How might we imagine the Web if we tried to conceive it nonspatially?

But If You Study the Heuristics and Logistics of the Mystics. . . .

Mark Woods blogged my dismay at his spotlight on Alex Burns’s paean to Elaine Pagels. Now that I’ve climbed down from my high dudgeon, I ought to re-emphasize a few points, and perhaps clarify a basis for my irritation.
First, Elaine Pagels is an outstanding scholar. I agree with her about some things and disagree with her about others, but my pique was directed at Alex Burns,not at her. Second, the responses that Mark obligingly cites from First Things are only somewhat more likely to yield illuminating assessments of Pagels than is disinformation. First Things leans heavily toward a particular (generally conservative) version of Catholic teaching, such that it would be surprising to find a positive review of Pagels’s book there. At least First Things knows something about theology and church history, and they enlisted as a reviewer Jeffrey Burton Russell, a scholar of stature roughly comparable to Pagels. (Some would disagree about that; the point, however, isn’t their precise equality, but the fact that both are widely-known, widely-respected scholars.) Third, and this is the point I wanted to make, Burns fallaciously ascribes to Pagels authority as a spiritual teacher, whereas her studies, credentials, and writings justify her authority as a historian. Historians can be spiritually enlightened, and people with a rep for spirituality can be frauds–but Burns treats her acknowledged brilliance in one field as the basis for a very different sort of authority.

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