“One of the reasons we talk so persistently about the impact of media is because thinking and talking about its role, and about the role of technology generally, have become cultural characteristics.
In a sense, we are hardly able not to think and talk about the media. [...] Not only do the media help shape the way we think about the media, but thinking about the media also helps shape the way the media operate within the culture.” Warren Susman
Hydrometry is a field that seeks to monitor water flows. A flow is the river’s essence. For most of human history, the sole rivery medium to share information was oral conversation.
A discussion flows like a river’s fluid. Because one is unable to rewind it, it is intrinsically a temporal phenomenon. Written contents, as the prolongment of oral conversation, are the closest thing to the river symbolically.
An ancient papyrus or a Virgina Woolf novel is bounded by a definite start and end, in the same way that a river flows downhill from the source to its mouth.
All of the experience a book has to offer possesses the same texture, like a river remains a water body through its whole course. How can this help us to understand today’s Internet? First, we have to learn a bit about media history.
The first alteration of the previous ‘river’s’ conceptualization took place at the turn of the 20th century.
Radio, followed by television decades later, successively affected the core components of rivery mediums. Both are no longer temporally bound. Instead of taking the river at its source, one jumps in the stream, whether it is a radio drama or a teleshopping program, and lets themselves get carried away by the flow.
This transition from a closed-bound flow to an infinite movement deeply modifies the relationship between the medium and its temporality.
The user becomes time’s slave, mandated to turn on the said medium at specific hours if he wants to consume a specific content.
The second major shift is still ongoing. It adds one radical disruptive component to previously existing mediums: parallelization. In the golden eras of radio and television, everybody would have access to the same programs - especially in the previous decades, where the number of channels and stations were more limited. In 1985, the average household would receive 19 TV channels, versus 180 in 2019.
The advent of social media broke this uniformity.
Instead of having everybody jumping in the same streams, consumers would get their own tailored-made flow, personalized for their own tastes, perception and ideological bubbles.
The prototypal examples of such stream-like services are Facebook, Instagram or our Twitter feeds. Instead of major collective rivers, there would be millions of individual more or less parallel creeks. Parallel, because one could doom scroll for hours on their Instagram.
They could explore pages for hours and barely come across a post seen by their neighbor. It’s likely individuals’ streams can occasionally cross, at the occasion of a viral video or a popular meme. Despite these sparse occasions, each of us remains carried away in their own individual flow.
No less radical is the unique possibility these platforms leave to quickly switch content with a vertical finger wipe.
As a result, the flow of these new rivers is infinitely faster than their older counterparts. The danger is evident in the clear possibility of drowning the inexperienced swimmer in a torrent of information.
Despite these major differences, this new type of river took the best of previously existing flows, through a process akin to a platform capitalist natural selection (the engaging services are where they are now, the less engaging ones like MySpace or Google+ failed).
Like books, social media is an inherently unidirectional and vertical experience. Like TV and radio, social media feeds are infinite - the content never runs dry. For TV and radio, the financial incentive for the providers is to keep the consumer afloat. As a result, the horizontality inherent to the Internet's original vision is reduced at its minimum by service providers. “We call that the ‘Internet paradox’”, notes RGB Media CEO Grig Davidovitz.
“The Internet can be defined as clicks between web pages with information and functions, and yet, the click action is not user-friendly. The more we can make users ‘click without clicking’ (infinite scroll moving between pages, for instance), the better the engagement will be.”
Whereas with previous stream-like media, it could only be measured indirectly thanks to non-representative metrics like sales and audience, digital streams possess a vast arsenal of measurement tools for maximizing engagement.
As such, they represent a falsely relaxing safe space, where the user is held by the hand by a self-assertive omniscient algorithm through an endless flow of entertainment.
Describing the gradual progression from written content to social media highlights the massive and accelerated mechanization that the medium we use on a daily basis underwent.
If an oral conversation can feel like a natural, untouched river, written content would be an organically landscaped body of water; social media would be a massive concrete and steel-made water management megaproject, optimized in every regard and embedding its own artificial feedback loops.
As with any bigger-than-life infrastructure, everything is up for debate.
What it brings to the table of society, whether the infrastructure’s underlying vision is worth the investment(s) - our role, as citizens, is to discuss these questions.
The fact that Facebook just announced to have put the development of Instagram Kids to a halt, despite being accurately aware that “kids are getting phones younger and younger, misrepresenting their age, and downloading apps that are meant for those 13 or older”, shows that the answer could not be unanimous.
Mike Caulfield presented his technopastoral fable of the garden and the stream at the opening keynote of the 2015 Digital Learning Research Network conference held at Stanford University.
In Caulfield’s taxonomy, the garden represents an alternative to rivers. Caulfield fable is inspired by Berstein’s 1998 founding text, The Hypertext Garden. For Caulfield and Bernstein, the garden is an open space in which one wanders among the arrangements left by its numerous caretakers.
There, the shortest path is not always the best.
Any path, from the short track to the long hike, is a line of flight with its own artifacts and potentialities. Like in a Borges novel, the paths cross and uncross each other at each node. Each object is in relation to the other. The structure that emerges from these complex relationships is intrinsically holistic; if the objects are the garden’s substance, its inner structure is what gives it life.
Way before Caulfield’s fable or even Bernstein’s guide, the garden conception of knowledge was spawned in the works of two different scientists in the middle of the previous century.
Ted Nelson coined the term hypertext in 1963, as part of the design of what would become Xanadu - called by Wired journalist Gary Wolf, “the most radical computer dream of the hacker era”.
Xanadu was supposed to be a textual digital repository that users could reproduce and/or augment. A text and their different incremental alterations could be compared side-by-side.
Unlike with the Internet as we know it today, in Xanadu’s architecture, hypertexts were bidirectionnal, which made tracing a trail back to a copyrighted original document possible.
Ted Nelson's incredible idea takes roots in a 1945 New Yorker article from Annevar Bush, former President Roosevelt’s science advisor. In As We May Think, Bush imagines a device, the memex, allowing people to edit any frame of a microfilm containing all of the world’s knowledge.
During the process of editing these frames, one could build associative trails between items, in the same way that brain cells create connections between each other. As Xanadu’s inventor Ted Nelson notes, Bush never formally defined what the said trails were - yet this hiking metaphor inspired countless creative minds, like Nelson’s, to think about the landscaping of knowledge.
Nelson was probably not aware of the Zettelkasten method (from the German “note-box”), despite it being perfected at the same time he was conceiving Xanadu.
The Zettelkasten method consists in taking atomic notes that one would organize hierarchically thanks to a metadata-like self-designed system. The goal is to create a holistic structure that replicates the spontaneity of the thinking process out of a network of interlinked notes.
If the chronological diary is the rivery counterpart of notetaking, a Zettelkasten system is the garden-y one. The concept was coined by Niklas Luhmann: using the 90 000 index cards he collected through years of Zettelkasten note-taking, he was able to build an impressive knowledge database that he put in use for writing the few 70 books and 600 research articles he published during his lifetime.
Xanadu, the memex and the Luhman’s Zettelkasten system all envisioned an ecosystemic approach to knowledge representation, akin to Caulfield’s and Berstein’s garden imagery.
By every such metric, Wikipedia is the most successful embodiment of the garden concept. For Berstein, “gardens shape our experience through a careful combination of regularity and irregularity. Here we may find beds of flowers - alike in shape, yet each unique in color or fragrance.
Elsewhere, we might break the rhythm of simple geometry with shade trees or hedges, a pond or a boulder. This crafted irregularity engages our senses by offering the promise of the unexpected without the threat of the wilderness.”
Wikipedia’s flowers are its multiple person’s or place’s pages. Wikipedia’s ponds are its quality articles, blending in its text hundreds to thousands of hyperlinks inside which we love to get lost.
Wikipedia’s boulders are its empty draft, where one’s only option is to turn around, frustrated of being stopped in their noble pursuits. Wikipedia’s regularity, stemming from the use of a uniform design blent with a universal call for contributions, fulfills the dreams of thousands of our ancestors who aspired to access all of humanity’s knowledge, anytime, anywhere, for free.
Possibly as a result of its wide accessibility, Wikipedia does not get the credit it should be getting as one of the greatest social and technological accomplishments of its time.
Besides Wikipedia, the garden notion spanned many offspring which have had a decisive impact on the open-source ecosystem and digital culture as a whole.
Github, also used by millions of developers every day, is one of its prototypal examples. These success stories and the recent revival of the Zettelkasten method thanks to dedicated solutions like Roam Research or Obsidian show that, far from being an artifact of late 80s and 90s utopic hacker culture, digital gardening is still alive and well.
“[Rivers] are not inherently bad”, comments Maggie Appleton in her extensive and well-written history of digital gardens. “Streams have their time and place. Twitter is a force-multiplier for exploratory thoughts and delightful encounters once you fall in with the right crowd and learn to play the game.”
In the same way, both Xanadu’s failure and Bernstein’s visionary tale of the Hypertext Gardens warns us of the garden’s flaws. As the latter put it; “unplanned hypertext sprawl is wilderness: complex and interesting, but uninviting. Interesting things await us in the thickets, but we may be reluctant to plough through the brush, subject to thorns and mosquitoes.”
On the other side of the spectrum, he denounces “streetscape and corporate office: simple, orderly, unsurprising”, where “we may find the scale impressive, we admire the richness of materials, but we soon tire of the repetitive view. We enter to get something we need: once our task is done we are unlikely to linger. We know what to expect, and we rarely receive anything more.”
Like with gardening, in any kind of landscaping, a lot can go wrong at each part of the process. It is the price to pay to try building a more organic digital ecosystem. We shape our spaces, and then our spaces shape us.
If, as Sanford Kwinter says, “design has become us; it is, alas, what we are'', then let’s learn how to navigate and build beautiful streams, flowery gardens, stimulating campfires, wild parks of unique ideas and observatories of breathtaking perspectives.