Masthead CMC Magazine / May 1, 1996
 Metaphorically Speaking, the Information Highway is Dead, by Wade Rowland

Architecture as a Metaphor for Creating the Web's Human Spaces

Conveniently, the two defining variables of a work of conventional architecture can also be said to define good Web design: suitability to human use through adaptation to specific activities; and communication of ideas and experience through form.

Architecture provides another notion useful in thinking about the online environment; that of public space vs. private space. In the official lexicon of urban designers, space devoted to streets, parks, squares, boulevards and so on is "public" space. But so is a mall concourse or the lobby of a hotel, in that they are ordinarily accessible to the public. It is a controversial definition.

[]Strom points out the need to build communities around Web sites.

At architecture schools, students bemoan the loss to private interests of what once was public space, as happens when construction of a shopping mall shifts the focus of a town or village from the town square or main street to the enclosed spaces of the mall. While the main concourse of a mall may seem to be public space, it is not--pamphleteers, buskers and boisterous teenagers all learn this lesson definitively when they are given the bums' rush by private security guards. Furthermore, the public has no control over the amenities or lack of same in such pseudo "public" spaces.

What does this have to do with the Net? Just that the online environment in which the Net operates needs to be clearly recognized as public space, like the "air waves" that carry broadcast signals. Real public space, and not the pseudo, shopping mall variety. There is no reason why the physical structures of the Net--the copper and optical fibre lines and the switching devices and digital coding machinery--cannot be owned and operated at a profit by private enterprise. But the space that is created when those lines are humming with data, the cyberspace, has to be acknowledged as public space.

Public space is what it ought to be, and public space is what it is in practice. The Net is, by definition, owned and controlled by its millions of users. It was designed and built to be that way (designed, in fact, to survive nuclear Armageddon), and the design works. No legislation is needed to accomplish this, thank you. Regulators need not apply. The public nature of the Internet is lodged irretrievably deep in its defining technologies. (Which is not to say it it is inviolate: democracy is always a process, never a static state.)

If we can begin to think of the Net as a new kind of "built environment" or human habitat, then we'll begin to better understand how to deal with it and profit from it.

We might be moved to ask ourselves, for instance: what is the role of government in running a city? The answer is, to provide the amenities that make people's lives easier and more meaningful; to help people do the things they want to do safely and conveniently. It is not to tell people how to live, or what to say or do. There is an analogous role for government in the online environment. Government should facilitate access, enforce the criminal law and provide public amenities not made available by private enterprise. There is a role here, perhaps, for a CBC or PBS, in providing useful online resources that would otherwise not be there.

There is also a clear online role for business within this metaphor. It is not to own or control the public spaces of cyberspace. It is to provide services the public wants and needs (at a profit) and to generally behave like good citizens, not despoiling the landscape or ripping-off the burghers. It also means sharing the wealth by re-investing a portion of profits in public and quasi-public amenities like useful databases, navigation aids and entertainment sites.

In the end, though, even architectural metaphors fall short of the mark in encapsulating the Net. Something is still missing.

When I was a kid I read a book about Relativity (One, two, three...Infinity by George Gamow) in which the author conjured up the engaging metaphor of Flatland to try to describe what a fourth dimension might be. The image somehow clicked with me, and opened amazing new vistas in my mind.

Imagine Flatland as a two-dimensional world drawn on a piece of paper. Its inhabitants would see pencil lines as impenetrable barriers, just the way we see walls. A visitor from the third dimension would cause astonishment and alarm by being able to traverse those pencil barriers simply be stepping over them, or, as it would seem to the Flatlanders, walking through them. Imagine that!

Similarly, a visitor to our world from a spatial and temporal fourth dimension would be able to walk through walls, in fact would be able to turn up anywhere he wanted in an instant. He'd be unburdened by time, unhampered by distance. He'd have random access to the universe.

I see that fourth-dimension dream of freedom from time and space coming true in a tentative and embryonic way in the digital world of the Internet. We can travel to the farthest reaches of the Net at light speed, and we have random access to anything and everything that it encompasses in its sheer, organic promiscuity. Just imagine. This is no highway. This is a sea-change! --

CMC Magazine Index
Contents Archive Sponsors Studies Contact