Obviously, the Web has become a primary means of information storage and communication. Increasing numbers of people do not roam among the stacks of libraries anymore, but browse among the millions of Web sites that can be found on the internet. (There are no inconvenient closing hours, for one thing, and no parking problems either. And it is clear already that there will not only an electronic flood of trivia and ephemera, but also an almost overwhelming amount of usable substance.) That is a trend that will not be reversed anymore, no matter how much grumbling there may be on the part of the admittedly honorable lovers of print. A long time ago something was lost, to be sure, whenever an oral tradition came to an end, but there was no stopping the advance of the written word. And while there is real beauty in handwritten books, printing in time became an inevitability. Thus there is only a limited amount of wisdom in the present resistance to a tool that is as useful as Web page and net. There is no stepping into the same river twice.

Right now it is as difficult to get an old humanist to click his or her way through the net as it is to get an average student to read a book. But this situation will pass. The advantages of the new medium are too great. The city dweller who has trouble getting a library card at New York University as well as the resident of the boonies will testify to that.

There is, of course, something to be said for the aesthetics of paper and print. I myself still prefer paintings to even good photographs (and a real meal to intravenous feeding, for that matter). For aesthetic reasons alone the old media will not entirely disappear. Nevertheless, the new medium has its beauty, too-- its peculiar aesthetics. Here is the germ of a Platonic theory of the Web site:

The basic unit of the new medium is the Web page--the shaped screen that the visitor faces. That page can display text, and thus offer most of the possibilities of the art of writing and literature. And it can display images, and thus be a version of graphic art. (In the near future the additional dimensions of sound/music and motion pictures will be standard features of creative computer work as well.) The new and distinctive characteristic of the new medium, however, is the hypertext--the mouse-clickable link to other pages and sites. Clicking on a linked word or picture element will instantly connect the present page to any chosen page within its own site, or to any other Web site anywhere in the world, and thus increase and modify the significance of the statement at hand. It is primarily this network of chosen connections that gives the new medium its peculiar form and innovative possibilities.

Disregarding for now the gaudy commercialism that has taken hold of much of the new medium, it actually is a new kind of clay with which artists can work, or a new instrument that creative individuals can learn to play. It takes some time, effort, and practice to master this new instrument, but not all that much. And its use is potentially as rewarding as that of any other medium. One can start, e.g., with working on a text--formulating arguments, refining expressions and concepts, deepening thoughts, ...the art of writing. Then one can work as a graphic artist--aligning paragraphs, varying the sizes of letters, choosing colors, and so forth--while keeping in mind that a suitable image still replaces a thousand words. (Graphic designs on a Web page frequently look much better than printed images, because of the backlight of the screen. The use of a scanner for the creation of graphics, incidentally, is highly recommended!)

After creating a number of pages, the Web author can begin with the construction of the mini-network that constitute his or her site. The author's own pages can be internally linked in various ways, and they can be variousky connected to outside resources and sites. A Web site can be like a mansion with flights or clusters of rooms, or like a labyrinth of surprises, or even like a Piranese-type prison. It can be like a newspaper or a magazine with the Web author as editor-in-chief, and it can be like an endless electronic cave for a new kind of spelunkean explorer. I myself look at it as a new sort of Schwitters-column for now--as a cumulative composition that keeps growing like a teeming coral reef. If it is successful it is a regular work of art. If it isn't, it still is.

There is the matter of publication--of timely communication, that is. Again, books will not vanish from the scene. Many academic and literary journals will, however--and they should. Most paper journals are wastefully expensive, quickly outdated, and far too slow in bringing anything to light. Web sites can be as easily reviewed by peers as traditional publications (in case peers can be trusted with matters of real importance). The World Wide Web, one might say, cuts out a whole range of middlemen, middlewomen, and other essentially irrelevant factors that often make publication and communication unnecessarily cumbersome, unpleasant, and subservient to commercial interests. If the basic sense of publication is communication (and not ranking, prestige, tenure, and similar ulterior motives), then the www is one of the more fortunate pieces of progress indeed.

Copyright 1999 by Jorn K. Bramann


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