Matthew Fuller on Sat, 2 May 1998 19:32:57 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> a means of mutation 1/2

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a means of mutation
notes on I/O/D 4: The Web Stalker

Matthew Fuller

During 1997 and 1998 a series of legal and media confrontations were made
in the United States and elsewhere.  Amongst those involved were Microsoft,
Netscape, and the U.S. government Department of Justice.  The key focus of
contention was whether Microsoft, a company which has a near complete
monopoly on the sale of operating systems for personal computers, had - by
bundling its own Web Browser, Internet Explorer - with every copy of its
Windows '95/98 OS, effectively blocked Netscape, an ostensible competitor
in Browser software1,  from competing in a 'free' market.  This
confrontation ran concurrently with one between Microsoft and Sun
Microsystems, developers of the language Java2.
        'The Browser Wars' involved more than these three relatively
tightly constructed and similar actors however.   Millions of internet
users were implicated in this conflict. The nature of the proprietary
software economy meant that for any side, winning the Browser Wars would be
a chance to construct the ways in which the most popular section of the
internet - the World Wide Web - would be used, and to reap the rewards.
The conflict took place in an American court and was marked by the
deadeningly tedious super-formalised rituals that mark the abstraction of
important decisions away from those in whose name they are made.  Though
the staging of the conflict was located within the legal and juridical
framework of the US it had ramifications wherever software is used.
        Like all legalised conflicts, this was constructed in the form of a
pyramidal focusing of decision.  The pyramid reaches its apex with the
utterance of one breath: guilty or not guilty.  This almost imperceptible
mote of dust at the uttermost point of the pyramid is not so important as
the fact that the pyramid continues and that power is subsumed within it.
The specific nature of the fleck of dust that drops from the lips of the
judge has actual importance only insofar as it has the capacity to
destabilise the structure.
        The moment of dust is performed by processes of deletion and
accretion.  Those that have accreted are readily apparent.  They have been
documented and to some extents analysed.  This is in part because it is
their function to be visible - to focus the attention.  The pyramid is of
course constructed from mixed materials, some are almost incapable of
combining, but they cohere to the extent that for that precious moment, and
for all its reiterations, everything else is stilled.
        What is deleted is every other element or dynamic that exists
within the phase space of permutation surrounding that moment and that does
not hurry to crush itself under the weight of that capstone.
        At the same time, other shapes are being made.  Other processes are
occurring.  One and more of these is the truly bastard assemblage that is
the internet.  At this point, the pyramid may just look something like a
mountain in a cloud.  The internet has been called a rhizome.  But if it is
one, it is one that is also wracked by organs: by backbones, by hosts, by
shells, by thin filaments of cable under the waves; by its mirroring into
recording devices that go under such names as ECHELON3.  But it is a
shape/process under construction.  It is what it is becoming, the many ways
it develops in the phase space of all its possible becomings that forms a
refrain for this story.

On connecting to a URL, HTML appears to the user's computer as a stream of
data.  This data could be formatted for use in any of a wide variety of
configurations.  As a current, given mediation by some interpretative
device, it could even be used as a flowing pattern to determine the
behaviour of a device completely unrelated to its purpose.  (Work it with
tags?  Every <HREF> could switch something on, every <P> could switch
something off - administration of greater or lesser electric shocks for
instance).  Most commonly it is fed straight into a Browser.
        What are the conditions that produce this particular sort of
reception facility?  Three fields that are key amongst those currently
conjoining to form what is actualised as the Browser: economics, design,
and the material.  By material is meant the propensities of the various
languages, protocols, and data-types of the web.

If we ask, 'What produces and reinforces Browsing?'  There is no suprise in
finding the same word being used to describe recreational shopping,
ruminant digestion and the use of the World Wide Web.  The Browser Wars
form one level of consistency in the assembly of various forms of economy
on the web.
        Web sites are increasingly written for specific softwares, and some
elements of them are unreadable by other packages4.  You get Netscape
sites, Explorer sites, sites that avoid making that split and stay at a
level that both could use - and therefore consign the 'innovations' of
these programs to irrelevance.  This situation looks like being
considerably compounded with the introduction of customisable (and hence
unusable by web-use software not correctly configured) Extensible Mark-up
Language tags.
        What determines the development of this software?  Demand?  There
is no means for it to be mobilised.  Rather more likely, an arms race
between on the one hand the software companies and the development of
passivity, gullibility, and curiosity as a culture of use of software.
        One form of operation on the net that does have a very tight
influence - an ability to make a classical 'demand' - on the development of
proprietary software for the web is the growth of online shopping and
commercial information delivery.  For companies on the web this is not just
a question of the production and presentation of 'content', but a very
concrete part of their material infrastructure.  For commerce on the web to
operate effectively, the spatium of potential operations on the web - that
is everything that is described or made potential by the software and the
network - needs to be increasingly configured towards this end.
        That there are potentially novel forms of economic entity to be
invented on the web is indisputable.  As ever, crime is providing one of
the most exploratory developers.  How far these potential economic forms,
guided by notions of privacy; pay-per-use; trans- and supra-nationality;
etc. will develop in an economic context in which other actors than
technical possibility, such as the state, monopolies and so on is open to
question.  However, one effect of net-commerce is indisputable.  Despite
the role of web designers in translating the imperative to buy into a
post-rave cultural experience, transactions demand contracts, and contracts
demand fixed, determinable relationships.  The efforts of companies on the
web are focused on tying down meaning into message delivery5.  Whilst some
form of communication may occur within this mucal shroud of
use-value-put-to-good-use the focal point of the communication will always
stay intact.  Just click here.

Immaterial labour produces "first and foremost a social relation =8A(that)
produces not only commodities, but also the capital relation."6 I f this
mercantile relationship is also imperative on the immaterial labour being a
social and communicative one, the position of web designers is perhaps an
archetype, not just for the misjudged and cannibalistic drive for a
'creative economy' currently underway in Britain, but also within a
situation where a (formal) language - HTML - explicitly rather than
implicitly becomes a means of production: at one point vaingloriously
touted as, 'How To Make Loot'.
        Web design, considered in its wide definition: by hobbyists,
artists, general purpose temps, by specialists, and also in terms of the
creation of web sites using software such as Pagemill or Dreamweaver, is
precisely a social and communicative practice "whose 'raw material' is
subjectivity"7.  This subjectivity is an ensemble of pre-formatted,
automated, contingent and 'live' actions, schemas, and decisions performed
by both softwares, languages and designers.  This subjectivity is also
productive of further sequences of seeing, knowing and doing.
        A key device in the production of web sites is the page metaphor.
This of course has its historical roots in the imaginal descriptions of the
Memex and Xanadu systems- but it has its specific history in that Esperanto
for computer-based documents, Structured Generalised Mark-up Language and
in the need for storage, distribution and retrieval of scientific papers at
CERN.  Use of metaphor within computer interface design is intended to
enable easy operation of a new system by over-laying it or even confining
it within the characteristics of a homely-futuristic device found outside
of the computer.  A metaphor can take several forms.  They include
emulators where say, the entire workings of a specific synthesiser are
mapped over into a computer where it can be used in its 'virtual' form.
The computer captures the set of operations of the synthesiser and now the
term emulation becomes metaphorical.  Allowing other modalities of use and
imaginal refrain to operate through the machine, the computer now is that
synthesiser - whilst also doubled into always being more.  Metaphors also
include items such as the familiar 'desktop' 'wastebasket'.  This is a
notorious case of a completely misapplied metaphor.  A wastebasket is
simply an instruction for the deletion of data.  Data does not for instance
just sit and rot as things do in an actual wastebasket.  That's your
back-up disk.  Actual operations of the computer are radically obscured by
this vision of it as some cosy information appliance always seen through
the rear-view mirror of some imagined universal8.
        The page metaphor in web design might as well be that of a wastebask=
Whilst things have gone beyond maintaining and re-articulating the mode of
address of arcane journals on particle physics the techniques of page
layout were ported over directly from graphic design for paper.   This
meant that HTML had to be contained as a conduit for channelling direct
physical representation - integrity to fonts, spacing, inflections and so
on.  The actuality of the networks were thus subordinated to the
disciplines of graphic design and of Graphical User Interface simply
because of their ability to deal with flatness, the screen.  (Though there
are conflicts between them based around their respective idealisations of
functionality).  Currently of course this is a situation that is already
edging towards collapse as other data types make incursions onto, through
and beyond the page - but it is a situation that needs to be totalled, and
done so consciously and speculatively.
        Another metaphor is that of geographical references.  Where do you
want to go today?  This echo of location is presumably designed to suggest
to the user that they are not in fact sitting in front of a computer
calling up files, but hurtling round an earth embedded into a gigantic
trademark 'N' or 'e' with the power of some voracious cosmological force.
The World Wide Web is a global medium in the approximately the same way
that The World Series is a global event.  With book design papering over
the monitor the real processes of networks can be left to the experts in
Computer Science=8A

        It is the technical opportunity of finding other ways of developing
and using this stream of data that provides a starting point for I/O/D 4:
The Web Stalker.  I/O/D is a three-person collective based in London9.  As
an acronym, the name stands for everything it is possible for it to stand
for.  There are a number of threads that continue through the group's
output.  A concern in practice with an expanded definition of the
techniques / aesthetics of computer interface.  Speculative approaches to
hooking these up to other formations that can be characterised as
political, literary, musical, etc.  The production of stand-alone
publications/applications that can fit on one high-density disk and are
distributed without charge over various networks.
        The material context of the web for this group is viewed mainly as
an opportunity rather than as a history.  As all HTML is received by the
computer as a stream of data, there is nothing to force adherence to the
design instructions written into it.  These instructions are only followed
by a device obedient to them.
        Once you become unfaithful to page-description, HTML is taken as a
semantic mark up rather than physical mark-up language.  Its appearance  on
your screen  is as dependent upon the interpreting device you use to
receive it as much as its  'original' state.  The actual 'commands' in HTML
become loci for the negotiation of other potential behaviours or processes.

        Several possibilities become apparent.  This data stream becomes a
phase space, a realm of possibility outside of the browser.  It combines
with another: there are thousands of other software devices for using the
world wide web, waiting in the phase space of code.  Since the languages
are pre-existing, everything that can possibly be said in them, every
program that could possibly be constructed in them is already inherently
pre-existent within them.  Programming is a question of teasing out the
permutations within the dimensions of specific languages or their
combinations.  That it is never only this opens up programming to its true
power - that of synthesis.
        In natural language that this text is not just a contemplation of
the various potential combinations of the 26 letters of the alphabet is
indicative of two things:
-the immediate problem of contracting the wild fecundating dynamism of
natural languages into a form in which it becomes interpretable to code,
(contracting in both senses, the legalistic one of construction of fixed
determinate relationships, and that of making something smaller)
- both artificial and natural languages share a characteristic:  abundance
- their respective and convergent phase spaces.  It is what is done with
this abundance and potential for it - in literature, everyday speech,
command strings, that makes things what they are and what they might
become.  It is the challenge and seduction of abundance that draws many
people into what has been broadly framed as technoculture.
        Within this phase space, perhaps one thing we are proposing is that
one of the most pressing political, technical and aesthetic urgencies of
the moment is something that  subsumes both the modern struggle for the
control of production (that is of energies), and the putative post-modern
struggle for the means of promotion (that is of circulation) within the
dynamics of something that also goes beyond them and that encompasses the
political continuum developing between the gene and the electron that most
radically marks our age:  the struggle for the means of mutation.
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