The Web as a Metaphor

The Web as a Metaphor

Written for frogdesign's 1996 rana magazine, this version is before editing.

* You know, they say the environmental condition is a mirror of society's values. Is this acceptable to you, or did we somehow get our priorities all skewed up? Is our real quality of life being sabotaged by designers still wallowing in the industrial age?

Hey, the Post-Industrial Age has begun! Look at how information technology has changed the way designers go about their work already. Take the Internet's World Wide Web, for example. A direct and flexible way to exchange ideas and information, the Web's such a sexy medium for people who have something to say to the world.

* But is all this fragmented exchanging really assuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and in the future? We already know so much, yet rather than taking action to address the global crisis at hand, too much of designers' creative energy is devoted solely to making that which people already have obsolete. Are we just filling more and more technoboxes with beautifully sugar-coated, re-created information?

We need to communicate to better understand our options. With the Web, complex information and scenarios can get transmitted clearly, simple concepts get amplified, and people are really enjoying learning again. The Web's content flows from a multitude of voices, rather than a single authority -- this decentralization promises to empower us and almost immediately, transform our interactions.

* but today, aren't these multitudes mostly people and institutions from the Northern Hemisphere, shaping the infrastructure of the hyper-ghetto by default? What is the social impact of being unconnected as cyberspace’s real estate gets staked out? Will the Web ever afford us truly democratic accessibility and culturally diverse content -- could we interconnect our way to hyper-integration and achieve peaceful equality in the real world?

A little patience, please. The Web is so new -- people are just seeing how useful this tool is and getting it distributed. We're starting to get creative with the power of technology and appreciating how to develop things on the Web in a most environmentally elegant way – generating minimal matter with an infinity of reciprocating feedback loops.

* Is this the mythological techno-fixation that will save the Earth? Is the Internet's World Wide Info-Web somehow a part of the Web of Life that interconnects the whole of the Earth?

These interlocking Webs – actually, they are one and the same ecosystem. Jean Gardner, eco-design theorist, explains that the Info-Web "travels to us on energy waves that connect with our individual nervous systems because they use the same electrons that run through all things on the Earth. This totally natural phenomenon of electrons has always been there", even before we had the Info-Web's human-machine interfaces impacting on our reality. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, evolutionary philosopher, warns us "not to question the forces that are connecting our neurons, rather, we should expand our own awareness and embrace our new complexity".

* When we think of the Earth as Gaia, a living, totally interconnected superorganism of Webs, does our image of this ecosystem encompass enough?

I'm a Web, too. Like every other human, my body is an ecosystem, home to millions of micro-organisms. "A complex of ecological community and environment forming a functioning whole in nature" -- this is Webster's definition of ecosystem . My personal Web interacts with the local ecosystem, and interweaves with Gaia's Web as well. The Info-Web completes the circuit, and the whole pulsates with life.

* Do you feel apart from the Web or as Teilhard believed, that "you are, actively and passively, simultaneously present, over land and sea, in every corner of the globe"? Do we live and work with the understanding that our own future is totally embedded within the fate of the planet?

As an ecodesigner, this concept of one big Web appeals to me. I want to live in a more loving world, and this interconnected view makes my desire seem more globally attainable.

* But will enough of us acknowledge the Web and apply ecosystematic principles to our daily practices? That we do unto others is a fact of nature, but can the Web give us the will and the ways to relate our personal choices and individual actions to their impacts? How does a web-brained ecodesigner go about his or her business in the post-industrial age?

With a profound influence on the Web, as well as our immediate quality of life, ecodesigners strive to take an inclusive, heartfelt view of their role, and start by incorporating these concepts in their daily work, personally:

• direct the creative process toward results which might slow down consumption while speeding up fulfillment of the need. Consumerism is not self-expression, so don't convey this value with your artifacts.

• as fossil fuels are a major pollution source, reduce the energy consumed, especially in the use phase of your artifact's life. Better yet, power up on today's solar energy.

• draw inspiration from natural systems and design in cycles. Practice renewability and resource efficiency. Eliminate waste by designing it into feedstock for other projects.

• think deeply about your artifact's impacts on our interconnected world, today and tomorrow. Consider raw material sourcing, labor and local conditions, transport, emissions and everything else about a design’s life and afterlife. Find a balance point.

• keep abreast in the Age of Change: transform a product into a service. Employ emerging technologies. Connect to hyper-information and other brain expanding resources. Future-proof your designs by making them upgradable. Re-design desire.

• Get inter-disciplinary and collaborate more. Develop systems to utilize local industry and creativity. Assimilate aesthetics and concepts from beyond your own culture and era. Rethink proprietary rights and responsibilities.

• take the Power of Designers personally. Take a fresh approach to each project's overall goal. Design for the long term. Celebrate and learn from the beauty, wisdom and diversity of Nature, and above all, give priority to the most important client: our common future.

* Personally, I've always identified with the Web (it's my initials). Now, having made the Web connection -- to the Internet, to the global community, to Gaia's ecosystem -- there's geometric potential here that convinces me we can meet the challenges we all face, today. Start culturing your own “fuzzy logic” about the Web and its real meaning for your life and work, please. The future can't wait.

© Wendy E. Brawer 1995

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