Published in December 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
Anyone who has ever tried to travel the Internet will realise that information “superhighway” isn’t really the right term. The Internet is one vast tangle of alleyways and cul-de-sacs, libraries and caf?s, a maze made up of a thousand routes that often come to a dead end. It is more like a labyrinthine medieval city which has grown up without the benefit of an architect, than a neatly ordered superhighway.
True, the Internet will probably play an important part in the communications of the future-as motorways have, over the last half-century. But Internet travel won’t take people from A to B in a straight line. Travelling the Internet will mean a series of meanderings: virtual journeys, where you only pretend to travel.
For centuries the chief metaphor for progress has been a straight line, the best way to save energy. That is why “highway” sprang to someone’s mind as a label for the then embryonic multimedia networks. But the straight line metaphor is anachronistic and deceptive. In the world of information, complexity is king. These days the point is not to save energy but to produce and transmit information. Within this conceptual framework, the straightforward route is not always the best one for the traveller to take.
The master word of modern society will be “labyrinth”-this is the configuration of modernity. Information technology is labyrinthine-microprocessors are like labyrinths made up of millions of microchips. The string of binary instructions in computer programmes and video games involve finding a way through a labyrinth without falling into the many traps lurking inside it.
Most of the elements of modern life are mirrored in the labyrinth. Towns are labyrinths. So are networks of power and influence, university courses and business careers. Genetic structure, too, is a series of coded labyrinths: the fingerprint acts as a labyrinth unique to each person. Even psychoanalysis refers to the unconscious a…