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 as a monster crouching at the heart of the labyrinth and aims to interpret dreams in which the sleeping person confronts an angst-ridden decision over which path to take through a maze of taboos.
We must learn to think in terms of labyrinths. To do that we must return to basics. After all, the labyrinth is one of the earliest figures known to man. In the distant past it was the best way to hoodwink time and to stop the desecration of a tomb by the ungodly. It was a sort of code for unlocking a safe-a rite of passage.
Labyrinths were everywhere-in China and Egypt, in India and Tibet, in Brittany and Greece, in America and Africa. Sometimes the same pattern appeared thousands of miles apart. There were labyrinths of stones, of plants, carved or painted on walls. In Egypt they represented the path followed by the soul. In the Mediterranean lands they served as guides for ritual dances. In every civilisation they symbolised man’s inner voyage in pursuit of his truth: virtual nomadity.
In modern times nomads were superseded by stable populations. Labyrinths disappeared to be replaced by straight lines. They retreated to monastery gardens, and became nothing more than an elegant way for believers to go, at little cost, on a fantasy crusade, meandering in a maze with a pretend Jerusalem at its heart. We can find mazes in English country gardens too, where they have become a game-virtual nomadity once more, but in playful English style.
Now labyrinths have come back. Like the armchair pilgrims in the monasteries, our modern labyrinths turn man into a virtual nomad who can’t afford to travel five-star, who works from home, who journeys through the realms of all pleasures-and tomorrow will dictate, on-screen, the new values of the middle classes.
We will have to learn once more that age-old wisdom; investigate all those strategies, rooted in intuition and memory, that will enable us to extract the secrets and not get lost within them. We must learn to see the world as a labyrinth; to understand that time doesn’t flow in only one direction; it spreads out, like water flowing through a maze, to and fro, up and down, spiralling around, coming to dead ends, finding new openings.
In this new world, myths will speak-and our primary myth will be that of the Cretan king who turned his labyrinth into a place to cloak barbarism. Who will be Minos, the power who tries to wrap his secrets in the labyrinth? Who will be Theseus, who tries to uncover them? And who Ariadne, the rebel, who, for the love of life, hands Theseus the thread? Who Daedalus, the brilliant inventor of a trap that only he knows how to side-step? And who the Minotaur, the chimaera, the monster, the unconscious, the enemy lurking within each of us, which must be exposed if it is to be destroyed? And who Icarus, the creator, who tried to escape from the labyrinth by using wings honed by his father, wise Daedalus, but who is destined to fly too close to the sun and plummet to his death? And what will be the wax for the wings, the extent and the limits of the human mind, which enabled Icarus to soar upwards from the labyrinth?
From Daedalus to the Internet. A very long journey. And a very short one. Just like two adjacent points in a maze. n