Computers and History

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Computers and History


The digital world of today can be understood as a product of late-Victorian construction of the machinery of information organization combined with Modernist visual forms.

People living in a civilized country today live in a digital world. The children of today cannot imagine a time when computers were not widespread. Since computers have become essential for many tasks that we complete everyday, from shopping for groceries to communicating with friends and family, these kids can only picture how everything worked before the advent of the computer. This digital world is best represented by the World Wide Web, one of the most widely used applications of computers by many people.

True, computers have many, many more uses than simply that of an interface to the internet. Countless people play a myriad of computer games, some write programs, and scores more use these programs, be they a student typing a paper with Microsoft Word or a pilot switching on an autopilot program after takeoff. With every passing day, however, more and more people receive access to the internet. The evolution of the World Wide Web is what the past decade will be remembered for in terms of computers. Today, the World Wide Web is made up of billions of web sites, each different in some way from the others. Where most of these sites cannot differ, however, is that, in order for them to make some kind of an impact on the user, and therefore have a point to existing, they must make use of some sort of visual (sites with pure audio are the obvious exception to this rule). The World Wide Web organizes these different Modernist visual forms in a format which is completely new.

According to Dr. Simon Cook, “In the nineteenth century a premium was first set upon the development of technologies of memory.”[1] Cook goes on to elaborate, saying that as the nineteenth century came to a close, new forms of information organization, such as laboratories, photographs, and the cinema, came to replace older, less streamlined versions of organization, such as museums and the natural history cabinet. This progression has continued to this day, as the World Wide Web represents the newest form of information organization.

But what kind of information does the World Wide Web organize? Most fundamentally, of course, text is stored on the web pages, which transforms it into hypertext.

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Various forms of multimedia can also be found, such as digital photographs, animations, or simple pictures. Essentially, what is contained on the web sites are the visual forms which came about in the Modern era. As Dr. Lev Manovich says, “Rather than being a catalyst of new forms, computer seems to strengthen already existing ones.”[2]

The computer serves to further stretch the reach of these old forms of organization. For example, say that your team just won the big game, and you wanted to hear what the coach said at the post game conference. However, the television network decided that it had to immediately switch to basket weaving or else it might lose its’ core audience. Before the internet, there would be no way to view this press conference. With the advent of the World Wide Web, however, all that would need to be done would be to get connected to an internet service provider, log onto your teams’ website, and download the conference minutes after it happens! Even if your team’s website is temporarily down, there are always alternatives. ESPN.com, the most popular sports website on the internet[3], contains sound bytes and video clips pertaining to recent events in the sports world which are updated daily. While the film clip that was just downloaded is simply a form of the Modernist cinema, it is stored on the web for all to see at any time.

In this way, the World Wide Web could be said to be a sort of combination of the museum and cinema, in that it takes the cinematic form of the visual and sets it in a place where onlookers can gawk at it. There is, however, one very important difference, which makes the internet different from any other type of information storage: access. Any sort of information can be uploaded from anywhere in the world to be viewed on the opposite side of the globe. This ability to grant access no matter where the user is situated is a trait shared by no other form of information organization.

The forms of information organization most commonly utilized prior to the advent of the World Wide Web, such as the laboratory or museum, could only be accessed if the user was present at one specific spot: namely, the laboratory or museum itself. Needless to say, this limited potential access quite a bit. What the World Wide Web does by allowing the user to connect to the internet no matter the location is transform this limited access to unlimited access. Even Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, agrees. "The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect."[4]

A feature of the World Wide Web that, without which, unlimited access is virtually useless, is the instantaneous transmission of data.[5] It is true that this characteristic alone does not distinguish the World Wide Web. Naturally, other forms of visual storage, such as television, allow the user to immediately receive access to the data. However, without instantaneous transmission, the vital characteristic of the World Wide Web, unlimited access, is worthless.

Perhaps another example can clear this matter up. You have just bought a new computer, and wish to find a version of your team’s logo to use as a background. The connection to the internet is made, and you begin searching. Five hours later, after you have yet to find the first page, you give up. What is the use of having so much data at your fingertips if it takes so long to look up the information that you seek? Thus, the importance of instantaneous transmission cannot be overstated.

Finally, there is one last characteristic of the World Wide Web that no other type of information organization possesses: the ability of anyone to add to the collection, or universal acceptance. Any person who has the power to take data from the internet also enjoys the ability to add their own information as well. Previously, in museums, the only people who could add to the store of information were those people that the museum hired to do so. This is not so with the World Wide Web.

Making a web site and adding it to the World Wide Web is a process that anyone can undertake. For example, in the Writing 20 class at Duke University entitled “The Political Economy of the Image”, “Each of the students that takes this course is responsible for constructing a personal web site, on which the different assignments undertaken during the semester are to be published.”[6] It did not matter what kind of computer the students owned, what kind of previous knowledge of web design they possessed or even what their general acumen was. All were able to make web sites of the same consistency.

This universal acceptance of information by the World Wide Web is one of the factors that make it so useful. The user is not limited to what three or four television networks wants to show. Professional and personal sites alike abound, offering statistics, photographs, reports, and animation. The user has billions of Web sites among which he or she can choose to sift through. If, within all of these Web sites, the user cannot find a site to his or her liking, then within a matter of minutes, a new site can be made, created by the user for people with the user’s interests.

Similar to the Writing 20 students, the user does not have to be a computer expert to make his or her own site. Software packages such as Macromedia Dreamweaver or Microsoft Frontpage utilize a user-friendly interface that allows users to easily pick out what they want on the site and place it where they want it to be. Thanks to packages such as these, the user does not even need to have a knowledge of HTML, the primary language used to write a web site, to make their own. Truly, this unique quality of the World Wide Web is one which allows it to contain much more information than any other form of organization could even imagine.

The World Wide Web’s universal acceptance of information leads to two serious drawbacks, however. One such drawback is that with so many different web pages covering so many different subjects created by so many different authors, it becomes impossible to form a complete reference structure. There are many sites that are not referenced by another page, and are therefore difficult to find. This is a pitfall that is shared by numerous other information systems. A comparison can be made to the card catalog of a library that fails to mention several books in which the subject is found. What sets the World Wide Web apart from other systems of information organization in this regard, however, is the degree to which this problem occurs.

In most other quality systems, the information is catalogued and referenced very thoroughly. While no set number can be found, due to the nature of the problem, the number of unreferenced web sites, specifically personal web pages, is likely staggering. “An integrated exhaustive index to the entire Internet is clearly impracticable.”[7] The inability to find this data as easily as one would like is a major flaw to the design of the information system.

The other drawback to the universal acceptance of information is the veracity, or lack thereof, of the information contained on the web sites. Some user can, knowingly or unwittingly, post false information to the internet; information which someone accessing it would not know is untrue. Photographs can easily be doctored with the help of software such as Photoshop, and hypertext misinformation can be created and relayed. With so many different sites online, it is impossible to determine the authenticity of every one. Previously, this problem was not nearly as dire, simply because those who contributed to the information pool were men and women whose expertise was recognized and whose sincerity was established. Nowadays, unless the web site belongs to such reputable organizations as CNN or ESPN, the visual should be questioned.

Throughout the last century, the dominant form of information organization has changed quite a bit. From the museum to the laboratory to the World Wide Web, each has its own characteristics, making the way that it organized the visual unique. The World Wide Web, however, is the dominant form of today because of the two traits that it offers that nothing else does: unlimited access and universal acceptance. While there are flaws inherent with both traits, they allow more people access to more information than any other system. Thus, the World Wide Web results in a brand new form of the organization of the visual.


[1] Cook, “Late Victorian Visual Reasoning and a Modern History of Vision”, 4



[2] Manovich, 3



[3] ESPN.com is the first link to appear after searching Google for the term “sports”.



[4] World Wide Web Consortium



[5] While it it true that the speed of the transmission of data is at the mercy of the internet connection’s speed, for all intents and purposes, we will say data transmission’s speed is virtually instantaneous.



[6] Cook, “Writing 20; Broadcast Network”.



[7] Weinberg,





Bibliography



Cook, Simon. “Late Victorian Visual Reasoning and a Modern History of Vision”.



Cook, Simon. “Writing 20; Broadcast Network”.



Manovich, Lev. “Avant-garde as Software”.



Weinberg, Bella Hass. “Complexity In Indexing Systems-Abandonment and Failure:

Implications for Organizing the Internet”. 1996. <http://www.asis.org/annual-96/

ElectronicProceedings/weinberg.html>.



World Wide Web Consortium. 5 March 2002. World Wide Web Consortium.

<http://www.w3.org/WAI/>


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