“In space there’s no center, we’re always off to the side.”
So sings David Berman of the Silver Jews in the song ‘Ballad Of Reverend War Character’ on the iconic album Natural Bridge. If you take the words from that narcotic piece of musical Americana and apply them to cyberspace, they reveal an important element of the medium: there is no natural center on the internet. By extension, there is no longer a center for liberal democracies, as they transition from a world of print papers and the commanding heights of TV, to the new reality of the internet.
This is a huge challenge.
After all, there once was a scarcity of words in the time of print production. Back then words on pages were stable. Paragraphs, chapters in books and magazines stood in self-contained formats, fixed for the readers’ eye.
Online, it’s all different. All texts online are linked to other texts. They are almost unsearchable and unfindable if they’re not. Words online exist almost exclusively in the context of other texts through links.
So there is a skewing built into the patterns of words online. Every idea leads off to another, and those links form the basis for judgement of the idea serving as point of departure.
So texts, news, Facebook feeds, all lead off toward another dune in the sands of digital words.
Online, there is not the same hierarchical cannon for words as there was in the print age – when the New York Times sat above the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which sat above a neighborhood weekly. It was the same for books: airport novels sat below classics, which sat below the pillars of Western civilization such as Plato’s works and the Bible.
Instead, everything today exists as a link in a centerless information universe. Online, there is no natural commons for everyone to cross – only things at the side, connected in a web to other things.
This has important considerations for the way political news is transmitted and how it’s interpreted. This is true especially given the fact that the rise of the liberal democratic nation state roughly coincided with the Western invention of the printing press.
Today we live in a kind of digital scriptum continuum, in which a story can be “expanded and expanded”, stretched, repeated, remixed, subverted, mocked and reinterpreted across various websites and social media. To read the story and share it is to annotate it and spin it – influencing the perception around it.
Meaning itself is changed by the reality of the medium, as Marshall McLuhan might argue. This blending of spectator and participant has big implications for politics online.