You never thought of the web reflecting the morality that permeates human behavior, did you? I did not. I just read a fine article on the topic. The article title by David Weinberger, “The Morality of Links“, is a tad disturbing to me because it smacks of anthropomorphism but the article is a delight to read. The article is from a collection in the book, “The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age“, Joseph Turow and Lokman Tsui, editors.
Weinberger starts off with the simple declaration “Links are good” and then goes deep into what makes us human. Here are a few excerpts, for the record.
. . . morality is an infrastructure of connection in which we allow ourselves to care about how the world matters to others. That is formally the same as a description of the linked structure of the Web.
After all, what do we do on the Web? We link. No links, no Web. In linking, we send people to another site (assuming we aren’t the sort of narcissists who link only to themselves) where they can see a bit of the world as it appears to another. We send our visitors to other sites because we think those other sites will matter to them. Our site probably explains why we think it will matter to them and how it matters to us, even if that explanation is “Here’s a trashy site I hate.” Pointing people to a shared world, letting how it matters to others matter to us—that’s the essence of morality and of linking.
It is a thoughtful essay beautifully written with wit and lightheartedness. He concludes with
So if saying that links are good is the same as saying that the world is better off with links than without them, and if their goodness resides not just in the quality of the links we’re making for one another but in their very structure, in what way are we better off? I think there are two ways.
First, the value of the linked structure of the Web is primarily potential; that is, it is a giant affordance that we may do good or bad with. But it’s not potential the way a stick could potentially be used to prop open a car hood. The Web is a potential that we’re actively creating and expanding. The potential is the sum of the relationships embodied in links. It is a potential we can traverse any time we’re near a browser. It is a potential that can be explored and “mined.” There is nothing “mere” about this potential. It is, so to speak, a real potential, existing and at our fingertips. Fundamentally, it is a potential for seeing how the world matters to others around the spinning ball we share.
Second, we’re better off with links because, whether we think about it explicitly or not, every time we click on a link, we take a step away from the selfish solipsism that characterizes our age—or, to be more exact, that characterizes how we talk about our age. We’ve invested so much in building out the potential of the Web. We’ve posted tens of billions of pages and created links in numbers that multiply that score. So many of us are so absorbed in this new world that researchers wag their fingers, worried that we’re withdrawing from the “real” world. The Web’s reach makes it clearer than ever that the world we share is in fact the entire world, not just our cozy corner of it. The Web’s links make it unavoidable that we care about what matters to others, even if we care in the mode of hatred, fear, and ridicule. The world has never seemed so “intertwingled,” to use Ted Nelson’s phrase, and that awareness is a good thing. In fact, it is the very basis and embodiment of morality itself: allowing how our shared world matters to others also matters to us.
Links are good.
I have put the book, The Hyperlinked Society, on the growing pile of stuff to be read. Thankfully it is freely available on the web. The introductory chapter, “On Not Taking the Hyperlink for Granted“, gives a good introduction to the web — from Vannevar Bush’s memex onwards.
I suspect that the book is going to be a good read but I most certainly recommend reading David Weinbeger’s piece.