Trends and transience

“Ours is a brand new world of all-atonceness,” wrote the Canadian sociologist Marshall McLuhan (after reading too much James Joyce). The world of television and mass media, he said, wreaks havoc with society because we can only confront it with outdated mental and psychological responses. “Our most impressive words and thoughts betray us – they only refer us to the past, not to the present.”

For designers and publishers 30 years later in the Internet age, McLuhan’s analysis has been borne out literally. A year ago websites were designed like old-fashioned pages in an old-fashioned library; they reproduced the content from printed books, papers and magazines in a digital and therefore much less readable format. Shovelware, as its critics called it. Only when the web’s content providers began to look seriously at how people were actually using the digital medium did the printed page model begin to seem anachronistic.

Lately, websites look less and less like rehashed books and more and more like a hybrid of roadside billboards, flashing signs and television. Web surfing has become less a process of seeking, finding and reading lengthy texts on-screen, and more a search for sensory stimulation and instant gratification.

Big corporations have learnt McLuhan’s lesson the expensive way. Time Warner, for instance, was reproducing the content of its newsstand titles Time, People and Money on to its website Pathfinder, and losing $10m (6m) a year doing it. Last week, Time Warner signed an agreement with Alt.Culture, a hip New York-based company that produces an on-line encyclopedia of contemporary culture. Armed with Time Warner money, the encyclopedia will grow by five entries a week.

If at first sight Alt.Culture appears to offer little more than its paperback forebear, Alt.

Culture: An A-to-Z Guide to the Nineties, with page-like entries on subjects ranging from “phone sex” to “Nintendo thumb”, the difference is in the concept. Alt.Culture provides information as a fashion accessory. Most tellingly, it can be programmed to work automatically. With a click of the “autopilot” button, entries are delivered on-screen at random, and replaced every 30 seconds. After five minutes of autopilot, even the most unfashionable hick can be transformed into a savvy member of the wired generation.

The autopilot idea is a crude model for the shape of things to come. Why spend hours searching for information when it can be delivered to you by an on-line robot? With emerging services like Pointcast, Wired’s Livewired and Netscape’s Netcaster news, trivia, e-mail and – of course – advertisements will be delivered to your desktop. Sound like television? Not quite. It’s interactive.

At Wired magazine, designer Eric Adigaard has the idea of information chunks down to an art form, with evolving screens of flowing news bulletin bars, layered imagery and clickable icons. Unlike television, the continuous feed from the Internet can be customised and organised. In the case of Livewired, the news and entertainment machine is merged with the computer screensaver, so that when you return from lunch, the afternoon’s business headlines are there, jostling for your attention.

Pushmedia, as this customised TV-library-postal service is called, is a champion of the transient, ephemeral and immediate. It can provide you with information accessories, data and news, but it can’t teach you what to do with them. To some, this kind of information overload is terrifying. What happens to our critical faculties, our sense of perspective and means of understanding the world?

To McLuhan, information anxiety was invigorating. We need to abandon our Renaissance ideas of the individual and the fixed point of view, he wrote, which is derived from printed media. “The method of our time is to use not a single but multiple models of exploration,” he said, “the technique of the suspended judgement is the discovery of the twentieth century.”

There are, thankfully, those who dare to challenge McLuhan’s soothsayer status. The Italian semiotician Umberto Eco recently pointed out to Wired magazine that McLuhan’s “end of the book” prophecy was “totally false”. He added: “McLuhan wasn’t a philosopher, he was a sociologist with a flair for trend-spotting.”

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