Ghost Sites of the Web

Web 1.0 history, forgotten web celebrities, old web sites, commentary, and news by Steve Baldwin. Published erratically since 1996.

May 06, 2005

The Rorschach Enigma

Sounds like a bad book by Irwin Shaw or Robert Ludlum, doesn't it? Well, no, the Rorschach Enigma isn't a plot to destroy the world: it's just a nettlesome problem that Web historians often face when trying to decide what the heck is worth preserving and what really isn't. Let me explain what I mean.

The Rorschach Enigma refers to the familiar psychological inkblot test. I first observed it in practice when I was working at Pathfinder, Time Inc's famously doomed Web site whose fate I have discussed ad nauseum here and elsewhere. Basically, the Enigma is something that makes the Web, the Net, and just about everything else that goes on in this very strange world of bits look so very much like something that's already familiar to many bright people that it blinds them to any other possibilities.

Let me be more concrete: if you've spent your life creating TV programs, you're more than likely to view the Web as a great place to produce TV programs. Why? Because the irregular pieces of the utterly mixed up Rorschach patterns begin to resemble little TV screens, little TV channels, etc. If you're a person who's labored for years in radio, well, the Web begins to look more like an infinite-channel FM radio station than anything else. If you've spent your life hacking away in the incestrously cloistered confines of the book world, well the Web is nothing more than a vast library, a book store, or perhaps a space-age book with a zillion chapters, narratives, etc.

The Rorschach Enigma, in other words, works by the well-known principles of analogy and anthropomorphism. Why do kids feel friendlier toward squirrels than they do toward spiders? Well, squirrels look a lot more like human beings than spiders do. Following the same logic, the Web - a shapeless, organic thing with a million personalities and as many unknowable nooks and crannies as any wacky nth-dimensional space yet to be discovered by cosmologists, is a lot easier to fathom if one likens it to something else: the radio, the TV, the telephone, the telegraph, etc. This is why when Al Gore mentioned so famously that the Net was "the information superhighway", all Americans were able to immediately place themselves there in that space, breezing along past innumerable roadside billboards, strip malls, and traffic cops.

Okay - I think I've explained this phenomenon as fully as the subject deserves. So how exactly does it apply to the problems that Web historians face when attempting to grapple with preserving our collective digital heritage? Well, I'd claim that it blinds us in the same way that it blinded early Web content pioneers, who relied more on analogy than on any genuinely bold research, when they launched their projects. Why? Because, to put it bluntly, the Web really isn't The Library of Alexandria. Nor is it an open sewer. Nor is it a wilderness where weeds need to be cast aside and whose strong fruit-bearing trees need to be conserved. The Web might look like one or more of these things at any given time, but this appearance may be as much a function of the mood and background of the observer as it is a function of any given quality that the Web itself possesses.

How does the Rorshach Enigma influence the thought process of those who wish to "save" it? Well, it's pretty clear to me that the Web is too big, too fast-moving, and too anarchic to be "saved" in a centralized, singular, hierarchically-organized canonical container. Nor do I suspect that any effort - however grandiose - is likely to really capture the flavor that historians will really need to decrypt its hidden meanings, which by their very nature are opaque to the people who live within its space and time today. So a lot will have to be thrown out, and the rest - probably no more than one percent, will have to stand as a representation of the rest.

What shall we save? The stuff we "understand" (which, the Rorschach Enigma holds, will best represent forms of information that we already are familiar with), or the stuff that we really can't understand? It's fairly clear that it will be the former, not the latter. Whether historians of, say, the 22nd Century will agree with our choices is highly debatable. One can almost hear these people moaning about our short-sightedness, wrong-headedness, and inability to see beyond our own Rorschachian subjectivity, especially when some earnest scholar publishes a thesis in the year 2035 proving, beyond any reasonable doubt, that "the soul of early 21st Century Culture can only be divined by sampling AIM messages", which, of course, will long have been lost.

I suppose the best thing that can be said about the situation is that we will all be dead and gone before any of this kind of post-deconstructionist talk begins. If there is one great freedom that's worth cherishing, it's the freedom to die with our illusions intact, undisturbed by revisionist carping about about how all our thinking about the Great Interactive Inkblot was absolutely wrong.

Click Here to Return to the Ghost Sites Home Page