Like anything new, the World Wide Web was greeted by some as a threat to society, our children, and our souls. It's true that everything bad people can do to one another with words and pictures will occur on the web. Old scams, and some we haven't imagined, will be worked. Hatreds old and new will breed like bacteria. Misinformation and disinformation will be passed around as if it came straight from Mt. Sinai.
And yet we should be deeply optimistic about the web. What's good about it is far deeper than the bad that inevitably transpires there, for the web's architecture is the architecture of our better nature. The web is built on the grounds of hope itself.
Forget about technology for the moment. Forget that the web consists of servers, bits, and protocols. Instead, consider it as a new place that we've built for ourselves. It's clearly different from the real world--but what makes it different?
The real world is made of "matter," of stuff you can stub your toe on. The web, on the other hand is made of pages. Pages are the geography of the web, the way mountains, oceans, and deserts are the geography of the real world. Yet pages are profoundly unlike the real world's geography. Mountains, oceans, and deserts are not of human making. They are the brute facts of our lives and our history. Ultimately, they are alien from us, deeply different from us.
Pages, on the other hand, are entirely ours. We write them. We use human language. They exist because someone had something she thought others might be interested in reading, for all the reasons people have for saying things: to amuse, delight, annoy, sell, frighten, trick, touch, confound. The list is as endless as human motivation.
In fact, human interest and motivation is built right into the architecture of the web. The web is only a web because the pages are linked, and links are created to anticipate the interests of readers. This flies in the face of our real world geography, where proximity has little to do with our beliefs and interests and everything to do with the accidents of location. The web's geography is neither alien, nor alienating. In fact, the web consists of people, groups, and organizations that for one reason or another would like us to see the world through their eyes.
Of course, this isn't always as noble as it sounds at first; people encounter a lot of pornography, hate literature, and ultra-violent fiction on the web--seeing the world as others see it can sometimes mean being offended. Much less offensively, but no more moral, is the commercial space of the web, where people are selling stuff to one another. Where's the high-falutin morality of that?
But we shouldn't allow our vision to be jaundiced by particular kinds of content on the web. The excitement the web has generated is not due to its commercial possibilities (though it often feels as if the media's only capable of seeing the dollar signs). Three-hundred million people haven't joined the web because we want a better "shopping experience." We're there because it's so much fun to hear from others, to see so many viewpoints, to find people who share our interests and sometimes our perspective.
It's even fun to find people with whom we can disagree intelligently and passionately. And, toss into this mix all of what the Internet enables--e-mail, instant messaging, discussion boards, peer-to-peer sharing--and this networked place suddenly sounds much more like a buzzing, blooming global conversation than like a set of electronic catalog storefronts. Every conversation exists only because two or more people care about the same thing and are interested in showing to others how the world looks to them...and, we hope, seeing how it looks to others.
This is the real geography of the web. It's drawn by human interest, it's maintained by human passion. And it's premised on sympathy (from the Greek for "feeling with") that enables me to see the world through your eyes. The web's geography is therefore fundamentally moral.