Surface Flatness | 2412

Don’t you think that the surface of the Internet feels super flat right now? I don’t just mean it’s UX but the whole internet.

Full Show Notes: https://www.thejaymo.net/2024/06/22/2412-surface-flatness/

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Surface Flatness

I’ve been trying to be sensitive about my experience of the Internet recently. Trying to figure out how to describe what it feels like to be online in 2024. One of the metaphors that seems to be evolving out there in cyberspace to describe the condition I’m sensing is Flatness.

New Models recently put out a great episode where they discussed the concept. It’s a great word that describes exactly how the internet feels like to me right now. 

Back in 2021, I made reference to the idea that codespace has a surface. Which spawned an interesting back and forth over email  with a UX designer about what I meant by it. Here’s some of what I wrote, 

The surface of a code space is a membrane, a fold, a translucent brume, a coating, a dermis, nebulous, transparent, and opaque. It is the midmost point between the total abstraction of the machine and human comprehension. Everything one perceives about the workings of software occurs at the surface. We meet the machine in the middle. The UI, the UX, are parts of the surface but not the whole. You feel a software surface, you don’t see it.

I went on to say, that to my mind:

The surface of software is the hallucinatory architecture constructed in the user mind where the workings of the machine are comprehended and understood.

Now, I understand quoting myself at length probably made things about as clear as mud, but stay with me! 

Don’t you think that the surface of the Internet feels super flat right now? 

I don’t just mean the graphical qualities of software UX that feel flat and minimalist – although they do. But the whole internet. Over the last decade our online interactions have converged on a handful of portals. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, Netflix, and YouTube or wherever you spend your time. Inside of each of these spaces content is served up with zero effort on your part. Displayed upon a flat surface of dark glass that you scroll or swipe at, like an infant batting away an aeroplane spoon. Much of whats surfaced feels shallow too. 

Chum is driven up by the platform, exposed on a flat and superficial engagement layer called the feed. I fail to comprehend or understand the shape of the platform beneath it. Yet the whole time I’m using an app or a platform I can sense that there’s an infinite ocean of material somewhere below the surface. How you go about exploring the deep is a mystery. 

I know I keep harping on about the books I’ve been reading about the Internet written during the 90’s and early 2000’s, and I’ll spare you. But the single most important idea in all these books and still defines the web is – Hypertext. The promise of a vast, interconnected virtual space for dynamic idea interaction.

And this is where the rubber meets the road in our present movement. If you dislike how things are unfolding with the platforms and social media. Or are sick of the all pervasive flatness that everything radiates. Or annoyed about the inanity of content and culture online. We need to move towards depth. We need to embrace hypertext and hypermedia. 

What’s been of interest to me recently are CD-ROMs. I got this book on eBay recently called On a Silver Platter: CD-ROMs and the Promises of a New Technology. It was published in 1999 just as hypermedia was being killed off by the web’s rise. So it’s a collection of essays about what was actually created rather than the potential and promise of the medium generally found in earlier writing. 

CD-ROMs were rich with interactivity – from encyclopaedias to games. Offering people unique experiences. Users engaged actively, exploring self-contained code spaces and discovering routes though the media at their own pace, which contrasts starkly with today’s passive flat consumption model.

Reading it has made me take hypertext seriously as a form – as the native medium of the future we supposedly live in. So I’ve been playing with the Interactive hypertext fiction tool Twine. Whilst the thing I’ve been making might not see the light of day (as it’s very personal) I am very proud of the weird interactive poem I’ve made. It has states that trigger depending on which permutation of words you select in the opening lines of the poem. Those choices then affect different parts of the poem elsewhere in its structure.

When you’re creating something that is hypertext first as a medium – something truly virtual – your thought takes on a kind of architectural, or sculptural quality. One node or idea adjacent to and in context with another. Ideas are not previous or subsequent, just in relation. The single idea of β€˜poem’ becomes a multi-dimensional landscape of thought. One that can be created and crafted by a single individual for others to explore. 

It’s been a revelation. Like how imagine William Burroughs felt when he began to think in pictures instead of words. (not that I can do this)

The following words should spring straight to mind when you think about the Internet:

Navigation,
exploration,
across,
though,
inside,
retrieve,
journey.

I honestly don’t think any of them could be used to describe the current state of the web right now and it makes me sad. 

Interactive media was part of the promise of the internet. Hypertext is the web’s native medium. It transforms the reader from passive consumer to active participant. 

To escape flatness, we must move towards hypermedia. 

Make your own hypertext structure and send it me.
Tell me how you felt making it. 

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5 responses to “Surface Flatness | 2412”

  1. David Lewis avatar

    Really enjoyed this episode. Your metaphor of water really resonates with me. I made this weird poetry Twine thing (https://davidralphlewis.itch.io/reality-adjustments) and it felt like a rough ocean, mutating and thrashing. The depths were more unknown but reached towards the surface. Something about Twinr lends itself well to these interlinked projects I find. Good luck with yours!

    1. Jay Springett avatar

      I love this! I See that it’s a collection of poems you placed inside a hyperobject.

      Was it the arrangement of the links to the idea/pieces, the connecting of the ideas, that brought about the thrashing?

      Thank you so much for sharing it with me.

      1. David Lewis avatar

        Yes absolutely, I started with it linear but linking them together created this kind of distributed effect where no one poem was more important than the others. The meaning sort of transformed and changed in this form and it felt more mutable. I did some things that change depending on the path you go down as well, so suddenly it felt like exploring a new place.

        Glad you like it and thanks for the podcast!

      2. David Lewis avatar

        Yes absolutely, I started with it linear but linking them together created this kind of distributed effect where no one poem was more important than the others. The meaning sort of transformed and changed in this form and it felt more mutable and unstable hence the thrashing.I did some things that change depending on the path you go down as well, so suddenly it felt like exploring a new place.

        Glad you like it and thanks for the podcast!

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