Conveying Order Amidst Chaos
"This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire." So wrote Voltaire in the 18th century in regard to a system that encompassed dozens of quasi-independent, feuding German states with no central government, no common language, and no fixed boundaries. It was an empire in the loosest sense of the word. What little semblance of order there was, came from the influence of local lords.
The most difficult task confronting a technology writer, journalist or teacher is to convey order amidst the jumble and chaos that makes up the World Wide Web. As an information structure, the Web is unique in that it knows no geographical, physical, ideological or intellectual bounds. Beyond the technical specifications and protocols, such as "http://", that govern how computers "speak" to one another, beyond the universality of HTML and other computer languages that dictate how information is displayed, there are no concrete laws governing what, how and where that information is actually stored.
In recent years, the Web has been lauded for its ability to circumvent the suppression of free speech in totalitarian governments, to democratize the dispersion and dissemination of knowledge and culture in isolated communities, and to locate and reunite long-separated family members. In chatrooms, bulletin boards, newsgroups and online discussion forums, the Web brings together scholars and teachers, musicians, sports fans, and others who would otherwise never come across one another. Unfortunately, the Web is also used to propagate false and reprehensible ideas, to spread hate and anger, and by perpetrators of crimes to hide behind a mask of anonymity or false identity.
Considering the Web's very lack of boundaries, and of laws governing content, it is exceedingly difficult to find related, consistent areas of reputable knowledge. For example, one may stumble across a lone website discussing scholarly interpretations of Shakespeare, but against what can that person compare those interpretations? In a library, it is simple to find comparative and contrasting viewpoints on Shakespeare: just cruise the stacks in the literary criticism section. However, on the Web there is no easy way to do that. Search engines, web directories and large portals provide limited focus, but each has caveats. Instead the Web is peppered with thousands of smaller portals — local, bound information systems, such as those for literature, film or music — that provide the kind of focus needed to truly get a feel for a subject within its own context.
Search engines stockpile and index information from billions of web pages, but they rarely preserve context. In other words, searching under the words "Shakespeare and criticism" is just as likely to turn up film reviews about "Shakespeare in Love" as it is literary commentary on the First Folio. Directories more accurately pinpoint website content by organizing them according to subject, but still they lack full context. Only portals offer much more in the way of concrete context, because they are usually focused on a particular range of topics or subjects, and are scrutinized by human editors who control the content that they bring to the site. Portals range in size from huge directories like Yahoo! to specific reference sites such as Dictionary.com and Britannica.com. They organize multitudes of sites into coherent repositories of reputable knowledge.
Dictionary.com, for instance, is a one-stop source for language-related resources and references. The editors at Dictionary.com have organized the site like the reference section of a library so that you do not need to search all over the Web for reference works such as periodicals and almanacs. Dictionary.com includes links to writing resources on grammar and usage; dozens of dictionaries, from standard English to technical compendia; as well as foreign dictionaries in languages such as German, Greek and Latin. It also provides on-site translation capabilities to translate text and Web pages instantly into several languages, including English, Spanish, French and German. There is a section on periodicals, newspapers and classic texts, as well as discussion forums for scholars and students. It even provides the ability to look up words from a mobile phone or wireless device.
The mark of a good reference guide is its ability to quickly, efficiently and honestly provide answers, or the means to acquire those answers. The Web should be no different, provided one knows where to look.
Perhaps a modern-day corollary to Voltaire's wisdom could read thus: "This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the World Wide Web is neither Worldly, nor Wide, nor a Web." It is, in fact, a loose conglomeration of unrelated websites linked together by the flimsiest of notions as an information structure, rather than by content. It is our job as writers, journalists and teachers to ensure that we pinpoint and develop the many local bright spots of organized knowledge. Otherwise the Web, like the Holy Roman Empire, is no more than a system, in this case, a system governing information structure, rather than content.
Voltaire is probably rolling over in his grave.