My website is hosted on NeoCities, a free web hosting service named after and inspired by the semi-mythical GeoCities. GeoCities was a web hosting service popular from the mid 90s until the mid 00s, and at one point the sites it hosted collectively made GeoCities the third most visited website on the World Wide Web, behind Yahoo and AOL. It seems difficult to imagine now that these sorts of specialist sites—dedicated to things like Sailor Moon fan pages and gossip about specific actresses—could possibly represent the dominant cultural force on the internet, but such was the landscape of the web in the days before the social media centralisation we see today. Free hosting of this kind fostered a pluralistic cyberspace in which content, format and design largely lacked precedent or, crucially, oversight. People simply vibed. As such, their pages viewed today seem primitive, quaint, and charming. As a professional sheen began to develop on the internet, hobbyists lost the drive to produce their own garish and janky web pages. The growing pedigree and sophistication of the web as a mechanism of cultural production and circulation produced, inevitably, a division of labour. Design was to be left to a specific sort of person who was expected to make a website in a specific sort of way: the web developer was born. Class division developed between users and developers. Developers like Google and Facebook run their platforms as centralised and unaccountable states; and these platforms—ostensibly created to serve the interest of streamlining, simplifying and improving the experience of their users—increasingly limit and shape the objective activity and psychological possibility of their dependent citizens.
“Sure, some of the old sites weren’t “great”. But they were fun, and quirky, and interesting. We used to call it “surfing” the web, and that was actually a good way to describe it. There was a certain adventure to the activity—a fun and excitement in exploring the unknown.”
NeoCities was created to explicitly resist this growing monopolisation. Though GeoCities enabled a radically democratic and pluralistic web to flourish on the platform it provided, it was never explicitly designed for this purpose: it developed organically at first and, in the end, in spite of the philosophies of its operators; in 1999 the service was acquired by Yahoo. The creator of Neocities, Kyle Drake, lays out his explicitly political intentions in a succinct mission statement on the site itself: “Our goal: to enable you to harness the creativity, beauty, and power of creating your own website. To rebuild the web we lost to automation and monotony, and make it fun again.¹”
Neocities is home to a curious subgenre of poetry. Perhaps predictably, given the rhetorical focus on the revival of happier times, the culture of Neocities is rife with nostalgia for the web 1.0 ugly html website. This aesthetic is reflected superficially in almost all of the sites. This is a poetry anthology called Housefly. The site format itself functions as an intrinsic part of the poetry involved¹², as one is expected to hunt around for links and explore the selections offered non-linearly. Floating image links and animated GIFs are everywhere—the more traditional sort of poetry that creeps into the proceedings here and there functions symbiotically with these images. GeoCities was shut down by Yahoo in 2009. That is, with the exception of Japan, where it remained live until as recently as 2019. Anyone who has ever tried to muddle through a Japanese website knows how weird they are. By and large, their culture has resisted the fashionable minimalism of Western design, and so the average Japanese website toes the line between the charming ugliness of the late 90s and a digital translation of the hideous billboards that line American highways. One might speculate on why this is, I’m not especially interested in doing that (nor would I be able to do it well), but I do have an analogy of sorts.
In the West, the collective imagination about what ‘cyberpunk’ is, as a genre, is dominated by the influence of the works of Philip K Dick. Blade Runner the film is probably the single biggest codifier of the tropes of the genre. These stories are almost always consumed with a humanist line of questioning. What is a human? What does it mean to be a human? How does technology damage my humanity? In Japan, many of the most popular and influential cyberpunk works deal explicitly with intimacy and connection to others, rather than with categorical exploration of the humanity that is annexed to the axiomatic individual. Ghost in the Shell, Serial Experiments Lain, and—cyberpunk adjacent—Neon Genesis Evangelion, all explicitly explore what it means to be connected to another human being. How is connection difficult or harmful? Can we have interpersonal relationships that are not painful? How do we make the change from technological alienation to technological connectedness?
These are perhaps more salient questions in a world like ours, a world that has the internet already in it. In the 2020s especially, watching and reading media that asks us to explore the possibility that hypothetical future technologies might pose an existential threat to our safety, dignity, and human essence, seems rather like reading an article in a science magazine speculating about how, one day, artificial intelligence will be able to defeat humans at chess. In the 60s, the ideas that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep developed were radical ones. By the release of Blade Runner they were historically necessary for mass culture to begin thinking about. In 2020, chess has been ruled by the evocatively named “engines” for decades—and the fashion of their domination is that of the silent, practical machinations of a God who refuses to explain why or how He’s sending the tsunamis. Now that the ship has sailed on questions about how we retain our humanity, the Japanese have looked at the contemporary technological landscape and, decisively, chosen the adverse poles of isolation and connectedness as the dialectic of their science fiction. The most essential character of the internet is its connectivity². It should not serve as a surprise that in NeoCities—where a superficial interest in the aesthetic of the older internet meets the ethical commitment to openness—we have a hub of bizarre and labyrinthine Serial Experiments Lain fansites.
Michael Stevens runs Vsauce, which is one of my favourite YouTube channels. Vsauce is home to a collection of educational videos on an eclectic collection of topics, mostly the sciences augmented with a smattering of social science, philosophy and pop culture. Whatever a Vsauce video is—silly, profound, fascinating, cosy—it is also a formally ambitious ensemble piece in which ideas are arranged according to a certain musical principle. One of the best of Stevens’ videos, Which Way Is Down, lampshades this tendency to frantically pursue different strands of narrative meaning by opening with a joke. A voice off camera calls: “Hey, Vsauce! Michael here. Down here.” The camera tilts downwards to reveal that Stevens is kneeling on the floor. “But, which way is down? And how much does down weigh?” Stevens then produces some fluffy white feathers, duck down. Within its first minute alone Stevens introduces the video as an inquiry into the question of down as a relative direction, only to make a sharp detour into talking about time travel, before then almost instantly positing a thought experiment in which we turn the sun into a black hole. Stevens, over the course of twenty-five minutes, deftly introduces and juggles a series of distinct threads before synthesising them finally into a central thesis. The title of the video is not the question he is ultimately interested in asking, it is a misdirection and indeed itself one of the threads used to produce the crescendo: an intuitive picture of gravity.
That the threads all share in this crescendo gives them a common denominator: they are all chosen for the express purpose of expounding on relativity and gravity, which makes them thematically commensurable and narratively of the same tone. This mechanism of many distinct voices working together in a common framework towards the final aim of resolution allows the threads to take on a musical aspect: they become like different melodic inversions and transpositions of one melodic theme within a tonal framework that moves towards the final resolution of cadence. The rhythmic structure of the piece lays these themes out across real time and so produces a synthesis of voices—a narrative polyphony. At any given moment only one theme is tackled directly—which gives the impression of a monophonic delivery mechanism—but the below-ground movement of the piece as it shifts around the central thesis produces a polyphonic aspect which culminates eventually in a synthesis of these strands of information. Stevens is a great writer for being able to produce something this subtle, but he’s also a great YouTuber, even before considering his inventive visual devices, for choosing to handle his material in this way. He understands his medium perfectly, and uses the mechanism of narrative polyphony both in concord with his medium—as an artist who produces for the internet—and also as a creator of educational videos. Education suits this format so well because the slow build towards a final picture allows for a more intuitive way of grasping the idea, and in a Vsauce video the final moment of synthesis psychologically resembles a moment of clarity: the dialectical resolution which characterises learning.
Some of the best of YouTube as an artistic medium works with a similar narrative polyphony. This video from Kiwami Japan, in which the creator makes a functioning knife out of jelly pots, is composed of a set of shots of the process without narration. Jelly is boiled, plastic is cut, acetate is measured: no explanation is given for why these things are happening. But, we know that they must be in service of the creation of the “sharpest jello kitchen knife in the world”. In the end, as the various disparate processes are synthesised by video montage, we have that knife. The aims and final states might be different—not necessarily geared towards a moment of synthesis. On the other end of the spectrum of theatrical complexity, a recent PhilosophyTube video uses an ingenious comparison between Rene Descartes and Audre Lorde and the powerful use of a section of David Bowie’s Blackstar to say something about the nature of identity: the video serves as its creator Abigail Thorn’s coming out statement.
In line with my earlier critique of Google’s gentrification, these pieces of art achieve what they do largely in spite of their platform and not because of it. With the introduction of YouTube premium—the paid subscription service in which creators could keep some of their content behind an exclusive paywall—YouTube approached Michael Stevens about making a flagship series for them that was to be exclusive to the platform. The show he produced, Mindfield, was a decent but entirely conventional educational series in the vein of Discovery channel science entertainment. The ideas were inventive, and Stevens as a host still exuded his usual charisma, but Mindfield was entirely bereft of the revolutionary formal technique he had developed in his free content for the Vsauce channel. YouTube as a platform provides creators with unlimited space for upload, which means that videos can theoretically be any length. This is pretty much everything positive that can be said about how the platform provides for its creators. YouTube operates on an aggressive, automatically driven policy of demonetisation—removing the ability of creators to make money from their work—meaning that creators must censor profanity and tailor political discussion around the limits of bourgeois acceptability. This recent video from Second Thought, which is a short introduction to the many crimes of the CIA, has not only been demonetised but tagged with a warning from YouTube about “inappropriate or offensive” content. The “share” button has been disabled, and in some countries the video is hidden from searches. YouTube draws an equivalence here between criticism of the CIA and the United States of America and explicit Neo Nazi material. In the embedded player on my website, readers will note that, as of the time of writing, the inviting thumbnail has been replaced by what Dulux might describe as a panelák grey.¹
In some sense, all art which is hosted online, and especially any of this art which is formally interested in its own medium, is about the internet. The influence of bourgeois legal and cultural structures, then, contribute to inferior art not just through guilt by association, but because they stifle formal exploration of the power of the work to operate via the mechanics of its own medium.
The Garden of Forking Paths, by Jorge Luis Borges, is a short story about a spy who sustains a discussion with a man about a peculiar experimental novel before assassinating him. Like many Borges stories it is a recursive thing in which Borges poses some thought experiment which tells a story about stories, and about telling stories. A renowned Chinese politician, Ts'ui Pên, retires from his post and retreats into reclusion to do two things: write a great novel, and design a great labyrinth. The result is found incomplete upon his death: a shambolic collection of disconnected and inscrutable manuscripts. Years later, our protagonist discovers from the man he is to murder that the book and the labyrinth are one and the same. Prefiguring both Choose Your Own Adventure and the Many Worlds Interpretation, Borges describes the book as an infinite manuscript in which the reader can travel through time both linearly from past to future and horizontally from possible present to possible present.
“In a guessing game to which the answer is chess, which word is the only one prohibited?” I thought for a moment then replied:
“The word is chess.”
“Precisely,” said Albert. “The Garden of Forking Paths is an enormous guessing game, or parable, in which the subject is time. The rules of the game forbid the use of the word itself. To eliminate a word completely, to refer to it by means of inept phrases and obvious paraphrases, is perhaps the best way of drawing attention to it. This, then, is the tortuous method of approach preferred by the oblique Ts'ui Pên in every meandering of his interminable novel. I have gone over hundreds of manuscripts, I have worked out the plan from this chaos, I have restored, or believe I have restored, the original. I have translated the whole work. I can state categorically that not once the word time been used in the whole book.”
A striking and unusual aspect of the prose of this story is the occasional use of the adverb ‘infinitely’. It is not exactly frequent, but it is always conspicuous. Spies infinitely pore over newspapers, sneaking through deserted streets leaves one infinitely vulnerable, the house is infinitely saturated with invisible people. Every translator prefers these to the more natural sounding “endlessly”. In light of the above passage, where Borges explains his own working, I was left overwhelmingly with the impression that Borges was consumed by finitude. Just as his writing about immortality may as well be his inward screaming about death, this is the author of a story about an infinite library³, and about an infinite book, and about an infinitely dense point in space, and about an infinite memory⁴, writing about a finite labyrinth. What is described within the text as interminable is in fact a completed manuscript by a single man, deceased. Indeed, the Garden of Forking Paths is a labyrinth, not a maze. Mazes offer branching paths to their walkers. One can lose oneself in a maze: they are multicursal. A labyrinth on the other hand is unicursal, with a single winding path which brings one to every possible position of the structure before safely and reliably depositing one in the centre. The labyrinth is an ancient structure. It is a monolith to, and about, faith.
Ts'ui Pên’s Garden purports to twist and turn and leave its reader lost, but it is, eventually and finally, a book: composed of a stack of pages so meagre that a single man has written them in all himself in a single lifetime. Starting anywhere, and reading each page exactly once before moving on, the book will deliver the systematic reader from its top to its bottom, and every one of its words will have been read by the end. The internet is no such pamphlet—it could never be petrified and made into a book. It is criss-crossed with hyperlinks which inform and rule its structure. There is no first page of the internet—much to the annoyance of Google—and though there are a finite number of distinct web pages they cannot be navigated sequentially, even if one starts anywhere, orders pages at random, and sets about the trillion year task of reading through the entire stack. The whole thing is a fundamentally interpenetrating maze.
¹ Drake himself likely would protest against my Marxist analysis of the gentrification of the internet, and would probably prefer that the analysis was framed as a confrontation between authoritarian capitalism and centrist libertarianism. In the same piece that I quoted from, Drake has this to say: "The uniformity and blandness [of Facebook profiles] rival something out of a Soviet bloc residential apartments corridor. And now adding to that analogy, we’ve found out that our government is actually spying on us while we’re doing it, in ways the Stasi could only dream of. The web we have today is a sad, pathetic, consumption-oriented digital iron curtain, and we need to change that." Doesn’t this analogy seem patently ridiculous?⁵ If anything resembles the Czech panelák architecture, it’s the spartan, functional HTML websites that appeared on the early net, while Facebook profiles better resemble the endless uniform houses of a Middle American suburb. Identical homes that are ugly not just aesthetically, but also by proxy as the temple in which the mythology of American capital is worshipped—arranged in sprawls that cover more ground than all of Europe’s forests and are intentionally priced to promote wage segregation. The panelák might be ugly but at least the Soviets were building cheap houses for their people, which is more than can be said of the West.
² I use the word connectivity and connectedness differently. Connectivity refers to the aspect of a system that enables it to serve as a network of connections. Connectedness is a state we should want to find ourselves in: the state of being part of a network of relationships between people.
³ Perhaps Borges’ most famous story is The Library of Babel, which is about an infinite library that contains every possible book. Though the books within the library are all of the perfectly usual length of four hundred and ten pages, the space dedicated to their storage is infinite, in accordance with the infinite possible variation in their contents.¹³ The story explores the ramifications of this.¹⁴
⁴ In the Borges story Funes, the Memorious, the titular Funes, after a head injury, gains the ability to perceive everything in minute detail and to perfectly recall any previous memory. “He told me that toward 1886 he had devised a new system of enumeration”. Funes, who forgets nothing, is bothered by the redundancy of our conventional system of base 10.¹⁰ Using only ten digits and combining them in different ways to account for larger numbers is a waste of time for one with the luxury of perfect and unlimited memory. Why not simply assign every number its own unique signature? “In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) ‘Maximo Perez’; in place of seven thousand fourteen, ‘The Railroad’; other numbers were ‘Luis Melian Lafinur’, ‘Olimar’, ‘sulphur’, ‘the reins’, ‘the whale’, ‘the gas’, ‘the caldron’, ‘Napoleon’, ‘Agustin de Vedia’.” … “I tried to explain to him that this rhapsody of incoherent terms was precisely the opposite of a system of numbers. I told him that saying ‘365’ meant saying ‘three hundreds, six tens, five ones’, an analysis which is not found in the numbers The Negro Timoteo or meat blanket. Funes did not understand me or refused to understand me.”⁷
⁵ Something I’ve been seeing increasingly often from conservatives and liberals online is the tendency to ascribe as a consequence of an imaginary socialism a real phenomenon of existing capitalism. Probably the most archetypal example of this was in a now deleted Donald Trump tweet from during his failed 2020 election bid. “This will be Biden’s America!”, accompanied by an image of burning cars and masked protestors from the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis: literally an image of Trump's own America. It takes a peculiar sort of preoccupation for Kyle Drake to witness the recent history of the internet—in which the medium itself is integrated into and transformed by Western capital’s operation—and see the insidious influence of the Soviets. I have had trouble articulating what this phenomenon is to people who haven’t noticed it before. I think it would be useful if we had an unwieldy compound German word for it.⁶
⁶ These gigantic compound words are themselves, curiously, conspicuously nameless. ‘Betäubungsmittelverschreibungsverordnung’ is a good one, meaning ‘Narcotics Prescription Ordinance’. Incidentally, compound words of this type are unique in the German only insofar as they are treated as words, without spaces or punctuation. All Germanic languages can create sentences which act in the same way—‘John’s brother’s big silver car’—but in other languages these recursive⁸ language units appear to be more malleable, since they are not petrified in one word form.
⁷ Borges later suggests that Funes’ profound ability to perceive and recall in exact detail everything he has ever encountered renders him deficient in some other way: since to think is not to categorize perfectly but to generalise⁹—to apply statistical models—Funes is a memorious idiot.
⁸ Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar holds that recursion is a universal feature of language: the ability to compound concepts and create bespoke descriptions of any possible variation of describable material. There may never before have been the need to write the phrase “Paddy Scott’s ginger cat’s nose wound”, since before yesterday I had never before had a ginger cat with a nose wound, but the English language doesn’t require that there is precedent for this. I can simply compound words to describe this new thing: the nose wound in question is within reach of my language. Noam Chomsky has been soundly proven wrong about recursion, as linguist Daniel Everett’s study of the Pirahã language has found no such feature.⁹ According to Everett, studying the way the Pirahã tell their stories reveals that they do have recursive reasoning—the ability to nest concepts within other concepts—but that they do this without having this as a feature of their language. They also have no numbers in their language, since they do not need to count.⁴ Everett says: “people have asked me: ‘do they not know how many children they have?’ Well, I mean exactly that: but do they know who their children are? And do they know whether they’re all present? Of course they do!”
⁹ Daniel Everett, while criticising the move by linguists to describe language as a specific and innate faculty of our thinking, suggests that a more plausible innate ability is something more general than the domain specific propensity towards language: the ability to generalise principles learnt from specific experiences. This involves, in the case of language, the ability to organise sounds we hear into particular syntactical arrangements, but it also means that we organise our ideas into networks: like phenomena are connected analogously with like phenomena.¹¹
¹⁰ “Base 10” is an absurd phrase when written in this manner. It of course means that we have ten symbols with which to write our numbers, but in fact all bases would be written as “base 10” in their respective bases. Binary, a numeral system with two symbols, is base 2. In binary, this is written “base 10”. Duodecimal, or dozenal, is a system with 12 symbols, which is of course written as “base 10” in duodecimal itself.
¹¹ David Hume had the insight that the phenomenon of cause and effect is something entirely borne out of empirical observation, and the claim that a particular event has previously caused, always causes, or will always cause another is not an a priori truth. Furthermore, when one observes what we take to be one event causing another what we actually see are two distinct events, and we get no sensory impression of the causation itself. The idea of causation that we have therefore doesn’t arise by our observation of it directly, which has led some to infer from his analysis that causation is something we project onto the world—an artefact of, perhaps, our limited exposure to events that might subvert our expectation of causal structure. The Vsauce video I quote from above,¹² Which Way is Down, lays out the extent to which gravity is a similar artefact of limited human perspective on how relativity works. We humans move very slowly relative to the speed of light, which means that when we observe the effect that mass has on the curvature of spacetime we only notice its spatial effects: the spatial movement of matter towards matter, as if the two attract one another. Ex nihilo nihil fit—nothing can come from nothing—is a dictum that appears to hold universally. Does it though? Are we, perhaps, just limited in our perception?
¹² In writing, we often use the word “above” to mean “previously”. “Below” therefore refers to any subsequent writing. Obviously this spatial analogy exists because of the physical structure of European writing starting at the top of the page and working its way down. It works especially well on the internet, where everything one has already read is actually positioned above where one is currently reading. In a book, the mechanic of a page turn makes the use of “above” to mean previous slightly more abstract, except when the book is unopened and lying flat with the front cover facing upwards.¹⁴
¹³ The actual text of The Library of Babel determines that the books are of a set length of so many pages, and so many characters, and indeed the narrator acknowledges that with this setup the library need not be literally without end in order to house them all. Though incomprehensibly large, the library would only need to be finitely massive. In a sort of pseudo-religious moment, the narrator disregards the possibility that the library might ever end. Duplicate books are suspected. Indeed, in his essay Universal Library¹⁵, W. V. O. Quine points out that, though each book is only so long, the library contains an infinite number of endless texts, since if one text does not fit in one volume then another volume is guaranteed to exist with its continuation. I prefer to dream that this, for the sake of elegance if nothing else, necessitates that multiple volumes of identical text must exist in the library. After all, a book containing some combination of letters might be a stand alone volume, but a book containing the same combination of letters might be the first volume of a different two volume series, and another book with the same text would be the first of a third series of three volumes. Were this to be the case, there would need to be an infinite number of the same combination of characters in order for a text with a countably infinite number of volumes to not have the same book serve twice within its index of volumes. Not only is the library not technically finite, it isn’t even countably infinite.
¹⁴ The focus of the discourse on The Library of Babel tends to be on the ramifications of the content of the books themselves: that there could be, written down, both a proof of the existence of God and in His non existence. Interesting little conundrums of that sort. I don’t mean to suggest that this is an incorrect reading, but it should be kept in mind that the physical space of the library itself is just as much a target of Borges’ exploration, since he acknowledges finally that: “Letizia Álvarez de Toledo has observed that this vast Library is useless: rigorously speaking, a single volume would be sufficient, a volume of ordinary format, printed in nine or ten point type, containing an infinite number if infinitely thin leaves. (In the early seventeenth century, Cavalieri said that all solid bodies are the superimposition of an infinite number of planes.) The handling of this silky vade mecum would not be convenient: each apparent page would unfold into other analogous ones; the inconceivable middle page would have no reverse.”¹⁷
¹⁵ In the same essay, Quine points out that the alphabet of each book needn’t be the full twenty-five basic characters needed to write in Spanish. The alphabet might be reduced to just two: the dot and the slash of morse code. He writes: “The ultimate absurdity is now staring us in the face: a universal library of two volumes, one containing a single dot and the other a dash. Persistent repetition and alternation of the two are sufficient, we well know, for spelling out any and every truth. The miracle of the finite but universal library is a mere inflation of the miracle of binary notation: everything worth saying, and everything else as well, can be said with two characters.". Quine also notes that each book itself could be split into shorter sections, and duplicates could be discarded.¹⁶
¹⁶ Discarding duplicates is a tricky business when dealing with infinities. Ian Stewart proposes the ‘Hyperwebster’, an infinite dictionary that counts every possible combination of letters, no matter how long. This dictionary is uncountably infinite, and would therefore contain more entries for words than there are integers. The book would start with “a”, and then move on to “aa”, “aaa”, and so on. Infinitely many entries later, after an infinite string of “a”s, one would find “ab”, and then “aba” and “abaa” and so on. Suppose we split the hyperwebster into 26 volumes, to save on printing costs perhaps. In that case, the volume with all the words beginning with “a” can be cut down as well, by removing the first “a” from every word since we know it’s there by default. Print it on the front of the book perhaps. By doing this, the first volume of the hyperwebster, containing only a 26th of the total dictionary, contains every single word in the complete 26 volume set. This Vsauce video explains how this applies to the Banach-Tarski paradox.
¹⁷ De Toledo’s insight is monumentous. It quite literally made me giddy when I read it for the first time. As brilliant as the story is, it obliterates the plodding librarians entirely and in a rush of divine skylight brings one within grasping distinct of the idea of infinity. This swooping revolution, the crescendo of the piece, does not feature in the main body of the text. The most powerful single sentence of the piece is in a footnote below¹² the end.
On the Internet: Footnotes 18-25
On the Internet: Footnotes 25-32