One of the advantages of embedding culture in nature, of requiring that works of reason and imagination be given physical shape, is that it imposes on artists and thinkers the rigor of form, particularly the iron constraints of a beginning and an ending, and it gives to the rest of us the aesthetic, intellectual, and psychological satisfactions of having a rounded experience, of seeing the finish line in the distance, approaching it, arriving at it. When we’re in the midst of the experience, we may not want it to end, we may dream of being launched into the deep blue air of endlessness, but the dream of endlessness is only possible, only has meaning, because of our knowledge that there is an end, even it is an arbitrary end, the film burning in the projector:
Long before Gutenberg forged his little metal letters in Mainz, the media of writing, being necessarily physical, had clear beginnings and endings. The scroll was more open-ended, more continuous than the tablet that preceded it and the page that followed it, but even a reader rolling through a scroll could see, and feel, the end approaching, had a pretty clear sense of what was left. Beginnings and endings predated the written word, of course — Odysseus returned home — but the forms that writing took in the world reinforced what seems to be our natural desire to start in one particular place and finish in another.
Digital media, particularly hypermedia, blur beginnings and endings. Everything is in the middle. No one other than an absurdist would ask where the web begins and ends; the web goes forever on. This is exciting in a way. When you’re used to having beginnings and endings, removing them can feel liberating. The inventors and promoters of hypertext and hypermedia systems have always celebrated the way they seem to free us from the constraints of form, the way they seem to reflect the open-endedness of thought itself and of knowledge itself. Said Ted Nelson: “Hierarchical and sequential structures, especially popular since Gutenberg, are usually forced and artificial.” He did not mean that as a compliment.
But even though we read “forced” and “artificial” as negative terms, there’s much that’s praiseworthy about the forced and the artificial. Civilization is forced and artificial. Culture is forced and artificial. Art is forced and artificial. These things don’t spring from the ground like dandelions. And isn’t one of the distinctive glories of the human mind its ability to impose beginnings and endings on its workings, to carve stories and arguments out of the endless branching flow of thought and impression? Not all containers are jails. Imposing form on the formless may be artificial, but it’s also liberating (not least for giving us walls to batter).
There are, as designer Craig Mod points out in an article on the future of magazines, practical angles here. What should give us pause about the shift from page to screen, Mod argues, is not the loss of paper but the loss of boundaries:
I miss the edges — physical and psychological. I miss the start of reading a print magazine, but mostly, I miss the finish. I miss the satisfaction of putting the bundle down, knowing I have gotten through it all. Nothing left. On to the next thing.
The very design of a physical magazine tells a story (sequential and, yes, hierarchical), from cover to table of contents to front matter to features to the last page with (typically) its little valedictory essay, textual or photographic. That’s a hard story to tell when entryways are everywhere and exits are nowhere. When there’s no way out, we get nervous. We start to feel trapped in our freedom:
While a stack of printed back issues of National Geographic may seem intimidating, it is not unapproachable. The magazines may be dense, but you know where you stand as you read them. But what about staring at an empty search box leading into the deep archive of nationalgeographic.com? …
Magazine websites, like the World Wide Web itself, open one up to continuous exploration through links and related content. There’s beauty in that, if one is up for total immersion. But it’s easier to become overwhelmed, or lost. … The question “How deep does it go?” is one that that nobody had to ask the printed edition of Newsweek. Newsweek.com? It’s not so clear. It’s why we love “Most Popular” and “Most E-mailed” lists — they bring some relief of edges to the digital page.
We may yearn for boundlessness, but to be granted it is to be cursed. “Thought,” wrote Robert Frost, “has a pair of dauntless wings,” but “Love has earth to which she clings / With hills and circling arms about.” The web needs to find its bounds, and its bonds. It needs to come back to earth. That’s the challenge now.