Windows Vista: dreaming nature in cyberspace

With the release of the Vista operating system, Microsoft wants us to believe it is finally throwing open the Windows and allowing screen-burned users out into the fresh air. We can wander free through the pastures of cyberspace and frolic in Aero’s transparent mists. Vista recognises a deep truth – that when we log on to join the flow of collective intelligence, we bring with us a subconscious desire for cyberspace to be just like the (never-was) Edenic countryside of our youth, a verdant Elysian Fields of virtual harmony.

Sounds unlikely? Picture this:

You sit immersed in a wireless cloud, navigating your way through the folders on your hard drive. It is a floating forest of branching tree directories anchored to a root folder buried somewhere deep inside the machine. You are listening to streaming audio whilst a torrent of more music flows into your MP3 player. While it downloads, your system is organising your music library into fields within a database and generating a feed direct to your homepage. Via your Flock browser you twitter to your friends about the latest item on the newsriver then post a few paragraphs to your blog, where they join the complex trail of links and paths going in and out of your site. While you surf, it’s easy to forget that beneath you lies a creepy invisible underworld populated by spiders, bugs, crawlers, worms, and microscopic viruses, whilst above ground your transactions are hungrily devoured by sheep that shit grass before being aggregated into the Long Tail. That data trail you’re leaving behind stimulates the synapses of the global brain, which is in turn pulled towards the gravitational core of the Web 2.0 solar system…

And all this time you thought you were just cruising the information superhighway. In fact, the metaphors we use to describe our encounters with the internet are much closer to the natural world than the cyberpunk urban fantasies we’ve absorbed ever since novelist William Gibson invented the word cyberspace in 1984. The strikingly numerous examples above don’t come from any single deliberate attempt to influence internet culture, but are the result of an evolving vocabulary which has been around since the earliest days of computing.

Consider the traditional organisation of data into fields, strings, webs, streams, rivers, trails, paths, torrents, islands, and even walled gardens, And then there are the flora – apples, apricots, trees, roots, and branches; and the fauna – spiders, viruses, worms, pythons, lynxes, gophers, not to mention the ubiquitous bug and mouse. Indeed, Vista was previously code-named Longhorn, after a breed of cattle noted for its ease of calving and long lactation period – make of that what you will.

All of this is bad news for Vista because it turns out that its smooth romantic landscapes are just one more fantasy. In reality, the organic, holistic, evolving eco-system of Web 2.0 connectedness is less like a travel brochure and more like a brackish swamp seething with mutations. It’s messy, steamy and soggy. To quote science fiction author Bruce Sterling

if the internet were a landscape it would be ‘a bubbling primal soup full of worms and viruses.’

Not exactly the pristine prettiness of the Windows Media Center coral reef, but most certainly an interesting example of the estuarine meeting of transliteracy and geography.

[x-posted from the Transliteracy blog, 24 March 2007]

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