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Date Published: 4/15/2003
www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=380
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

Why the Web Will Win the Culture Wars for the Left:

Deconstructing Hyperlinks


Peter Lurie


Cultural conservatives have a lot of worries. They fear that Grand Theft Auto and other video games will turn their kids into crowbar-wielding criminals, they believe that Hollywood will turn their daughters to floozies and sons to gigolos, and they despise the constitutional barrier between church and state as an unnecessary evil that has estranged religious beliefs from public life and eroded the core values of our country. Underlying all these concerns is the overarching belief that moral relativism -- which holds that competing claims to right and wrong cannot be judged objectively -- is making America a godless, bankrupt country, and a very dangerous place to raise a kid.

With Southern Republicans in control of all three branches of government, conservative barricades appear well manned. Just one justice short of an invincibly reactionary majority on the Supreme Court -- excluding moderate conservatives, for seven of the nine current justices are Republican appointees -- and relentlessly stocking the district and appellate courts with the most conservative jurists they can find, the Republicans are pressing a deeply reactionary social agenda. The culture wars between the religious, traditionalist right and the liberal, pluralist left have started to look like a rout everywhere but in the larger, coastal cities. Conservatives are recasting communities to be more comfortable with, if not prostrate to, received authority in the form of literalist interpretations of religious and political texts.

That success will be short-lived. Long after the next bubble has burst, the internet will have surpassed the hype generated by the last one. Not by changing the way we live and work, but by impacting the culture wars and tipping the battle decisively to the left.

This will result not from the range of content available online, but rather the process of finding it. The architecture of the web, and the way users navigate it, closely resembles theories about the authority and coherence of texts that liberal deconstructionist critics have offered for thirty years. Deconstructionists believe that close analysis reduces any text -- novel, statute, religious work -- to meaningless blather. The popular response to deconstruction has always been that it's counterintuitive, that no one reads that way, that it lacks common sense.

That will change. Like reading or breathing, web browsing itself is agnostic with respect to politics and culture. Unlike reading or breathing, however, surfing mimics a postmodern, deconstructionist perspective by undermining the authority of texts. Anyone who has spent a lot of time online, particularly the very young, will find themselves thinking about content -- articles, texts, pictures -- in ways that would be familiar to any deconstructionist critic. And a community of citizens who think like Jacques Derrida will not be a particularly conservative one.

HTML, hyperlinks, frames, and meta-tags are the essential building blocks of the web. They combine to create a highly associative, endlessly referential and contingent environment that provides an expanse of information at the same time that it subverts any claim to authority, since another view is just a click away.

These basic technical tools are similar to deconstructionist analytical tools. Hypertext markup language (HTML) provides graphic display instructions to the web browser. Codes control the presentation of each web page, including pictures, colors, fonts and the organization of text. Without HTML, a web browser would show a continuous scroll of plain text. Although HTML is normally invisible, the viewer can select a viewing option that exposes the program codes. With HTML visible, the structure of each web page is laid bare, like a theater with transparent curtains and sets, so the lighting crew, scaffolding, director and actors in the wings were all visible. Hyperlinks, which often appear in underlined blue text, provide the essential connectivity of the web, enabling the user to jump from one page to another, a sort of black hole through which a viewer can jump in and emerge in another place. Framing divides a web site into separate windows, each displayed in a separate part of the screen and independently functional. Hyperlinks connect each frame, allowing the user to move among screens without leaving the site. Search engines organize information on the web as well, while helping users locate information they want. Google returns a short description of and hyperlink to a list of sites ranked by likely relevance. In many cases the web page communicates to the search engine through metatags, which are encoded in the HTML and usually consist of key words that provide an associative description of the site itself.

A person engages the web in much the same way that a deconstructionist critic approaches a text. Deconstruction, which denotes a process rather than a belief system, shows how novels, statutes and court opinions collapse upon themselves, making their underlying assumptions absurd. For the deconstructionist, each text is endlessly referential, a web of associations and connections that is finally ambiguous. The structuralist critic Ferdinand de Saussure set the foundation of postmodern thought by describing language as a system of signs. Each sign was made up of a signifier (the word itself) and the signified (the concept or meaning). [1] Saussure's first principle was that such signs are arbitrary. [2] The letters s, i, s, t, e and r suggest a girl or woman who shares the same parents as the referent, but the idea of this woman "is not linked by any inner relationship to the succession of sounds s-o-r which serves as its signifier in French." [3] Indeed, the woman at issue could as simply be represented by another succession of letters or sounds. For de Saussure, the relationship between the signifier and the signified was merely historical and therefore arbitrary. The letters b, o, o and k could have signified a flying animal, but were instead doomed to represent a bound sheaf of printed papers too rarely capable of flight. Since each sign (the word) has meaning only because it doesn't signify something else (the actual book), and the words themselves are arbitrarily assigned, meaning itself is only relational -- it cannot be grasped on its own.

Meaning, then, is not contained or conveyed by a word or series of words because it is dependent on what those words do not contain or convey. Meaning is part of a process, in which words are examined with respect to other words, which lend meaning only in relation to still more words. As Terry Eagleton wrote ten years before anyone other than Tim Berners-Lee had heard of the World Wide Web, language "look[s] much more like a sprawling limitless web where there is a constant interchange and circulation of elements." [4] Deconstructionists advanced de Saussure's work by detaching the signifier from the signified and arguing that meaning is present only in words that themselves are indeterminate and relational. [5] Each word or sign in a sentence is linked to all the others, forming an infinite or at least inexhaustible network. Every text, fiction and nonfiction, statutes and religious works, has a flickering or suspended quality: its meaning is whatever may be grasped by a particular reader at a particular time. [6]

Deconstructionists believe that writing and reading is a discourse, a kind of open conversation or play, through which the reader pieces together a meaning by distinguishing one word from another. A favorite tactic of such critics is to analyze a detail in the text until it unravels the entire structure of the work and renders it incoherent. [7] Widely-accepted interpretations -- such as the moral of the story of Exodus is the inevitable empowerment of repressed groups -- come to appear naïve. Indeed, the Supreme Court has done something similar with the 11th Amendment. After 200 years as a curious backwater of the Constitution, the 11th Amendment now stands at the center of the Court's jurisprudence, the foundation of the increasingly broad doctrine of sovereign immunity (a phrase found nowhere in the constitution), that is radically broadening the power of state government at the expense of both Congress and citizens, at the same time that it casts doubt upon received ideas about nearly every other aspect of the United States Constitution. A deconstructionist would not argue that the Supreme Court is right or wrong about federalism and state power, but only that such radically divergent interpretations of the same text indicate that any appeal to an authoritative meaning, including an investigation into the intent of the author (in this case, the framers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights), will be a misguided and ultimately fruitless project.

The Web is a postmodernist tool that inevitably produces a postmodernist perspective. It is an unobvious result. After all, social conservatism is the kind of grass-roots movement that the internet should complement. The Web improves the coordination of far-flung constituents, aiding organization, recruiting and the dissemination of information while reinforcing beliefs by increasing the number of sources with consistent viewpoints. Conservatives who have long complained of the liberal bias of the major media can now avoid those sources altogether, customizing a diet of news from like-minded online sources. Cass Sunstein has emphasized the danger inherent in what he calls cybercascades, where people who share similar views communicate only with each other, reinforcing their own perspectives but precluding exposure to new ones. [8] There have always been conservative and liberal newspapers, Sunstein notes, "[b]ut the emerging situation does contain large differences, stemming above all from a dramatic increase in available options, a simultaneous increase in individual control over content, and a corresponding decrease in the power of general interest intermediaries." [9] As options multiply, intermediaries narrow. If every consumer of information creates a "daily me", which filters all unpalatable news and opinions, the citizenry will become increasingly parochial. [10] More broadly, Sunstein worries that cybercascades will fragment society, slim political and cultural discourse and clear the shelves and stalls of the marketplace of ideas. [11] Credited to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and based on a theory that John Stuart Mill first sketched, this marketplace sifts and exposes the truth and value of competing theories. If the marketplace metastasizes into isolated stalls, free speech will quickly lose its value and the marketplace of ideas will close for lack of customers.

Sunstein's prophecy is politically neutral: the internet will enervate the intellectual vigor of all movements by isolating them in cyber chambers that echo with cheers and wild applause. There is every reason to believe, however, that the Web will subvert conservative thought even if conservatives themselves browse friendly terrain, from family.org to heritage.org to fed-soc.org. The content available online is much less important than the manner in which it is delivered, indeed, the way the Web is structured. Its influence is structural rather than informational, and its structure is agnostic. For that reason, parental controls of the sort that AOL can offer gives no comfort to conservatives. It's not that Johnny will Google "hardcore" or "T&A" rather than "family values;" rather, it's that Johnny will come to think, consciously or not, of everything he reads as linked, associative and contingent. He will be disinclined to accept the authority of any text, whether religious, political or artistic, since he has learned that there is no such thing as the last word, or indeed even a series of words that do not link, in some way, to some other text or game. For those who grow up reading online, reading will come to seem a game, one that endlessly plays out in unlimited directions. The web, in providing link after associative link, commentary upon every picture and paragraph, allows, indeed requires, users to engage in a postmodernist inquiry.

Reading the bible online at www.bible.org is a typically interactive effort, one that despite the intentions of the Biblical Studies Foundation, which operates the site, explodes the authority of the text. The viewer chooses any of eighteen different versions of the bible, and then finds a matrix of hyperlinks organized by chapter and verse that link to the requested section. Four frames provide the biblical text and accompanying information, including footnotes hyperlinked to other sources with explanatory material, a hyperlinked index of every other chapter, and links to the Biblical Studies Foundation's homepage, as well as other related sources. The site also contains the customary search function, which appears on the left, and of course the internet browser itself has a search function that is always visible, so that an engaged reader may be constantly toggling between biblical text, commentary in the footnotes, word searches suggested by the bible or footnotes or a combination of both. Readers unfamiliar with a word may click on the footnote with a short definition or synonym. If that is unsatisfactory, typing the word into the search function will yield a link to a dictionary of biblical words, terms and phrases that may offer a more refined and accurate definition. The reader may be satisfied and return to the text or pursue the matter further, needing just two clicks to find the same passage in an alternative translation. If the reader is interested in a historical analysis of the passage, a search for ‘biblical history' yields and array of relevant academic and religious sites from all perspectives. A reader might devote a day to pursuing a single passage, a single line, finding herself farther and farther afield from the original text and translation. Indeed, she might forget which site she was reading. Reading the bible online is an exploration of multiple sources, commentators and bibliographic tributaries.

Reading any other presumptively authoritative text online presents a similar experience. The US Constitution is available at, among other sites, www.usconstitution.net. Most clauses include hyperlinks to commentary from well-known and lesser authorities. Footnotes provide short summaries of legislative history and important court decisions. A review of the Second Amendment, upon which the entire gun control debate rests, led this reader to twenty-four different sites, each directly or indirectly linked, offering finely spun phrase-by-phrase analysis. And that was just the first sentence of this short amendment. By the time the curious reader returns to the original text, her head will be cocked back, distrustful, possibly exhausted, certainly skeptical if not despairing of any authoritative interpretation. Indeed, she may come to believe that there is no original meaning at all. Eagleton wrote:

That any such transcendental meaning is a fiction ... is one consequence of [deconstruction]. there is no concept which is not embroiled in an open-ended play of signification, shot through with traces and fragments of other ideas.... Consider, in our own society, Freedom, the Family, Democracy, Independence, Authority, Order and so on. Sometimes such meanings are seen as the origin of all the others, the source from which they flow; but this ... is a curious way of thinking, because for this meaning ever to have been possible other signs must already have existed. It is difficult to think of an origin without wanting to go back beyond it. [12]

The Web invites, even demands that its users go back, forward, around and elsewhere in an associative search for meaning. Jonathan Culler, in a discussion of Barthes, writes: "The text is ceaselessly traversed by codes, which are the source of its meanings." [13] Structuralists such as Barthes and Deconstructionists like Derrida created a revolution in hermeneutics by identifying the codes that inhered in every line of prose. Not long ago, one had to be a graduate student to grasp the concept. No longer. The Web illuminates these codes for everyone to see and, much more importantly, use.

In this light, the conservatives' fear of moral relativism is well-founded. Absent some divine authority, or lacking any consensus about the existence or nature of such authority, relativists believe that morality is socially determined, wholly dependent on standards existing in a community at a particular place and time. In a pluralist society, then, there can be no consensus regarding good and evil. If it is not quite true that anything goes, tolerance dictates that we must respect the choices that others make, even if they are repugnant to others in the community. Same-sex marriage, under this view, is no more right or wrong than the traditional variety, and we cannot condemn those who practice it. Moral relativism is often considered to be inversely proportional to the strength of religion. The prevalence of the former, however, has surprisingly little to do with the decline of the latter. Religion is hardly in decline, at least in this country. A higher percentage of Americans go to church, mosque or temple each week than went both one and two centuries ago. By any measure, America is the most religious of all Western industrialized nations and arguably the most religious of any country outside Islam.

Perhaps for that reason, conservatives blame the kind of liberal elites who tend to congregate in New York newsrooms and Northeastern classrooms. These usual suspects condescend toward religion at the same time that they mandate tolerance for all lifestyles and teach postmodern theories suggesting that received beliefs tend to be arbitrary or self-serving or both. This argument tends to overstate both the liberalism and elitism of the accused along with their influence, and it misses the most powerful and pervasive source of moral relativism: the Web.

Technology undermines traditional belief systems even as it creates a belief in a kind of heavenly paradise, a kind of Technopia. In his book The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, Larry Lessig argues for an open society in which everyone has access to information and the tools necessary to contribute to the community and succeed within it. [14] A former colleague of Sunstein's at the University of Chicago who migrated to Stanford, the very capital of Technopia, Professor Lessig believes that the Web could create an interconnected, information- and idea-rich republic. He warns, however, that unless we balance private ownership of intellectual property and the public's ability to refine and build upon it, we will never inhabit such a place. [15]

Open, shared platforms of content and code must be the foundation of such a radically free, creative and informed society, but an unholy trinity of Congress, the courts and large corporations has effectively sealed media and software platforms by lengthening copyright laws and strengthening intellectual property protections. The most recent example is the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended by 20 years both existing copyrights and future copyrights. A copyright grant is a limited monopoly, a reward for innovation, but the reward, if too generous (long), will surely stifle it, for any increase in copyright term strengthens monopolist practice and isolates innovation from improvement in much the same way that Sunstein fears that cybercascades weaken the dialogue of democracy. [16] For that reason Lessig predicts that

...two companies -- AOL Time Warner and Microsoft -- will define the next five years of the Internet's life. Neither company has committed itself to a neutral and open platform. Hence, the next five years will be radically different from the past ten. Innovation in content and applications will be as these platform owners permit. Additions that benefit either company will be encouraged; additions that don't, won't....Content and access will once again be controlled; the innovation commons will have been carved up and sold. [17]

If software code, the DNA of the internet, is privately held, citizens will be cyberserfs on corporate estates. There can be no freedom without commons. Businesspersons, artists and academics must be free to graze on the rich turf of ideas that lead to further innovation. In his previous book Professor Lessig argued that just as police regulate cities, code regulates cyberspace. [18] If state police power was the principal concern of the 20th century, corporate control of code should be that of the 21st. [19] Just as we defeated Hitler and Stalin, the argument continues implicitly, so must we strike AOL and Microsoft. Corporations wield power invidiously, veiled by the promise of free markets, effectively co-opting the institutions that should balance public and private ownership.

Lessig will. For many technologists -- those who believe that technology, properly configured, will save the planet -- he is the much-lauded (and well-schooled) David against an array of corporate Goliaths. As chairman of www.creativecommons.org, which is dedicated to increasing the sum and access of intellectual property online, [20] and as lead counsel for the petitioner in Eldred v Ashcroft, [21] in which he challenged the constitutionality of the Bono Copyright Extension Act, Lessig has argued that Congress had overstepped the authority vested by the Constitution by essentially marching the copyright term toward perpetuity. [22] In January, the Supreme Court disagreed, upholding the act. His fight continues.

Victory will not elude Professor Lessig, though it may surprise him. A public weaned on the Web will be increasingly sensitive to the value of open platforms and the possibilities inherent in shared media and code. The increasing ease with which even moderately trained musicians mix and sample recorded works, and the resulting battle between the Recording Industry Association of America and the music lovers that support its member companies, is just the first of many disputes that will reshape copyright law and practice. Citizens who are no longer awed by received authority will use the instantiations of that authority -- whether in the form of text, graphics, music or code -- for their own purposes.

Professors Lessig and Sunstein sketch despairing visions because they have missed the essentially deconstructionist nature of the Web. The architecture that media and technology companies control to stifle innovation, and that citizens use to cordon themselves from genuine debate, will at the same time foster an open, inquisitive and markedly liberal spirit. Problems associated with the control of ideas and the compartmentalization of dialogue will persist, but a newly emergent majority on the Left will rise to tackle them. It's all in the code.


Notes
---------------

[1] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, Wade Baskins, trans., (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), ch. 1.

[2] Ibid, 12-14.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 129.

[5] Ibid, 128. See also Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), 243-245, discussing Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, Alan Bass, trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[6] Eagleton, 128-129.

[7] Ibid, 133.

[8] Cass Sunstein, republic.com (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2001), 49.

[9] Ibid, 11.

[10] Ibid, 13.

[11] Ibid, 8-10.

[12] Eagleton, 131.

[13] Culler, 243.

[14] Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (New York: Vintage Books, 2002) (first published by Random House, 2001).

[15] Ibid, xxi-xxii,6.

[16] Ibid, xxi-xxii.

[17] Ibid, 267.

[18] Lawrence Lessig, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (Basic Books, 1999), 86.

[19] Ibid.

[20] www.creativecommons.org/learn/aboutus. ("Our aim is not only to increase the sum of raw source material online, but also to make access to that material cheaper and easier. To this end, we have also developed metadata that can be used to associate creative works with their public domain or license status in a machine-readable way. We hope this will enable people to use the our search application and other online applications to find, for example, photographs that are free to use provided that the original photographer is credited, or songs that may be copied, distributed, or sampled with no restrictions whatsoever. We hope that the ease of use fostered by machine- readable licenses will further reduce barriers to creativity.")

[21] Eldred v Ashcroft, Sup Ct 01-618. Argued October 9, 2002; decided January 15, 2003.

[22] Brief for Petitioners, Eldred, 18.


--------------------

Peter Lurie is a lawyer, a graduate of Dartmouth College and The University of Chicago Law School, where he worked on two independent papers with Judge Richard Posner, studied critical theory and the interrelation between law and literature. He has written for Writ, a legal journal published by Findlaw, the New York Press and Shout Magazine. He is General Counsel of Virgin Mobile USA, a wireless voice and internet company aimed at the youth market, which he helped start.

The views expressed are his own.

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