From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

July 26, 2004*: Repeating myself.

Birthdays are usually times for celebration. But though the Boidem has definitely celebrated in the past, I've also used these birthdays as opportunities for reflection. And in keeping with my chosen topic of this column, not only have I previously raised the question of the extent to which I tend to repeat myself in these columns, I even did so a couple of birthdays ago.

Actually, I tend to think that after eight years of monthly columns, it would more or less be a wonder of nature if I didn't repeat myself. But as I've noted in the past, repetition can come in numerous shapes and sizes. These various types of repetition don't concern me (in this particular column, at least) as much as does an examination of to what extent repetition is a central, defining aspect of the nature of the World Wide Web. In other words, of course we repeat ourselves - it's the web, isn't it? It's not only that there seem to be only so many ways of saying the same thing, or that reading about one person's summer vacation is pretty much indistinguishable from reading about someone else's. When blog after blog links to the same article (or links to someone who links to someone who links to that article) we're encountering an additional sort of repetition. What's more, often when running a search for a particular topic we discover that the exact same page has been copied and pasted into a different site, so that we almost have no way of knowing (if we really cared) which is the original and which the copy. Repetition, in the form of linking, has come to denote a certain degree of status, and through Google's concept of "page rank" has ultimately become a measure of our true worth.

Finding repetition after repetition in the countless web pages we visit is, however, one thing. Finding it in your own web pages is something rather different. When we tell people "stop me if you've heard this before" (as I have, and I've even linked to it already) we certainly don't really expect them to do so, even if they know those same stories by heart. Repetition is, however, a means of establishing style - that rather amorphous quality that allows us to identify a particular composer when we hear his or her music, to guess the author of a book through reading a few paragraphs, to know from which restaurant a particular dish has been purchased. But perhaps that's simply another way of writing that essentially I have to repeat myself, because if I didn't this would be only a collection of reflections, and not The Boidem. The filters through which I process the topics I deal with, the colors with which I paint them, the associative asides that they call up in my memory are (and I'm sure I've written this before) precisely the elements that gives these columns whatever limited value they may have.

In the past I've bemoaned the decline of the playful use of hypertext on the web. I've deplored the fact that in the interests of accessibility (whatever that is) the associative possibilities of hypertext have been pushed aside, have become anachronistic. It's my guess that what I've called "hierarchical hypertext" is rather antagonistic toward repetition. Its goal is, after all, access to specific information, and that information is often a "point", rather predictably situated at the end of a rather straight line. I prefer to view these columns not as a well paved road toward a clear destination, but as a meandering stream. And meandering streams tend to tangent off into streamlets that lead nowhere in particular, or of cut back on themselves and recover the same territory. If you're intent on getting somewhere in a hurry, use the highway. If, however, arriving is less important than the scenery along the route, a certain amount of repetition certainly doesn't hurt.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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