Summer 2007

An Online Drift

Five Eye commentators take a stroll along the highways and strip malls of contemporary cyberspace

There was a time, not long ago in years but seemingly aeons in internet terms, when it was fashionable, obligatory almost, to talk about the ‘information superhighway’. It was one of those phrases that tumbled easily from the lips of politicians or captains of industry, and for those evangelists who burned bright in the great dotcom bubble, the burgeoning infrastructure was paved with gold. The ones who crashed may have been right at the wrong time, but the roads are now wide open for business, thanks to faster processors, cheap memory and more bandwidth. Yet browsing the Web is nothing like motorway travel, however fast it gets. The average browser’s ‘history’ might show any of these: holiday bookings; blurry videos; rare books; news; Microsoft error pages; Rubik’s Cube solutions; and next week’s food shopping. Moving from site to site is more like a dérive, or drift, around a beguiling or chaotic city sector, the zone that was never quite finished or planned: where minimalist coffee bars spring up alongside tailors’ shops and an empty garage used for fashion shows; where upstairs offices offer alternative therapies; new brands rub shoulders with dying ones; and a bare warehouse shelters unemployed illustrators. Somewhere not unlike the downtown neighbourhoods where website designers aspire to work, cloistered behind heavy grilles and security systems.

Over the next few pages our five contributors take a virtual stroll through an eclectic selection of websites, dispensing praise and criticism as they click and scroll. Other subjects that came under discussion included the ubiquity of Matthew Carter’s Verdana (used to great effect by, see pp.18-21) and the sheer awfulness of, described by Adrian Shaughnessy as ‘the worst sort of cram-it-in-and-sell-every-pixel-of-space-as-advertising site you’ll ever see’. We don’t show social networking sites such as MyTelegraph (see Agenda, p.83) or Facebook, whose bland design prompted Brendan Dawes to say: ‘If this is the future of getting to know people, I’d rather go down the pub.’

Anne Burdick, however, noted that such ‘hackathons’ are ‘changing the way we educate, communicate, find love and construct knowledge’, implying a separate subject for discussion that could go on forever. Online, it probably will.