Information and Information Gateways

Reading about the company Luminate and its new “image apps”, which add various kinds of functionality to static internet images (shopping, social network sharing, location information, etc.).
My gut reaction, unsurprisingly, is that this seems like yet another way to throw ads at us, and while I recognize that most of what I see and hear on the internet gets paid for by advertising, it’s hard to get excited about yet another ad popping up because my mouse hovers over an image.
But I also think there might be something more interesting going on with this, which is that Luminate’s “apps” (in quotation marks because I’m not sure this is actually the right term for what is happening here) represent a further step along the path that began with hypertext and the birth of the web.
We use the internet to get access to various kinds of “information,” broadly defined. More and more, though, any given piece of information that we encounter on the internet is also likely to serve (directly) as a kind of gateway to yet more information.
In a way, this was the purpose of hypertext; to make it so that when a reader had the option to abandon the piece of text immediately in front of them and pursue some related topic. This of course was always possible– a book could very likely send you to the dictionary or encyclopedia to get background on something– but hypertext made it easier, more immediate, and also made it feel less like getting sidetracked and more like the logical pursuit of a line of inquiry.
Books also often contain pointers to other pieces of information, in the form of references and bibliographies. In part these serve as support for the author’s arguments, but they also let the reader know where more information is available. In general, though, there is a separation, conceptual if not physical, between the information contained in the book and the ways in which it indexes other sources. And in any case, this is mostly only true for non-fiction works, and academic works in particular. In general, books are designed to be, or maybe designed as if they are, the goal of research, not the means to it.
Hypertext, and now all kinds of other internet technologies, collapse this distinction. More and more, every piece of information is somehow connected to others– and if it’s not, social sharing features give you the option to make those connections. Every piece of information we encounter is seen not as en end in itself, but as a gateway to something else.
I don’t know if I see any great consequence in this, for good of or for ill. But it does seem different, and it shows how the internet does not simply make more information available to us, but changes the way in which we interact with it.

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