Long ponderous rant about simplifying the internet

I’m about to launch the next website in what will eventually be a sort of stable of websites that I publish. This one is a knitting wiki covering techniques, patterns, people, gear, etc., and linking the diverse partial references that are already online. In general, my vision for this stable of sites is for each to be a sort of calm at the center of a chaotic storm of information, a viewpoint on the fray, a simple starting point into the endless details.

It isn’t just me who is inspired to focus, filter, reduce. Simplify the information. Smaller, smaller.

FM publishing is doing a similar thing (but about 20 times sexier, with celebrity power): collecting individual authors and blogs into a “federation,” a reliable brand. FM Pub approved. One less thing to worry about.

And this Squidoo thing; filtering through expert “lenses” to find worthwhile content. Rollyo allows focussed, limited searching. RSS is about checking a bunch of websites in one place instead of all over the internet.

A Kottke discussion several weeks ago about the future of the web inspired a lot of comments about simplification, unification, resolving the chaos of the web and our million interfaces into some palatable, consistent format.

Is simplification a productive way to deal with overwhelming media? It feels defensive to me. Save us from the information!

I don’t really buy the possibility of simplification. When does anything get simpler? My icon for this impossibility is the closing chapter of Death and Life of Great American Cities… Jacobs discusses the leap we need to make to thinking about complex systems in useful ways, and how everything from cities to medicine depends on it. Complex systems can’t be conceived of by scaling up a set of simple rules because there are too many interactions to keep track of, but neither can they be understood properly as broad generalizations because that misses the complexity. I wonder if some of this push to simplify the web is an attempt to make generalizations easier, and I’m wary of that. I want to find a way to engage with the overwhelmingness and know it for what it is.

But meanwhile I make these websites that collect and filter and editorialize the chaos? I guess that having a clearinghouse is not really a cop-out; it frees up energy to engage with the overwhelming media-soup in other, more useful ways. RSS doesn’t tend to reduce people’s information intake; it just makes it more convenient. It makes room for more.

A major reason that I like to do things manually on a regular basis is to get a feel for how much work is really being done. I go to individual websites instead of firing up Bloglines, I walk my groceries home. I don’t make jobs impossible by insisting on this approach, but I like to keep in touch with the inconvenient ways (yes, I know life gets a lot more inconvenient than typing URLs by hand).

When I walk instead of riding in a car, I keep a human perspective on my spatial surroundings. This is how long it takes a human to travel this distance. This is how big the space is compared to my body. Then when I drive or bike the same trip, I know how big the distance is, and how the vehicle’s capabilities compare to my body’s. I like having that perspective. It keeps me grounded.

In a similar way, I like visiting websites individually to keep a semi-human perspective on my informational surroundings. This is how many sources I’m reading; this is how much time I save by aggregating.

I’ve kind of run out of steam here without any new comment on businesses and projects that aim to simplify our interface with the internet. I’m just percolating. Hopefully something will pop out soon and I can make a website about it 🙂