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  • Meaning without Borders:likn and Distributed Knowledge
  • Ben Syverson (bio)

This paper serves as a narrative companion to likn, an artware application about the nature of knowledge, ideas and language. According to the advocates and engineers of the "knowledge representation" project known as the Semantic Web, electronic ontologies are "a rationalization of actual data-sharing practice"; but where do artists and intellectuals fit into this data-oriented model of discourse? likn critiques the Semantic Web from a postmodern perspective. This account describes how postmodern theory was scrutinized, interpreted and ultimately expressed as "features" in likn.

Criticalartware is a collaborative art project that emerged in 2002 as a means to connect certain threads of discussion surrounding 1960s and 1970s video art to present-day new-media practice. The interconnections were evident and exciting to us, but we faced a problem in getting our ideas onto the Web: None of the readily deployable web models seemed satisfying in light of the theories we were drawing upon. Indeed, if we examine the state, even today, of "information architecture" (a regrettable analogy) we might find, with a little imagination, an architecture at the peak of high modernism; a World Wide Web overstuffed with the Miesian rectangularity of hierarchies and keywords. We might find whole cities built on MySQL and PHP—the Cor-ten steel that encourages form to follow function. Looking up at the Sears Tower of Google, amidst an impressive yet naggingly oppressive cityscape, we might scratch our heads and wonder: How in the world has this field managed to avoid postmodernism entirely?

As soon as criticalartware (then consisting of Jon Cates, Blithe Riley, Christian Ryan, Jon Satrom and me) had formed, we wanted to interview a variety of people, both "mainstream" and "marginalized," and make the interviews available on-line and at public screenings. Because our aim was, and is, to foster critical discussion, it seemed obvious that we needed some discussion platform on the web site. Technologically, this would have been no problem; there were hundreds of available "message board" and "comment" systems. The sticking point came when we realized that in order to begin a discussion about one of the interviews, one of us would first have to put the text into a new message or page, thereby making it the "root" of that discussion; all replies would cascade hierarchically from that privileged, somehow "important" interview. We could foresee what Derrida might have called a "violent hierarchy," in which the subordinated discussion might take on an oppositional relationship to the privileged, "central" site content—a dissociation between theory and implementation too large to accept.

This dissatisfaction reinvigorated my long-dormant interest in an alternative hypertextual environment—"alternative," because I felt hypertext could do more than electrify footnotes. Over time, I would come to see the very term "hypertext" as somewhat redundant; the simple act of interpreting a text is a suggestive process whereby words spontaneously spring connections to multiple "meanings" or associations. All text is necessarily "hyperlinked" by the reader on every reading. In that sense, "hypertext," which positions itself as somehow better than normal text (hyper meaning "beyond"), is misleading, because rather than being more associative and connective than "normal" text, it actually narrows the field of association by cementing certain "chosen" connections. By reifying these curated associations, hypertext heavily colors the interpretive process of reading a text. Another way to put it is that a hypertext will always be more prescriptive and rhetorically charged than the equivalent text stripped of links. It follows that, like any form of rhetoric, the emphasis of the link is equally at home in the service of creative humor, pointed critique or violent control. Any alternative system I built would have to draw attention to this fact.

During a particularly stimulating discussion, criticalartware drew up a "wish list" of features for a tailor-made web application. In 2003, I began implementing our ideas in earnest, with an eye toward creating a discussion platform that would itself have something to say. Our initial goals were simple: a generally heterarchical structure, effortless and promiscuous (I simply use easy to connote both) linking to facilitate navigation and intertextual exploration, and an open-ended encouragement of...


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pp. 433-438
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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