Obviously the title of this blog is partly a reference to “the shape of things to come”, the promise the future holds; but, as the title implies, I’m more interested in the shape of things now.
I’ve worked with the web for 8 years or so, and used computers all my life (30 years and counting); and more and more I find that I’m describing, explaining and understanding the internet in terms of shape. The more I work with the virtual, the conceptual, and the abstract, the more I find I look to physical and spatial metaphors to mediate the medium: from the ‘deep web’ to the ‘tip of the iceberg’, from the ‘trees’ of hierarchical file-structures to the ‘cloud’ of data and web services, from Google maps to site-maps to mind-maps and all points North.
I blame (or credit) my linguistic and literary background for some of this: I’m used to looking at the shape of text. I spent my undergraduate years learning to analyse the shape (literary and literal) of a poem, a sentence; the ebb and flow of language; the shape of a grapheme; the shape of the mouth as it shapes a phoneme. They’re all shapes, from the wide story-arc of a tetralogy to the angle of the tongue in an apico-dental click.
Learning about markup (HTML, then SGML, then XML) gave me a new vocabulary — a new world of vocabulary — for describing the semantic and structural shapes of documents; learning to program forced me to shape my thoughts according to processes and functions. I waved my hands around a lot (and reinvented a lot of circle-shaped objects) as I tried to express the way things fit together.
But it’s not just a literary thing, and it’s not just a geeky thing. We interpret and assimilate the world around us by learning to recognise patterns and shapes — from the features of our mother’s face to the peaks and troughs of the stock market, it’s all about the shape of things.