THE INTERNET IS A CULTURAL OBJECT: READ IT

People who study the real world, including historians and scientists, may find that the reality of the Internet changes how they think. But those of us who study symbolic systems, including philosophers and literary critics, find in the Internet another yet another symbolic system, albeit a humdinger, that yields — spectacularly, I must say — to our accustomed modes of inquiry.

Anyway, a new symbolic order need not disrupt Truth, wherever Truth may now be said to reside (Neurons? Climate change? Atheism?). Certainly to those of us who read more novels than MRIs, the Internet — and especially the World Wide Web —looks like what we know: a fictional world made mostly of words.

Philosophers and critics must only be careful, as we are trained to be careful, not to mistake this new, highly stylized and artificial order, the Internet, for reality itself. After all, all cultural forms and conceits that gain currency and influence — epic poetry, the Catholic mass, the British empire, photography —do so by purporting to be reality, to be transparent, to represent or proscribe life as it really is. As an arrangement of interlocking high, pop and folk art forms, the Internet is no different. This ought to be especially clear when what's meant by "the Internet" is that mostly comic, intensely commercial bourgeois space known as the World Wide Web.

We who have determinedly kept our heads while suffrage, the Holocaust, the highway system, Renaissance perspective, coeducation, the Pill, household appliances, the moon landing, the Kennedy assassination and rock 'n' roll were supposed to change existence forever, cannot falter now. Instead of theatrically changing our thinking, this time, we must keep our heads, which means — to me — that we must keep on reading and not mistake new texts for new worlds, or new forms for new brains.