matthew fuller on 12 Mar 2001 14:57:12 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] WebTracer interview

Interview with  Tom Betts /NullPointer

NullPointer has recently released a beta-version of a new web visualisation
application, WebTracer.  Downloadable from:

MF:  What are the questions you are asking about the structure of the
web, and about the software that is being developed to use it that
suggest the approaches to it deployed in WebTracer?

NP:  Well aware of the legacy of webmapping as a supposed demystifying
device and fetishised formalistic perversion of form I do not intend to
decorate this project with too much hypothesis of cultural and social
intent. (there are others who could grace it much better than myself)
However I cannot deny that the intentions of the application are not
primarily to aid webmasters in their analysis and development of their
own sites but to, as i hope is obvious, repurpose the information that
comprises hypertext and the web into another plane of perspective and

The application deals with sites and pages as molecules and atoms, the
resulting cellular structures reflect the information structures of the
web. I find that the representation of the many shells and layers that
guide our exploration and expliotation of cyberspace can help to
reinforce the awareness that all information systems are guided by a
great number of defining elements. The Hardware used, the Operating
System, the Software, the Network Protocols and finally the File
Structures themselves all mould the way that users interact with
dataspaces and the way that they can create them.

MF:  When you use the software it is clear that the arrangement of the
relations between the nodes carries information in terms of the length
of the linking line.  What determines the magnitude of displacement from
one node to the next, ie, how can a user 'read' the information that the
software displays spatially?

NP:  The molecular structures created by the application are arranged
spacially in terms of several different modifiers. The program uses both
the order of links as they appear on a page and the relative depth of
links within the host webserver's html docs directory. The closer a node
is to the base of a WebTracer structure the closer that page lies to the
index page of the whole site, additional subdirectories create distinct
planes that are positioned up across the vertical axis. Hence sites with
strict and deep heirarchical file structures will create tall objects,
where'as sites with flat or database driven structures will result in a
flatter series of planes or plateaus of information. The order that
these levels are built is dependent on the order of their appearance to
the user, and each distinct directory path occupies it's own horizontal
plane. The color and length of any linking strand represents the
direction and distance of that link within the structure that is being

MF:  On your web-site, in the text accompanying some screen-shots of the
software in action, you use particular terms to discribe these spatial
arrangements such as 'plateau', 'crown', 'tree' and so on.  How much are
these ways of describing the links a result of the way the WebTracer
software spatially organises the  display of links and how much are they
structures that are inherent to the structure of the particular
web-sites that it hits?

NP:  The particular structural forms that result from a WebTracer run on
a site; as 'plateau', 'crown', 'tree' are a combination of both the
order in which the program 'sees' the links and their paths and
locations on the remote webserver. Although the display routines can be
configured differently, the molecular model resulting from a 'trace'
reflects very closely the information structure of the target site, both
on a file structure level and on an information design level.

MF:  We already have as commonplace the phenomenon of art and other
websites being made to be only viewable through certain configurations
of software and access speed, that only make themeslves visible through
certain very narrowly configured sets of software devices. The arguments
for and against this, echo of course, some of those considered at the
inception of the web and are ongoing, with the destinction between
pyhsical and logical mark-up of text etc.(oldskool!)
 For these sites,
the import and export filters of software already constitute a hidden
micropolitics of which file formats are accepted or are interpretable
and which not, based around alliances between the different forms of
organisation that generate these protocols and standards. And obviously
these systems of gating and reading, of coding and decoding, operate at
many different scales - including cultural ones - during any particular
period of use of a piece of software.
One other related thing that
occurs on the web frequently is people blocking spiders, from search
engines etc. from their sites - that is to say from people / machines
reading their data in certain ways. I wonder, given a perhaps
increased emphasis on 'using' or perceiving the data on a site in the
'correct' way, how you perceive the WebTracer operating in this context?

NP:  Well, there's quite a range of issues you have highlighted here, but as
you point out they all stem from the same old internet (or hypertext)
argument of freedom of form/media versus control of form/media. As I
touched upon, in answer to a previous question, the nature of the
internet and associated technological media has meant that different
parties see different means to different ends. The ongoing process of
encoding the theoretically open system of the web is an inevitable
development of it's popularisation and commodification.

Reducing information to a series of file formats and
locking those formats into the development and distribution of software
applications, serves to create a language that is both arcane and
specific. Such frames placed around the dataspace of the net have a dual
purpose; On the one hand they contextualise and compartmentalise the
medium into bite sized chunks, which users can familiarise themselves
with and reflect already existing metaphors or schema; On the other hand
they tie up data and medium to statements about ownership and
intellectual property.

With the definition of a system comes the ability to quantify it and
commodify it. A natural extension of this practice is the concern over
infringement of these definitions or alternative readings and systems
(hence the blocking of autonomous agents e.t.c.). The web has gone from
a very open media which grew because of it's inherent qualities of
'openess' into a system overloaded with the imposed frameworks and
metaphors of commercialising agencies. There becomes an "official" way
to browse, syndicated by whoever has the largest presence in the
definition of the term. I'm not saying that applications such as
webtracer are in any way countering that trend (in a sense they are
providing further reworkings) but perhaps they will make people aware
that there are still different ways of viewing any system.

MF:  You mention the difference between flatter, or database driven
sites and those that have a more hierarchically ordered structure.
Would you say that one of the things that WebTracer and other pieces of
software that map links between sites is to effectively flatten all
sites into a 'plateau'?

In a sense, yes, but the action is of course not a physical/dimensional
flattening but rather a psychlogical reduction of the intricacies of
data into one specific analysis. Webmapping software is concerned with
certain features or issues in hypertext, the rest it can ignore from
it's resulting output. Obviously there are many factors which affect and
dictate the production of a web site, but most webmapping software is
reductive and formalistic.

MF:  Following on from this, how do you see people using the software?
How do you use it?

I would like to see people using it in an almost sculptural way, there
is a certain aesthetic kick of of revealing the inherent structure of a
site which I think appeals to a lot of people. I would also like to
think that it could be used practically as well as an information design
analysis tool, but i suspect that it would need more commercial
development for this. I have used it for both these purposes, but I
think that what I enjoy most about it is the pseudo filmic way you can
move from node to node across a mapped site as if it were a medical
examination. I have already had many suggestions from users of some very
varied and creative ways of using the application from both the designer
and the user point of view.

MF:  There's a bundle of other material on the nullpointer site, from
the relocated material of to sound generation software
in which you seem to be exploring other potential spaces for software to
go. What are the key ways in which software can be developed that
mainstream software is missing out on at the moment?

I think that developing software is a real double-edged sword. As you
write new software, you become acutely aware that you will be
continually restricting aspects of it's functionality, to suit your
needs. You can't help then but reflect on the way this process occurs in
all the other software you use and even in the tools you write your own
software with. One of the few ways to counter this trend is the open
source movement.

Open source isn't just about code either, it relates to a whole set of
attitudes that can benefit the resulting software. The video games
industry thrives on the developer community and is one of the most
cutting edge sectors of the industry. There is also a less visual but
equally important area within academic developer community (IRCAM,MIT
e.t.c.) Each area of the developer community has skills that can benefit
the others. In my own work I try not to restrict myself to working only
in one community or with one programming environment and I will use code
or approaches that are already available and then warp them to my own
personal ambitions. I would like to see simpler products coming from the
mainstream software market, but with a much greater facility for mods
and patches to be developed by the user community. If it wasn't such a
janky program, I'd love to see the Quake modmakers get to work on
Microsoft Word;)

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