Infinite Loop 18: Form and Content: Mac and Otherwise

One of the downsides of the Mac
Web, and web, is that things are not always tied
together. The same news story will run at various
sites but it is not often that one ties it together
with other related industry news, when in fact
there are such ties to be made. An issue pops
up one day and is gone the next day, and gone
forever. At most, an issue is carried on for a
few days, mostly at troubleshooting sites, as
software and hardware issues emerge and are solved.
This is the way it should be, of course. But as
a whole, the Mac Web lacks a certain “logic.”
What is worse, some single sites themselves lack
a logic.

I have been led in part to think
about this topic as we try to evolve
Some things have fit in and some things have not.
We are still finding our way in fact. But we won’t
be perfect; in fact, no site will be, if what
I am about to argue is correct …

What is the “Mac Web”?

Let me explain
what I mean by “Mac Web,” since it is a term of
art for me and so stands in need of definition.
Very simply, the “Mac Web” is just the set
of all webs sites out there talking about Apple
. Now, as anyone knows, a set is not
identical to its members, and so the “Mac Web”
is not identical to the sites which make it up.
In fact, the Mac Web would remain in existence
even if some of the sites which constitute it
went out of existence, which they do on a regular
basis anyway. Let me state it this way: The
Mac Web is an epi-web, a web above the web
It is the sum total of Mac-centric sites, but
it is not the same as any one of those sites.
This is, to say the least, an abstract notion,
but one I find useful in thinking about what I
see on the Internet, and the Mac Web in particular.
So when I speak of the “Mac Web” this is what
I mean, and it is rooted in accepted notions of
set theory and ontology.

Before I go on let
me point out some practical consequences of this.
First, no single site is the Mac Web. No matter
how many hits a single site gets, if it gets more
than any other, it is not the Mac Web.
The Mac Web would still exist even if some large
site went under. Second, and perhaps more importantly,
the Mac Web is no single site. That is to say,
no single site on the Mac Web can capture
the Mac Web itself. There will always be something
lacking on any site you visit; there will always
be some piece of information you need or want
which it won’t have, and necessarily so
(there is no getting around it). This is why you
cannot take away surfing from the ‘Net and still
have the ‘Net — surfing is part of its essence.
The reason you surf is because each site you visit
is necessarily incomplete. In fact, like
Incompleteness Theorem
in mathematics, I might
even state an Incompleteness Theorem for the
: Necessarily, for any one site
on the web, there will a truth (or fact, or piece
of information, however you want to say it), which
it will fail to capture (or notice, or link to,
or however you want to say it). Every web site
is imperfect, if “imperfect” is understood as

This is why you surf.
This is also why sites try to find a niche. Or,
at least they should. In my opinion, MacFixIt
is the king of the hill in troubleshooting sites
(though it too is part of a network, as it were).
Nothing yet beats MacSurfer’s
for news links. Pure-Mac
and VersionTracker
are making their names in the software update
category. Barefeats
rules with benchmarks; MacOpinion
has great . . . opinions pieces. This is the way
it has to be. These sites are specific
and focused.

But it is not
that way everywhere …

Consider MacNN. As
you know, MacNN is just AppleInsider with a different
name. The illogic is evident: news and rumors
don’t fit together. And evidently, the people
at MacNN-AppleInsider saw success of dealmac
and so are trying to copy it with DealNN. What
do you get in the end? MacNN leads with stories
from AppleInsider and DealNN as though it is actually
reporting independent news, which of course it
is not. The next thing we will probably see if
MacsurferNN and VersiontrackerNN. But this ends
in a certain illogic. We feel it when MacNN reports
news when we all know it is the same people who
have a terrible track record with rumors at AppleInsider,
along with their ethically questionable tactics
— one effects the other and they don’t seem to
fit together.

Some sites, ignorant
of the way the world is, try to capture everything.
They see success on one site, and they try to
add that success to their own site no matter what
the fit. But in the end you end up with an illogical
grouping of site sections. And most importantly,
in the end, the illogic of a site will show in
its design, which will become illogical as a result
of an illogical grouping of site sections. Navigation
become a nightmare.

Take ZDNet.
It is a huge company which tries to do it all.
Sure, given enough TV time logically divided into
hours and half hours it can cover a lot, though
not everything. But go over to the site and try
surfing around in it: The inherent limitations
of a web site vis-a-vis television will be seen.
It is a mess of links and graphics which even
at times Leo Laporte himself can’t figure out
while on TV (not to mention that their own search
engines can’t seem to figure out what’s what)!!
It is illogical design grounded in illogical groupings
of site sections.

Form and Content

Some sites have
a kind of slapstick feel to them. They throw mud
at a wall and whatever sticks stays on the site.
But eventually the illogic of this becomes apparent.
You’ll know when it does, for then you will have
trouble figuring out exactly where you are on
the site, what they are up to at any one point,
and you’ll feel a kind of uneasiness when navigating
the site. At this point an important truth surfaces:
Form and content are not distinct.

I am not one of those who
believes that form and content are separate
. I see commercials, Editors and a
host of others say that the web is all about “content”
as though it were something that stood on its
own two feet. It cannot. When the content becomes
unruly, so will the form. That is to say, illogical
content breeds illogical design. It has to be
this way if in the end the distinction between
form and content breaks down as I suspect it does.

The Hows and Whats of Content

Let me explain
the distinction a bit if I can. Generally, and
simplistically, we might say that content is what
is said and form is how something is said.
Philosophers and poets have for centuries debated
the issue as to whether how (form) something
is said affects what (content) is said.
Suppose that one accepts the affirmative that
indeed this is the case. Then you have the position,
for example, that some truths can only be expressed
in poetry, or music, or fiction. Trying to state
such truths in propositional form takes something
important away from them. Try, for example, to
state the emotional pulsations of a Mahler symphony
in an essay and one sees right away that it loses
something important, if not essential, to it’s

This is why Nietzsche
wrote aphorisms, Kierkegaard
wrote using pseudonyms, Descartes
wrote a “Meditations,” and maybe even why Plato
wrote dialogues. (And even shows up in Picasso’s
“Blue Period.”) Take Kierkegaard for
example. He was trying to “introduce Christianity
to Christians,” as he said. The believers in Denmark
had lost what it meant to become and be a Christian
thought SK. But if he were just to say this he
might not get through. So he created pseudonyms
who embodied the very complacency he was seeking
to attack. In this way he thought people might
more readily see themselves in his writing.
Writing, for SK, provided a mirror, and how he
said something gravely affected what he wanted
to say, so he thought.

Nietzsche wrote in aphorisms to
make the reader work; and Plato wrote in dialogues,
partly at least, so that one could reason with
him; Kierkegaard wrote in pseudonyms to indirectly
communicate with readers; and Descartes wrote
a meditation so readers could meditate with him.
What all of these share is that content in some
way becomes an activity. It’s not just the activity
of reading, mind you; reading can still be a fairly
passive state depending on how one thinks about
it. In these thinkers the content becomes an active
engagement, not something that stands apart from
the page. And how something is said engenders
and promotes that activity.

So it is on the Mac
Web (remember what I mean by this), or any web
site really. The very colors and shapes a site
uses in its design in some way must affect its
message, either for better or for worse. Dark
colors with sharp shapes says something different
than soft colors with rounded shapes. I am not
talking about the proper use of white space or
things like that. It goes deeper. Think of a web
site as a room in which you want to carry on a
conversation. Bright/soft lights, red or sandy
blonde carpet, the temperature, the size, and
the arrangement of the furniture all affect how
the conversation will go, the content of it that
is. Why do you think your spouse remembers those
candle light dinners more than going through the
drive thru?! It’s because the form affects the
content of one’s memories. The question is, does
your web site (room) logically reflect the kind
of conversation you want to carry on with your
visitors? Or does someone need to do a little
house cleaning before guests arrive?

Form and Content and Mac OS X

The whole debate
about form and content shows up in OS X as well.
Even though conceptually we can make a distinction
between form and content we cannot in reality
separate them; it would be like trying to separate
shape from size, which we can do conceptually
but not in reality. So too we can distinguish
form-content with the Mac as well though the distinction
will be much looser. Let me explain ….

One could distinguish
three levels of form-content with the Mac: (1)
in its OS, (2) in its hardware, and (3) in both
combined. The OS has both form-content, the hardware
has both form-content, and together they have
form-content. This would make for about six level
of form-content on a Mac running Mac OS! I have
no idea exactly where to draw the distinction
when it comes to these (and it cannot be that
the form=hardware and the content=software, for
that sounds just too simple to be true).

Moreover, if what I
have said here is correct, the distinction is
playing a role in what Bryan Chaffin at MacObserver
is calling the “whining” over OS X.
Bryan says that one mistake Apple is making is
that it is changing too much of the OS at once,
and that it would be better without Aqua. (I am
still thinking about this claim to see if I think
it makes sense with what I have said here.) But
if the form-content distinction is a distinction
without a difference, and if content is an activity,
then this may be the ground of some complaints
about OS X.

The simple point is this: OS X imposes
a new form on the OS which is affecting the content,
that is, the activity of using the Mac
OS. People are finding it hard to use, simply
put. Or better yet, people are finding it confusing,
complex, unintuitive, too playful, and what have
you. I think all this has less to do with learning
new user habits than it does with showing how
a change in form changes content. No matter how
much we talk about a Unix “shell,” what is shelled
will be affected by the shelling process (as it
were). The form of OS X is changing the content
of our beloved OS, and this may be the ground
of some worries we see expressed on the ‘Net about
OS X. Admittedly, I need to think through this
more to see if I am on the right track, so it
simply stands as a postulation at this point,
one possible explanation of some fact.

I have only touched the surface
of the implications of the interdependence of
form and content in various areas, from poetry
and philosophy, to web site design and OS X. But
the major point stands: Form affects content more
than we realize sometimes. Just take a look around
you and you’ll see what I mean. All I ask is that
you … think about it …

David Schultz

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