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Sarah L. Courteau

WQ contributor Jeff Porter discusses his essay about the stories that the Web tells us.

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2m 57sec

In “The Web’s Random Logic,” in the current issue of the WQ, Jeff Porter takes as his starting point a Google search for blues performer Leon Redbone and spins an engrossing narrative of where that initial query takes him—from a nature video broadcast on YouTube to the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 to the fate of Radium Girls who suffered radiation poisoning during their stints in a factory that manufactured glow-in-the-dark watches during and after World War I. Porter’s essay is, above all, about the human need for stories. We asked Jeff a few questions about the genesis of his piece and what its implications are for our wired world.

What gave you the idea for this essay?

I didn’t go looking for this essay; it found me. Such are the marvels of the World Wide Web.
 
When you did the Web search described in the piece, did you immediately realize that it had the makings of an interesting narrative?

I had no idea where my Web search would take me and certainly didn’t expect to see Leon Czolgosz, President McKinley’s assassin, emerge as a character in this story. But I enjoyed the surprise. The narrative got more interesting with every click. I’m the kind of writer who is always on the lookout for strange attractors. In this essay, Thomas Edison, who connected so many disparate elements, played that role for me. I just shadowed him. As they say in network theory, a little bit of agency goes a long way.
 
You mention the wonder of the human capacity to create "random order" out of the sea of information on the Web. Is there any danger in seeing a pattern or design where there might be none?

Any time you say something interesting, you are putting yourself out on a limb. As the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, in a literal world just by using your imagination you constantly risk absurdity. We are so overwhelmed by information that it’s hard not to think we’ve crossed some line where the sheer glut of data threatens to defeat the human capacity for design. Maybe this is what set Apple apart from other tech companies—in defiance of the status quo it took pains to achieve good form. I think we need to do the same. If it’s not “truth” that matters so much as our capacity to imagine, then good form may be one way to measure the value of our imaginings. I think there is greater danger in not looking. Narrative is an old-fashioned method of reckoning with chaos, of revealing the connectedness of things. In antiquity chaos was located in the cosmos; in modernity, it was found in history; now it’s in the Internet. Does the Web need narrative? Maybe not, but we do.
 
Do you think that the random and seemingly effortless connections that Google and other search engines and databases make among bits of information have or will change the way we write history?

That would be interesting but would require a radical shift in the way historians think about connectedness, which is still grounded in the idea of causality. Has anyone applied chaos theory to historiography? Maybe the RAND Corporation. On the other hand, network-savvy history might be indistinguishable from the postmodern novel.

Did you ever manage to track down Leon Redbone?
 
No. What a bummer.