What every new media worker must know:
"Cyberspace" is not a space

(or, why I am against 3D navigation)

Rachel Collinson

Think back to the moment when you first heard all the fuss about the net. For your humble author the first memory is of seeing the film Jumping Jack Flash - and it's not so much memorable for the image of Whoopi Goldberg brandishing a mansize toothbrush against an unknown intruder, (which has its merits) but for the fact that the plot effectively hinged on her character instant messaging a spy trapped in Russia.

Perhaps you recall soundbites like "This is the beginning of end for the postal system/business air travel/commuting..." and other such ridiculous hype. It seemed almost reasonable, yet now we laugh cynically at such innocence.

However, there was a seed of truth in those statements, which is probably why so many of us swallowed them at the time. The kernel of it was that the internet collapses space. Its magical combination of electricity, protocols and hardware, strung out across the globe, really do make Moscow seem as close to us as the PC in the next room.

So, what did the great design minds do with this remarkable inversion of geography? They said "Let's make a virtual gallery you can wander round" or "Let's make a virtual nightclub." Suddenly with such clumsy reproductions of the real world online, we had all its disadvantages (having to travel from one place to another in real time) with none of the advantages (the texture of a painting, the feel of a pint glass, and other luxuries which I shall let you imagine in your own time.)

For some reason this desire to imitate travel still persists. Almost every fledgling webdesigner at some point suggests a navigation system based on rooms or spaces. (Go into the conference room and you can see the press releases. Go into the telephone booth and you get contact information.)

Forget it! Physical dimensions are not what networked IT does well, and it's certainly not an advantage (unless you are playing Tomb Raider, in which case you may be glad there's a metre of virtual stone between you and some rabid wolf.) What if you wanted to compare differing sets of information, or change the order and grouping of images in our virtual gallery? On the web this becomes immediately possible, but it renders the metaphor superfluous at best; counter-intuitive at worst.

Information and 3d space can rarely, if ever, be combined to good effect. Many extremely talented designers have tried to solve complex navigation and data representation problems, such as menus with many layers and interlinking options, by creating a kind of space which you can circumnavigate or zoom in and out of the text. But if you can find me a casual web user that understands what on earth is going on with these things, I promise to eat that very man-size toothbrush.

Not so long ago, Apple announced that in their development of the next version of Mac OS, they were exploring a new desktop metaphor which was not based on two dimensions but three. Everybody danced around excitedly on reading the press release. But what happened? We ended up with beveled icons and little folders that look like they're standing up on the desktop. Cute, but not exactly a quantum leap.

I could be wrong about this. But one thing's for sure, you'd have to spend a lot more money than Apple did to prove it.

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