Gated Cul de Sacs

Each Sunday I try to ride my bike. It keeps me sane, but it’s also frustrating.

It’s frustrating because of the way cities develop today. Every new housing project shares a curb cut onto a main road. If your kid has a friend who lives behind you, chances are the only way to get the two together is to drive – out your cul de sac, along three main roads, and into the next cul de sac.

There are other unintended consequences. The highways have to be widened. They take more traffic. This makes it dangerous on Sunday – something about four lanes makes people think they’re on a freeway. This makes it dangerous on Saturday – you can choke on car exhaust. If there’s an accident or fire, no one goes anywhere. This is why Atlanta no longer works as a city.

I bring this up because increasingly the Internet is developing as highways and cul de sacs. “Portals” like Yahoo are the highways, filled with traffic and billboards. Stores, entertainment sites, and news sites are increasingly cul de sacs, reluctant to link except for “partners” (homes on the same street).

That’s not the way hypertext is designed to work. The idea is that you can go to anywhere from anywhere. A page of text describing Atlanta landmarks would link all over the place – to restaurants, shops, historical sections, maybe some academic treatise. A single, well-done HTML source can be the start of an entire journey, one that’s different for each reader.

Today’s web has evolved into highways and cul de sacs for the same reasons Atlanta has – greed and short-term values.

Rather than seeing their servers as part of a larger community, commercial domain owners see themselves as running separate communities. If you stumble into a Go.Com server, the only way to a CBS or GE page is to pull down a bookmark or type a new address. Conglomerate business plans based on “share of customer” depend on making it as hard as possible for you to do what the web makes natural – to spread yourself around.

If you make a purchase or share some data, you’re conveying an advantage for a business server its owner will use to keep you away from the competition. The problem is this is no longer a fair exchange.

By denying customers the richness of the web experience, businesses exchange the long-term health of the web for the short-term value of a sale or a click.

This is what makes Charles Conn’s nonsense about “deep linking” so dangerous. Conn, the head of Ticketmaster-Citysearch, thinks I must gain his permission to link people into his public database. It’s a stand that makes permanent the short-term values of too many Internet businesses today. It turns cul de sacs into gated cul de sacs.

You don’t have to agree with Conn to use his nonsense of a gated web. Click on this Fox URL. (It’s an interview with “Neuromancer” author William Gibson.) The Fox server inserts a string of code into the URL when it’s received – specifically, js_index.sml?content= – and redirects every request to the Fox News home page. You can’t get to Gibson’s interview from there. (Go ahead, try it.)

Cul de sacs are stupid, selfish and wrong. Gated cul de sacs are even worse. If they become the norm, the web as designed is dead. In time, it will work no better than Atlanta’s highways.

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