I’m told on occasion that I should upgrade my website.
You may be familiar with this kind of thing yourself - the site is ‘too hard to navigate’, it will ‘put visitors off’, you need to ‘streamline and modernise’, the layout is ‘dated’, and so on. Now, don’t get me wrong - all of these observations are perfectly valid, and the advice which usually follows them - to improve the site menu, de-clutter, freshen up the look, and so on - is normally totally worthwhile and needs to be considered.
But I don’t think I’ll do any of those things. Not for a while anyway.
To understand that, you need to step back with me from the world of websites and look at a slightly bigger picture.
Most of you reading this have grown up in what we call ‘the modern world’ and have become accustomed to the technological revolution that has occurred in the last twenty years in particular. It’s hard now to imagine a world in which Google, Facebook, Amazon and all the rest not only didn't exist, they were inconceivable; it’s perhaps even more difficult to picture our lives devoid of the mobile phones through which we can not only remain in contact with family and friends, but explore the known universe. There used to be a time when, if I came across something that I wanted to know more about, I had to make a mental note to look it up the next time I was at the library; there used to be many times when, if I was delayed by a train strike or was working late at the office, my wife simply had to wait until I got home for an explanation.
Transactions between people were accomplished by letter, by phone call (if you possessed or were near a working phone) or by personal visit. If you wanted to buy something, you normally had to physically journey to a shop which had it and then transport it home yourself. If you wanted to ‘make friends’, you usually had to have a life which overlapped or coincided with someone else’s life to a sufficient degree that you could get to know each other over a period of time. Sometimes you were trapped in such situations geographically, either at work or in classes at school, forced to get to know people whom you didn't really like or want to associate with.
In brief, prior to the revolution which we are still experiencing, human life was to a large extent dominated by where you were and what you physically had in front of you.
Then along came the World Wide Web and its ever-faster and more convenient ways of accessing it, like laptops, tablets and smart phones. Now, if you encounter something that you want to know more about, you can Google all about it in seconds; if you are delayed by train strikes or anything else not only your wife but the whole world can know about it in under a minute, with pictures to prove it.
Transactions between people are accomplished by text, by comment or by click. If you want to buy something, you can order it and have it delivered without leaving your sofa; if you want to ‘make friends’, you can contact and get to know almost anyone on the planet, remotely, without speaking to them or actually meeting them in any physical way. Geography no longer rules. And with more and more people able to ‘work from home’ or through virtual offices, the problem of objectionable associations is lessening in almost every venue except schools.
The Web is amazing; it’s fabulous; we can’t do without it. Studies show how much this apparently innocent innovation, originally designed to improve communication between scientists at CERN in Switzerland, has transformed global economics, culture and lifestyles and even the way we think. If I lose my keys now my first instinct is to search for them on Google - and there are even apps which can help people with that.
The truth is that it has made what I do possible: I can now sit in my armchair and help writers all over the world to write better stories and get published without having to move anything except my fingers and my eyes. Marvellous.
So surely I should be taking full advantage of this wonderful thing to upgrade my website so that people can visit it more easily, find what they are looking for more efficiently, and buy more stuff from me with fewer hindrances?
This is where things get counter-cultural.
It all depends on how we view the Web and what we do with it. Yes, using it and its various bits of apparatus - phones, apps, browsers, search engines and so forth - I can defy the barriers of geography and chance to some extent and bring the things and people I desire closer to me. Yes, other people, using the same sorts of things, can reach out and get from me the things that they want which I provide.
But what is the experience like? How much are they really getting? What is the long term result of all this ‘easiness’?
The appeal of the modern era for many, of course, is that it can bring wealth. The more people you can attract, the easier you can make it for others to purchase from you, the faster you will make money. The Web empowers each and every one who has access to it to draw in the moths with the biggest lantern ever made, and if you need more moths all you need to do is fire up an even bigger lantern and remove more and more obstructions to its light. In pours the rest of the world with its desires; out they pour again, having almost instantly acquired whatever it was they needed, or if not instantly, knowing that it is in its way to them perhaps by a remotely controlled drone. Desire grows stronger; needs multiply; reach for more increases.
But just as our food has become mass-produced so that many schoolchildren fail to identify what they are eating for lunch with the farm animals that they visit occasionally on a school trip, and just as everything is packaged to strict standards of conformity and sterility, so our life experience is heading the same way. We can reach out now to just about anyone, anywhere on the planet, and take from them what we want without any kind of meaningful relationship having occurred.
Just as geography has been overruled, so has significance to a large extent. If we can make every wish come true, we may lose our perspective on what to wish for.
Of course, I depend upon my website to act as a go-between for me. A visitor can see what I have to offer and purchase it without engaging with me at all. I certainly don’t want to hinder that transactional level of interaction from occurring - but nor do I want to become faceless and cypher-like to those who want what I have. There’s a balance to be struck, between enabling others to take, and permitting me to be part of the giving.
There was once a bookshop in Highgate, London - I hope it is still there. It was a small shop, with narrow corridors, a labyrinth of tiny rooms, weaving up and down little sets of stairs further and further back from the street. Each and every wall was lined with books, stacked from floor to ceiling, books of all kinds occasionally just piled up on the floor, often with names not visible. At the back of the shop, almost hidden in a corner, sat an old man, reading a book under the light of a small lamp. Believing that I had stepped into some anteroom of Heaven, I made my way slowly to the back. I was looking for a particular book, but there appeared to be no system to the way in which the stock of books was presented to the visitor.
Reticently (for the man seemed very intent on continuing to read, despite my presence) I asked him whether or not he had a copy of The Corridors of Power by C. P. Snow. Without speaking, he got up, put down his book and led me through various tiny, cramped rooms jammed with books, up and down little stairs, then turned a corner and put his hand on a paperback. It was the book I wanted. I made my way back to his desk, paid for the book, and left soon afterwards. He never said a word.
I used to live in Highgate but moved on long ago - yet I've always remembered that bookshop. Leaving my website as it is - the ramshackle, rambling, multi-layered monstrosity that it is, with its shaky designs and obscure pages - means that when visitors arrive they get something of a flavour of that bookshop. They also might get a notion of what sorts of things I like and what I am like. It has books, about 1,000 articles, hidden links and corners and passageways, thoughts, pictures, free gifts, services, all kinds of things all mashed together. The site grew up organically. So did I. If visitors are in a hurry to get, to take, to be elsewhere, let them rush off - if need be empty-handed. If they want to linger and explore, if they want a more meaningful relationship than a purely commercial one, the clunky old website is a good place to begin. I’m in there somewhere - it has my ideas, my fingerprints, all over it. Let them meet me, and leave when they wish, hopefully with more than they bargained for, and with a lingering sense of wanting to return.
I told you it might be food for thought. That idea - that there is more to the way we relate to each other than commerce - is one to which I shall return in due course.