We're all McLuhanistas now. We take it for granted that the contents of each new medium, the World Wide Web, for example, is other media. In the case of the World Wide Web, it is television, film, photography, music, radio, books and magazines of all kinds that make up most of its contents.
The Web started out where the media that preceded it ended up: as a mass distribution network. The content of the Web, a photograph or a film, for instance, may be transformed by being published in the context of the Web, where it collides, lickety-split, at random, with other data, but the photo or film is not altered on purpose to make it "Webic" in the way books and plays are altered to make them "filmic," by breaking them down and putting them together again as screenplays and films, Frank Nugent’s adaptation of Alan Le May’s novel The Searchers for John Ford’s Western film The Searchers (1956) is as fine an example as any, or for that matter the way film created for television is made "episodic."
There is no art form yet the object of which is the creation of exciting Web collisions, juxtapositions or chains of hyperlinks. Nor, for that matter, is it possible to imagine what the medium that may someday subsume the Web will look like much less what the "art" of that medium might be, unless the medium is an all-seeing artificial intelligence that imagines the ephemeral events of the Web and real life as, essentially, one and the same, and becomes, at the same time, solitary creator and only viewer, muttering to itself.
Generally, art is degraded as it makes its way through the media food chain. Novel to film to streamed television to YouTube snippet, inserted into an article about an article on the Web, is a downhill trip. But only the last stage of that journey, the Web, was designed from the get-go to abstract, distill, decontextualize and repackage without adding value, to transmit, or, when not simply transmitting, to transform, by reducing content to pap. When it is not just moving content from one point to another, the World Wide Web has managed, on purpose, to dumb down its content—print, film, television and the other media—to an extent previously unimagined. Even more than television, the Web is, with a few notable exceptions, a vast graveyard where ideas and creative energy go to die. And now it has an unlimited bandwidth to fill.
The history of television is instructive. Film has been kinder to books than television, the medium the Web resembles most, has been to films. In some ways, television has advanced the art of film. Certainly, the extended length of series like Rome, The Sopranos (1999 - 2007), Lonesome Dove (1989) and Angels in America (2003) has given audiences more time with the characters and mises-en-scène of those films than movie-going audiences ordinarily get. And mise-en-scène, a stage term applied to film by the French critic André Bazin that refers to everything about a film except its script, takes time to appreciate. It's mise-en-scène that makes it necessary to actually see a film before we can talk about it as film. But, at the same time that television gives audiences an extended look at the mises-en-scène of some films, it alters the film experience by degrading a film's mise-en-scène, making it smaller, flatter and more frontal, an effect that favors montage over extended scenes that are blocked and photographed in a way that develops the illusion of depth on the screen and recreates the real world. Sometimes the art of that is subtle, sometimes, as in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965), it is obvious and in and of itself a pleasure to watch and to study.
Television was not conceived as a distribution medium for films any more than film was conceived as a distribution medium for books. Films may end up, along with made for TV movies, feeding the practically insatiable maw of cable television and streamers, just as novels may end up as films, but television itself was envisioned, like radio before it, as a live medium. That aspect of television is in decline, too.
The fact that television news and opinion has degenerated until even raw video of breaking events is edited, explained and commented on in search of memorable and persuasive phrases designed to lead viewers to preconceived points of view, is not the result of television's intention, so much as it is the result of the corruption of television's original intention to reveal, inform and transport.
The Web, on the other hand, has adhered to its original intention. It remains as it began, a network of people, separated in space, each identified by a unique address on the web, coalescing into temporary communities around points of common interest where data is exchanged. Some of that data is still information. It actually adds to the representation of something. Most of it now is redundant, simply repeating something already known, and a lot of it is noise, data that adds to the representation of nothing. The World Wide Web creates the illusion of connection while it affirms our separation in space.
Apart from the content they pass back and forth, the World Wide Web and the sites on it, are not very interesting. Most sites lack the kind of structure that narrative gives to novels, plays, films and television. Even so-called reality television is structured by formulaic plots that include some element of suspense. Nor does the structure that embeds the mise-en-scène have to be narrative in the sense of a traditional plot with a familiar commercial structure. Films like Warhol’s Sleep (1963) and Blow Job (1963) are structured by the nature of the event. The Netflix series The Keepers (2017) is structured by vivid verbal narration reminiscent of Persona.
The Web has not found a way to adapt content, to transform a subject, without copying it on the one hand, or destroying it on the other. Even when sites manage a sort of transient narrative, usually around some great and scandalous event, a favorite ploy of muckraking sites and tabloids, their mises-en-scène are, frankly, a mess and they quickly turn into echo chambers, some of the most boring sites on the Web. But, I might add, some of the most popular and profitable, too.