What is the feng shui of cyberspace?

December 2 2000

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It was one of the only provocative things my former boss ever said, and therefore I knew it couldn't possibly have been original. Still, it resonated: what, he asked, is the feng shui of a Web site?

Now, he was just responding to the momentary, local trendiness of one conception of feng shui. But a 5,000-year-old idea has most probably weathered many shifts from flavor of the week to anathema and back, and just because the person asking the question is a dolt doesn't imply the question is a bad one. I began to consider the idea.

Feng shui, to me, isn't some mystical, new-agey perversion, some farce of mirrors and colors and fishtanks. I think of it as a highly practical discipline, studying patterns of human movement in space and time - about as mystical as mass-transit planning. Accepting Tor Norretranders' assertion that the bandwidth of human consciousness is in the vicinity of 16 bits/second while the throughput of the human sensorium is in the millions of bits a second, I find it easy to believe that what is referred to as "good feng shui" is merely the liminal perception of a certain harmoniousness of material and energetic flow in the physical environment.

Put another way, you may have noticed that there are corners in your house where you prefer to sit and read, certain cafes that are always busy despite uninspired fare and inflated prices, street corners that tend to attract the flow of life (precisely what the Situationists referred to as unites d'ambiance). Feng shui will tend to consistently identify such locales, operating according to its own coherent internal logic, and to me that's sufficient proof of its explanatory utility, even if the vocabulary is a trifle odd.

As developed in China over a very long period of time, feng shui (literally, "wind and waves") analyzes spaces in terms of their ability to support certain types of activity. At a crass and material level - the sort of Deepak Oprah level it's usually deployed at in practice, and not merely in the West - this might mean insights like, "if you want to attract wealth, situate your door here." But it's important to understand that the system does not suppose wealth to magically accumulate; wealth accompanies the flow of human movement because people feel "right" in a given space, and want to return. Determining the reason why they might want to return is a psychological insight of sufficient subtlety that it looks like magic - my guess is that it's related to gradients of preference that are fairly deeply wired in the human psyche and soma.

Despite evolving as arboreal primates in a thoroughly fractal environment of branches and clouds and outcroppings of rock, we would appear to have developed preferences for things like rectilinearity, Euclidean geometry, the proportion known to the West as the Golden Section (.618:1). These preferences are inscribed in the accountings of orthodox feng shui - notions of power corners, safe corners, the imperative to avoid creases, overhead lines and the knifelike power of T-intersections. (I'll come back to the bias for rectilinearity and its implications for a biomorphic world in a future article.)

There's a richness of simple, practical experience condensed in the discipline - observations like, well, you might not want a big picture window behind your desk, because presumably you want people sitting across the desk to be paying attention to you and not the mountain or sunset or planecrash behind your shoulder. Like I said, not particularly mystical.

So what, if any, are the equivalent rules for cyberspace? What are the provisions one can make when working on a site so that it will tend to attract traffic, accumulate power and influence, dispel failure? Obviously, if I had all the answers, v-2 would pull down Yahoo!-style numbers, so anything I might suggest is at best a probe.

But sites with "good feng shui" probably display the sorts of interventions beloved of UI experts: clear navigational cues, an information architecture that accounts for eyetrain and expectation, assumptions related to hierarchy of importance built in at the style-sheet level. Domain naming, linking strategies and affiliate programs, and META tagging for search-engine placement - the front and side doors of Web sites, respectively - would receive the same sorts of attention that a feng shui master would accord the entrances of a house.

These suggestions seem sort of obvious; it's a little more challenging to analogize factors that may weigh heavily in feng shui but are difficult to quantify virtually. What, for example, does "neighborhood" mean in cyberspace? Geocities famously attempted to answer this question, but is a site named Soho/1968 really "adjacent" to Soho/1969 in any meaningful sense, especially if it may have more overlap with Area51/5938 or WestHollywood/2541? How do you position a site so that it receives the beneficial effect of its surroundings, in the same way a house on a broad and leafy boulevard might? What's the virtual equivalent of "location, location, location"?

As - if - cyberspace develops more dimensionality, these questions and some possible answers will become clearer. In the meantime, it's probably enough to note that traffic does flow online, that on its way it obeys certain observable principles which can be quantified, and that such quantification would likely occupy the same, useful semantic space that feng shui does in the physical world. v-2 is willing to bet that the emergence of this discipline won't take 5,000 years.

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