Digital Dreams

Bricks-and-mortar Vegas is an international icon. It deserves an iconic presence on the Web.

It doesn’t add up.

Las Vegas is one of the most iconic cities in the world. The Strip is one of the most iconic streets in the world—maybe the most iconic. The world is ever more a digital world. So how come Las Vegas lacks any iconic presence online? How come the digital world, for all its boundless potential, has failed to create any kind of analog to the real city we experience in our day-to-day lives? Put another way: How come our websites suck so much?

As I spend more time online, for work or pleasure, I find this more of a problem. Look, I like the digital world we’re in: We can soar through the Internet quickly enough, zigzagging among links, flying over the landscape like a superhero, communicating instantly with anyone we please. This has its vertiginous pleasures. But what we’re flying over is a dizzying maze of complication.

One of the reasons Las Vegas works so well and has been able to achieve its iconic status is that it’s visually legible. Downtown. Strip. Suburbs. A desert valley ringed by mountains. It’s all easily graspable: Wherever you are in town, you can usually see the city’s visual components, and understand the spatial and even symbolic relationships among them.

By comparison, think of the digital sites that have something to do with Las Vegas. Ever been on the city’s website? A bureaucrat’s dream. The county’s website? Beige and brown and hurtfully dull. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority site? Better, a little flashier, but still more utilitarian than inspiring. The casinos’ websites? As confusing, as it turns out, as negotiating the casinos themselves. Local media? The Las Vegas Sun has a superior website, no question, but one website alone cannot carry the water for an entire city. Most of the others are at best competent and at worst dreadful; they seem to lack some crucial spark of vision, of ambition, of daring, of imagination.

The building of Las Vegas is a staggering, lunatic accomplishment. The comparatively easy work of building a digital environment to help us understand that accomplishment has turned out to be not so easy. I don’t mean to single out local websites—Vegas websites are like all websites: overly complicated, visually inert mazes of poorly considered links. The information is all there, I suppose, but it’s very much a help-yourself kind of model.

What we need in the digital world—in Las Vegas and beyond—is a commitment to legibility. We need a way to present complex sets of information in inviting, comprehensible ways. Great cities give us compelling clues for creative navigation; we need the same thing from the Web, so that the information ceases to be merely endless content—dry, quantifiable, each piece exactly the same—and becomes something more important: knowledge, wisdom, a site of meaning. We have the tools for such a site. Check out, run by Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival, for a taste of what can already be done.

What can we do here in Las Vegas? How about an iTunes-style relational database charting the educational gains and losses in all the schools of the Clark County School District? (Trust me, you don’t want to wade through the endless reports on CCSD’s website.) With a few clicks you could compare performance at one school over time or compare multiple schools—handy if you’re looking for best schools to send your kids to.

How about a website or app that laid out the significant events of Las Vegas history in an moving, interactive timeline composed of photos, films, journalism, literature and scholarship? Or, a site where thousands of Las Vegans could narrate their experiences with foreclosure—and with the various foreclosure assistance programs that have come out of Washington—augmented with full-screen photos, maps of foreclosed homes, audio or video interviews and first-person written testimonials. That would really help us see the impact the crisis has had on our fellow citizens.

Something simple? OK: A real-time visual tour of the Strip from ground level or from a few hundred feet in the air; your “tour guide” would respond to directional inputs and offer customizable content that pointed you toward the best attractions.

Legibility requires differentiating information and making decisions about what information is more important than others. This is beginning to happen in trends that range from data visualization to geotagging to metadata. But it’s equally about presentation—the beauty of our Web pages and applications.

I think the Web (and TV before it) is so intoxicating in part because the actual world we inhabit can be so disorienting and unattractive, technically astounding and emotionally crippling. Unfortunately, as the Web grows ever bigger and more complicated, it seems to be mirroring the worst of our built environment—a sprawling and ugly place of deadening banality—rather than the best of it.

True, a legible, beautiful Web may serve only to suck us farther down the rabbit hole of completely supplanting the real world with the cyber world. But I am hopeful it may yield the opposite effect. The Web experience now is dreamlike—diffuse, gauzy, creating a vague impression of personal empowerment and an equally vague feeling of being drugged. It’s the ultimate triumph of modernity: It allows us to overcome the limitations of time and space, but too often it leaves us feeling isolated.

We can do better. We can create a digital experience that is both legible and beautiful, that does not lull us to sleep but keeps us wide awake. It would be, perhaps, akin to entering a city garden or plaza—or, hell, even driving down Las Vegas Boulevard at sunset with the top down—a place to be nourished spiritually and emotionally, even intellectually, before returning to the everyday world recharged. Such a digital world may help us find ourselves in the real one.