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Lost in Space

I’m working these days on expanding a paper I gave at a recent conference, hoping that it’ll transform in the process into a draft of a chapter of the INP. This paper focused on Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and its representations of the geography and geopolitics of computer networks, arguing, in part, that the spatial metaphors used to describe network technologies (most obviously, “cyberspace,” but also myriad others such as the “electronic frontier” and the “city of bits”) have the inadvertent effect of undermining the claims that material, lived spaces make on the lives of those who support the network’s structure.

This happens, it seems to me, in two oddly paradoxical and yet complementary ways: first, as Wolfgang Schivelbusch argues about the railroad and Lynne Kirby extends to thinking about film, the development of the twentieth-century technologies of transportation and communication had the phenomenological effects of compressing time and space, bringing once impossibly distant locations into contact. By this argument, it is suggested that network technologies eliminate space by making such contact both global and instantaneous; moreover, where there is no distance, there is no difference, as the boundaries and borders that mark the difference between “here” and “there” in the era of the nation-state dissolve in the network’s inclusive embrace.

The other argument is precisely the Howard Rheingold/William J. Mitchell/John Perry Barlow remobilization of spatiality in thinking about the network itself. By this argument, there is a there there; as Rheingold wrote of the WELL:

It’s like having the corner bar, complete with old buddies and delightful newcomers and new tools waiting to take home and fresh graffiti and letters, except instead of putting on my coat, shutting down the computer, and walking down to the corner, I just invoke my telecom program and there they are. It’s a place. (9)

Through the simultaneous functioning of these two lines of thinking about “cyberspace,” lived spaces come to be deemed irrelevant and their impingements on contemporary lives are absorbed instead by the network, which seems to create a “space” equally real as and far more relevant than that of physical geography. Stephenson seems to suggest throughout Cryptonomicon that we are too quick to dismiss the demands of lived space, particularly given the geopolitical disparities between those who participate in the network and those who construct the hardware that supports it, indicating that the metaphor of the “electronic frontier” is an apt one not because of its spatiality but because of the colonialist impulse sublimated within it.

That’s the paper/article/chapter’s argument, anyhow. I’m left with a few questions, though: is there a way that we can conceive of “cyberspace” without resorting to the spatial? How might we reconceive the structures and transmission of information in (in? Is that another spatializing?) the network without coopting — and thus undermining — the terminology of the geographical?


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