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?


  1. “I’m left with a few questions, though: is there a way that we can conceive of “cyberspace” without resorting to the spatial?”

    I’d recommend Robert Markeley’s paper on “The Metaphysics of Cyberspace” in his _VR and its Discontents_ collection (JHUP, late 1990s). It’s a look at boundary mathematics, the math behind network topology.

  2. Quite possibly, as it sounds like such a visualization would move outside virtual “space” to resituate the network in its physical surroundings. Do you know of such a resource?

  3. See what happens when I don’t preview? Last comment was a response to Francois.

    Matt — thanks for the reference. I’m not familiar with Markeley’s work, but it sounds like what I need to see.

  4. Matt’s reference is probably the best place to start since it crops up several times in a search of “cyberspace thom morphogenesis”. Rene Thom is the mathematician whose topological investigations have been taken up by such theorists as Jean Petitot and applied to semiotic processes. It is the mathematical construct of “phase space” that I had in mind when I suggested that one way of approaching and representing the dynamic nature of networks.

    I tend not to draw a sharp dichotomy between the virtual and the physical. In part, this is due to adopting a general systems framework. I like to think of the Internet as a subset of Cyberspace (and the WWW as a subset of the Internet.) Cyberspace would include Interactive Voice Response system, cell phone systems, automated video monitoring. Within such a framework the question of synchronization becomes crucial. What happens if the spatial representation of network activity is refocussed as a representation of the “state of the system” — I think what emerges is a representation of a holding pattern (and the potential for it not to hold). Thom’s work in catastrophe theory and his exploration of strange attractors are to me the place to look for representations of dynamical systems — especially networks where relays, nodes and traffic patterns can shift [neat to be able to map meterological data with network traffic data :)]

    Not sure if the above helps. However you may be interested in a thread on the Poetics of Cyberspace pursued on Humanist in 2000


  5. Really interesting questions and thanks for the Kirby reference–I’m interested in cinematic constructions of time and space, especially as they brush up against the electronic/digital. I’m having a hard time imagining an alternative to the spatial metaphors. My immediate response is to try and think through time, but maybe neither measure is adequate to describing the electronic.

    I was struck by the oddly recuperative metaphor of “the corner bar” that Rheingold uses to describe the WELL. I realize that one of Rheingold’s goals may be to make the unfamiliar feel safe. As I write, the one potentially non-spatial metaphor that I can think of is the rhizome. There is connectivity, but I don’t *think* it necessarily relies on spatial metaphors, but that might just be my second cup of coffee kicking in.

  6. These are extremely helpful sources. The Humanist thread reminds me, Francois, that much of this spatial thinking about what exists “inside” the networks begins (of course) with Gibson’s Neuromancer, which highlights an important aspect of what I imagine the new project being up to: exploring the narratives (in the literary sense, but also in a larger sense that would include futurology and technocriticism) that shape our understanding of the world we live in now and its relationship to computer technologies. Neuromancer literalizes that “shaping” effect, less in that Gibson predicted the future than in that technologists who built and described the networks we now use had Gibson’s images as a sort of unconscious substrate. But even in Gibson we see that one of the results of understanding the world of the virtual as a “space” equivalent, if not superior, to the physical is a disdain for “meatspace” and the claims it makes on human lives.

    I’m not sure I’ve got any good answers for thinking about alternate metaphoric structures, though; I like the notion of the “rhizome,” Chuck, as it does convey connectivity, but I’m not sure how flexible it is as a framework. The pervasiveness of the spatial metaphor comes in part from that flexibility, I think, in explaining our net-work as both located (at “sites”) and mobile (“sites” that one “goes to”). The rhizome might give us a good sense of the net, but I’m not sure it helps us understand our work therein.

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