Cross Talk
Artbyte (New York) 1, no. 5 (December 1998-January 1999), pp. 16-17
Jon Ippolito

Is cyberspace really a space?

"Case had the strange impression of being in the pilot's seat in a small plane....Headlong motion through walls of emerald green, milky jade, the sensation of speed beyond anything he'd known before in cyberspace....The Tessier-Ashpool ice shattered, peeling away from the Chinese program's thrust....

"'Christ,' Case said, awestruck, as Kuang twisted and banked above the horizonless fields of the Tessier-Ashpool cores, an endless neon cityscape...."

This account of crashing a code-breaking black capsule through an icy firewall to enter a virtual landscape, which we owe to William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, became the definitive evocation of cyberspace for a generation of virtual reality enthusiasts. Yet Gibson's description of cyberspace sounds more like the Batplane crashing into Mr. Freeze's headquarters than a nerd hacking into a computer network. Why did Gibson dramatize hacking in such blatantly spatial terms, and why has his spatial metaphor been so influential to the engineers and artists who are actually building cyberspace?

At one level, the answer to why Gibson chose a spatial metaphor is easy: most readers would have put the novel back on the shelf as soon as they read, "Case set his FTP client to continuous redial of the http://206.312.123.23 IP address, causing a General Protection Fault in Tessier-Ashpool's CPU that triggered a RAM core dump...." Of course, Gibson didn't spare his readers precise descriptions when it came to settings ("Overhead, sunlight filtered through the soot-stained grid of a skylight. One half-meter square of glass had been replaced with chipboard, a fat gray cable emerging there to dangle within a few centimeters of the floor"), erotic encounters ("He raised himself on one elbow, rolled, sank back against the foam, pulling her down, licking her breasts, small hard nipples sliding wet across his cheek"), or weaponry ("Shin's pistol was a fifty-year-old Vietnamese imitation of a South American copy of a Walther PPK, double action on the first shot, with a very rough pull"). Conditioned by the highly successful marketing of gothic and spy novels, readers are accustomed to plowing through meticulous details of murder and sex--but ask them to follow along as the hero programs a computer and the overwhelming majority will snap the book shut faster than you can say Graphical User Interface. Hollywood is even less patient than popular literature with such supposedly passionless activities. When trapped in a mazelike library, the learned hero of Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose escapes by remembering an ancient formula--an algorithm, really--for escaping a labyrinth. The diligent reader follows along as the sleuth executes a pattern of left and right turns marking doorways as he goes--until the path to the outside world becomes clear. In the movie version, the sleuth, played by Sean Connery, begins to recite the ancient formula--but the viewer is spared the details by Connery's monastic sidekick, who has oh-so-conveniently let out a piece of string behind them as they wandered from room to room. (For a surprisingly interesting nuts-and-bolts description of hacking into a computer network, see the cover article in the October 1998 Scientific American)

If Gibson's picturing of data as a navigable space were only a literary device, then accepting that device as a paradigm for actually building cyberspace would shackle us to old, spatial metaphors rather than enable new, post-geographic insights. But what may have begun as a literary device has quickly risen to the status of a cultural necessity in a decade when the rapid proliferation of telecommunications protocols become so complicated that no single user, much less reader, could understand them all. The sudden splintering of the job of Computer Programmer into various specialized vocations reflects how ill-prepared our culture was for this steep technological learning curve. These days there is no reason to expect a video editor to know HTML, a Web designer to know Perl, a database programmer to understand packet switching. So to introduce his readers to cyberspace--the global fabric that supposedly knits together all of these separate threads--Gibson fell back on something our culture had prepared everyone to understand: a chase sequence through an imagined space. It would seem, therefore, that the metaphor of cyberspace is not merely a narrative convenience but a practical necessity.

Unlike metaphors like "big bang," "black hole," and "charm"--which physicists apply to physical laws over which they have little control--the metaphor of cyberspace describes a feat of engineering over which (pace Kevin Kelly) we ought to have some control. This metaphor is valuable to the extent that it helps us imagine more options for our wired future than those presented by present-day economic and technological imperatives. But if the metaphor of cyberspace is to train new intuitions rather than reinforcing old ones, it is important not to hold onto any unconscious assumptions about space as a natural or fixed concept. The task is rather to take hold of the metaphor of space, and to bend and twist and stretch it into new possibilities with a bravado comparable to those non-Euclidean geometers of the 19th century who countermanded common-held axioms about space to create entire new worlds.

One example of how a spatial metaphor can help us decide what kind of global telecommunications network we want is the question of indefinite expanse. The folks at recently asked to include a Web site of mine in a special "SuperSite" devoted to educational content online. My pride gave way to dismay once I learned that the ContourLine software underlying would disable outgoing links from my site--thus ensuring that visitors to wouldn't accidentally stumble on a Web site below their standards. Now, the aim of corralling all the good stuff into one patch of cyberspace may sound perfectly reasonable to parents worried about their kids ogling or aesthetes tired of plowing through mediocre art online. But forget for the moment the benefits of ContourLine for particular users, and imagine the effect on the World Wide Web as a space. It's not hard to imagine the proliferation of this software leading to exclusive zones of cyberspace validated and policed by authoritative entities like the US government, Time Warner, or Microsoft, cordoning off "good" neighborhoods from the global village's technoslums and red light districts. I'm in favor of a cyberspace that can expand at will without running into a fence. So I said no to

While I would lobby for keeping cyberspace expansive, I feel more ambivalent about whether it should obey some notion of distance. Architect Michael Benedikt has suggested that some places in cyberspace should be farther away than others, and that traveling to them might be an enjoyable and worthwhile experience. The "soft" DHTML transitions and Flash animations that have recently cropped up in Web sites may reflect a desire to replace the staccato click-and-go rhythm of HTML with gradual passages closer to Benedikt's aesthetic of travel. Then again, ditching the assumption of distance in favor of encouraging a space in which all points are equidistant helps to foster global communication. After all, isn't part of the magic of the Internet that e-mail to Manhattan doesn't take appreciably longer whether it's coming from Brooklyn or Tokyo?

By all means, let's avail ourselves of Gibson's marvelous metaphor if it helps us understand the complex network of interconnected communications we find ourselves caught up in. Cyberspace can be bordered and distant or expansive and equidistant. It can also be curved or straight, have an inherent direction or be directionless, be two- or three- or more-dimensional, look the same or different to different users. It's up to us to choose.

The Metaphor Mixer, a virtual world in which viewers can swim through an ocean of economic data. Image courtesy of Maxus Systems International.