The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: Margaret Wertheim Monday April 9, 2007

“Like all human enterprises, cyberspace is embedded in a wider social matrix and any consideration of its appeal must look to broader cultural themes” (28).

The proposition in Wertheim’s book is intriguing. She recognises that cyberspace is sometimes considered a kind of spiritual realm, and argues that it is a phenomenon with a cultural precedent dating back to Dante. Her subject is thus the notion of space and how we map it, and in particular how we envisage immaterial space. She begins with a quotation from the Book of Revelation, and notes that “America in the late twentieth century bears significant resemblances to the last years of the Roman Empire” (19).

As a supposedly spiritual realm, cyberspace is an attractive proposition for decaying civilisation, “a repackaging of the old idea of heaven but in a secular, technologically sanctioned format” (21). Theoretically, it is available to anyone regardless of his or her physical circumstances, and already hosts a huge number of virtual communities. Wertheim notes that our understanding and mastery of physical space is considerable, but in the process we have forgotten about spiritual space. This was not true for the medieval era, when religious and artistic people formulated maps to represent it. She is not, she says, suggesting that people have no spiritual life today, but there are no longer any topographies This needs further analysis.

In a room full of ten people, you are quite likely to have ten different interpretations of what ‘spiritual’ means. If it is relative and arbitrary the word loses meaning, and it suggests that what spirit is, is beyond cultural and personal relativity. In other words, we have to define our terms and multiple meanings are a failure to do this.

Wertheim argues that in medieval times we had a dualistic conception of physical and spiritual space which was slowly replaced with a monistic and physical conception. Derived from science, this understanding has become increasingly complex and subtle but still physical. Cyberspace fits into this cultural history where “we have manifested a kind of immaterial space of mind” (39). This means that we are returning to the earlier dualism of spirit and matter. It is a fascinating premise which she develops further, but slightly flawed. Wertheim does not differentiate between concept and reality, intellectual understanding and actual equivalent. Thus, if there is no concept of spiritual space it does not exist, and vice versa. This comes back to my previous point: the need to define what spirit is. If what we are referring to is no more than an idea then it is not spirit. Physical reality is not thought; mental reality is not spirit. Therefore, the idea about spirit is irrelevant since it exists beyond intellectual comprehension. Thinking does not make something so; a belief is not a fact. This error is equivalent to the religious position, where belief has ontological value.

Wertheim documents the medieval worldview as depicted by Dante in The Divine Comedy. She suggests “the creation of virtual worlds predates the development of contemporary ‘virtual reality’ technology” (49). All literature does this; it is one of its chief pleasures. Today we can extend this to include the widespread enjoyment of the cinema, arguably the art form of the modern world. In the religious outlook, the spiritual realm was regarded as the primary reality and thus seen as the reference point by which to live one’s life. Dante’s journey can be interpreted psychologically, as “a metaphor for psychological transformation” (56).

This reference to metaphoric reality is fundamental to my differentiation between idea and spirit. An idea only suggests or symbolises spirit. This was stated thousands of years ago in Chinese philosophy:“The Tao that can be told is not the real Tao” (Tao te Ching). It is further depicted in Zen philosophy as the distinction between the finger that points to the moon, and the moon itself.

Wertheim does not extend the metaphoric analysis any further, but proceeds to examine Dante’s topography and its cultural and religious significance. She does question whether Dante and his readers regarded his vision as ‘real’, claiming that this approach is “quintessentially modern” (69) and is in fact an inappropriate question about physical space: “we cannot imagine a space to be ‘real’ unless it has a mathematically precise location in physical space” (69). This a penetrating observation, but she does not develop it and question in what sense we can ‘realise’ or ‘discover’ spiritual realms. Instead, she uses the supposed authority of Dante whose topography encompasses a final vision of light where “the mystery is beyond intellection” (73). However, the questions remain: how doan we understand this, and how is it relevant to a definition of spirit? Wertheims enquiries stop at this point.

In the following chapter, she considers physical space and its artistic representation. She mentions the ‘technology’ of perspective-based art, creating a kind of genre of simulation. She argues that previous works were ‘conceptual’ because they concerned visionary realities, and that the fourteenth century was “a time when Western culture was briefly poised between the two competing poles of spiritualism and physicalism” (88). In other words, there were two kinds of art: the old kind which was based on visionary expression and the new kind which attempted accurate representation. She notes how Christianity has tended to regard art with suspicion, because it challenges the idea of the ineffable (89). Umberto Eco made the same observation with regard to literature, in The Name of the Rose. Wertheim says that Francis Bacon understood the new kind of art as a “geometric figuring” ((90) with a new power of simulation.

The following chapter in the book is called ‘Celestial Space’ and examines artistic representation of spiritual realms, as in the work of Giotto. He believed that spiritual space could not be rendered according to the principles of naturalistic art. Apparently, the distinction between terrestrial and celestial space was debated in the fifteenth century (128). Wertheim continues with references to Copernicus, Kepler, Decartes and Newton: “in the infinite Euclidian void of Newtonian cosmology there was literally no place for anything like a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’” (150).

Chapter four is ‘Relativistic Space’, where Wertheim mentions Kant and his views about the formation of the universe. Rational and scientific models challenge the religious conception of creation and thus the notion of space itself. Wertheim refers to Edwin Hubble in the 1920s and his discovery that distant stars are rushing away from us (156). Einstein’s views also come into play (168, 170), with the relativity of space and time.

Chapter five considers ‘hyperspace’. It is mostly an exposition on various historical thinkers and artists, and their views on a fourth dimension or something equivalent to it. She mentions the writer PD Ouspensky, who suggested there is a fourth dimension. This, he said, was the dimension of time, which has a spatial quality corresponding to the Indian notion of the Linga Sharira, or time body. The fourth body is the trace of the previous three in time.

The Internet is a cultural space, or record of cultural life. Ouspensky’s fourth dimension concept could be regarded as a metaphor for the Internet: a digital trace of human life.

Chapter six examines ‘cyberspace’, which Wertheim regards as “the birth of a new domain, a new space that simply did not exist before” (221). She notes the extraordinary growth of the Internet as millions of individuals and organisations develop their web presence, and millions more interact in chat rooms and forums. In slight contradiction, she then states that “there is an important historical parallel here with the spatial dualism of the Middle Ages” (227). Cyberspace supposedly “returns us to a dualistic theatre of reality” (227) where we have a material realm described by science, and another immaterial realm beyond physical location: “in some profound way, cyberspace is another place” (228).

The term ‘psychological space’ may be more accurate, since it is amenable to psychological understanding. And the content of ‘cyberspace’ ranges from the illegal and depraved to the superficial and mundane, to the corporate and lucrative. If it were a religious realm, this content would have never got beyond the pearly gates.

Cyberspace does not exist in Euclidean or relativistic space, but that does not mean it is transcendent or spiritual. It makes sense to regard it as mental space. I can think about anything, anywhere in the world, regardless of my physical location or restrictions. French existentialists argued that this is the real freedom, which cannot be taken away from us and is available even if we are in prison. Wertheim acknowledges this at one point when she declares cyberspace is “a space for the playing out of some of those immaterial aspects of humanity that have been denied a home in the purely physicalist world picture…. a new realm for the mind” (230). She quotes Sherry Turkle who has made an extensive study of online interaction, describing the Internet as a “social laboratory”.

Wertheim describes psychoanalysis as “one of the most important intellectual developments of the past century” (231) – but which is an individual and lonely experience, whereas cyberspace is collective. The comparison is relevant: online interaction is psychological.

She concludes this chapter with a reminder that the ‘online existence’ and ‘multiple online selves’ we can express are inevitably grounded in a physical body, with a personal psyche that is not correspondingly fluid.

The penultimate chapter in the book is called ‘Cyber Soul-Space’. Wertheim begins by documenting Mark Pesce’s initiation into cyberspace, by reading a short story by William Gibson, after he was expelled from MIT. Pesce later developed VRML, the code that allows 3D representation on the web. Wertheim notes the “ecstatic religiosity” of Pesce’s story.

VRML and 3D interfaces are the most potent expression of simulated reality. In laboratories, this technology has evolved into sophisticated ‘virtual reality’ interactions. ‘Virtual reality’ is an oxymoronic term; the boundary between artificial and actual sensory experience may be temporarily confused, but it still exists.

Language conditions perception: ‘synthetic reality’ is perhaps a more accurate description of technologically induced experience. We understand that a computer game is ‘unreal’; ‘virtual reality’ is like an expanded form of computer game. Wertheim quotes Pesce: “it seems reasonable to assume that people will want to worship” in cyberspace (253). More analysis would be useful here.

The next theme Wertheim considers is the body, and how cyberspace supposedly allows us to transcend it. She compares this to the non-corporeal aspirations of Christianity, and the rejection of normal physical sensation. In Christianity and the world of ‘cyber-immortalists’, the ultimate goal is ‘heaven’ and downloading your consciousness into a computer “whether they realise it or not, today’s champions of mind-download…follow a Christian tradition” (267). Wertheim proceeds to quote Pythagorean philosophy and the argument that number is the ultimate and non-material reality: binary code underlies cyberspace. However, digital code does not exist in the abstract Pythagorean sense; it requires the silicon alchemy of a computer. Original Pythagorean doctrine was not a religion (272) but an attempt at high-level philosophy.

Her final chapter is called ‘Cyber-Utopia’. She notes the “extremes” that some people believe are a kind of ‘cyber-possibility’, and contrasts this with the fact that cyberspace helps create human community. She refers to Howard Rheingold, founder of the www.well.com network, a famous and enduring online community, and William Mitchell of MIT who compares cyberspace with the agora of ancient Athens. That is, the social and communal meeting point which allowed discussion and debate.

Wertheim notes “it is far from clear that the ‘pearly gates’ of cyberspace are equally open to all” (288). In fact this is abundantly clear: worldwide, only a very small minority have access to a computer, telephone line and modem. Entrance to the ‘pearly gates’ depends on a requisite level of economic power and educational or intellectual attainment. And millions of older generation people have both of these, but find the Internet an extraordinarily difficult concept.

Near the end of the book, Wertheim suggests that cyberspace is sometimes regarded as a frontier that has to be colonised (294), and this implies “an ongoing cultural imperialism” (295). Corporate interests are increasingly dominating web space and providing the infrastructure by which people access it (as with the giant AOL). The marketing and commercial implications of this are huge. Wertheim also reminds us that “cyberspace is an inner space of humanity’s own making, a space where the vilest sides of human behaviour can all too easily effloresce” (296). Sometimes, the web is more like Dantes’s vision of hell than heaven.

Wertheim concludes that cyberspace is fundamentally a “network of relationships”, and is essentially a ‘world’ created by computer language. She considers how network protocols underly it, and refers to the power of language to create meaning. Quoting Henri Lefebvre, she notes how the “production” of cyberspace cannot be reduced to its physical components.

The term ‘cyberspace’ has conceptual anomalies that are sometimes ignored. ‘Cyberspace’ is

Communally produced (and) so, in a profound sense, are all spaces. Whether we are talking about medieval conceptions of spiritual space, or scientific conceptions of physical space, every kind of space must be conceptualised, and hence ‘produced’, by a community of people (303).

This is perhaps the most useful and defining section of the book; it recognises the influence of language and the contingent ‘construction’ of reality.