|1. The setting I|
|2. The subject|
|3. The promise|
|4. The setting II|
|5. The disenchantment|
|6. The longing|
|7. The staging|
|8. The setting III|
|All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace
|I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
|No Maps for These Territories
This is how it all starts.
Let’s begin by setting the context.
You are a conscious being, surrounded by analogue beings, or objects. All is very tangible. These are part of what you may consider to have a verifiable, objective sensory existence as they are available to your sensory awareness.
This is the physical reality, the world of flesh and blood, the meatspace, you would argue. The screen you are facing and through which you are reading these lines exists indeed as a physical object, yet it also functions as an entry point for another kind of space.
That of cyberspace.
This space does not obey to Euclidian geometry laws, it does not consist of a void to be filled up. Yet it is comprehended as three-dimensional and portrayed with a terminology of spatiality; for when describing the experience of it, one would articulate their activity accordingly to conventionalized spatial and directional metaphorical expressions. It comes to be described, perceived and experienced as such because humans get their input formed and structured from their cognitive make-up; from themselves, their bodies and their interactions with the world. It’s what Lakoff and Johnson will call embodied cognition. In this sense, space and the means of its existence come to be relative and "produced by one’s own actions" .
Cyberspace does not pre-exist to humankind; it has been erected as a perceptual universe that can only be understood by humans. It exists in relation to them –this is specifically what characterizes Jakob von Uexküll’s Umwelt.
Uexküll rejects the idea that there is a unique world in which the apprehension of time and space is identical and valid for all species. For him, each being elaborates their own world by filtering the set of stimuli they get from their surroundings. The tick, for instance, encounters during its life only three sensations, all three in relation to its preys: the temperature of their blood, their odor, and the touch of their hair. These three stimuli cover the totality of a tick’s Umwelt.
Each being has its milieu thus reduced to its very own surroundings and shaped according to the way they themselves make sense of it. The meaning of each of the components of this milieu does not exist in the absolute, it is always the result of a set of relations.
Cyberspace is usually broken down into three distinct layers: physical (hardware and infrastructure), informational (programming and data processing and exchange) and cognitive (intellectual representation of beings and entities and their activities). And it’s through this last aspect, as Audrey Hérisson will argue , that cyberspace can be seen as a behavioral milieu –an Umwelt– whose elements exist again precisely because of the meaning humans confer to them. This understanding of a milieu excludes the idea that a space needs to necessary be part of the world of physical perception for it to be considered as such; it’s the relationship between a space and a human being that can confer it a spatial quality.
The term cyberspace first appeared in 1968 as the moniker of the collaboration between artists Sussane Hussing and Carsten Hoff. It stems from the other term of "cybernetics", which was then a growing field of science, building bridges across areas as broad as neurology, electronics and the study of social mechanisms. Mainly developed by mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener, cybernetics is concerned with the understanding, modelling and designing of the operating principles of any given complex system.
This new multidisciplinary field was going to help develop a technology-based artistic practice that brought together "computers, cybernetics, electronics, music, art, poetry, machines, as well as the problem of how to present this hybrid mixture" . In 1968, the London based exhibition ‘Cybernetic Serendipity’ was the first of its kind to feature collaborations between artists and scientists and to explore the relationship between technology and artistic expression. Which inspired Hussing and Hoff into developing cyberspace: an ensemble of sensory environments and experimental architectural structures, that interrogate technology as a valuable asset for human life and built environment.
The notion of cyberspace then became popular in the 1990’s after William Gibson used it in a series of three science-fiction short novels written between 1984 and 1988. Cyberspace, alternatively called the Matrix, was the digital dystopian arena in which a “consensual hallucination is experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation” as well as a “graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.” . An ecosystem then; in which humans agreed to live within and in which large quantities of data is processed, exchanged and configured in such a way as to give operators the illusion of control.
This vision of the future of information systems was not a demonstration of pure imagination. Rather, it was the result of what the internet’s ancestor –Arpanet– in the 1970’s, and before that the television in 1920’s, and before that the telephone in the late 1800’s, and before that the telegraph in the mid 1800’s, had already begun unfolding in terms of collective representations and practices of communication networks. Information transmission was increasing qualitatively and quantitively, geographical barriers were seen to be more and more overcome and profound changes were occurring in all aspects of communication, culture and human interaction with each technological advance.
Cyberspace, as perceived by Gibson and other science-fiction authors, futurologists and visionaries, was giving rise to new perspectives on computer technology and to drastic revaluations of all aspects of human life. It was holding, as Marshall McLuhan stated almost prophetically in Playboy magazine in 1968, "the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the Logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace."
Yet, Arpanet was initially founded under the Eisenhower administration in the 60’s as a military defense strategy following the Sputnik I launch. But what was instigated as a way to allow U.S. technological superiority, incrementally converged towards the almost demiurgic track McLuhan promised. Researchers were surely concerned with the technical developments of computerised communication networks, but as well with what it was going to induce in terms of social interactions across each stratum of society. The experiments undertaken in those relatively closed academic communities then led other circles into developing somewhat utopian network models based on the notion of community, and the government-funded military context in which the technology had birthed got to be soon forgotten.
In his book about the social significance of the internet , Patrice Flichy distinguishes three main tendencies in this utopian project. The first one was led by amateurs, hackers and anarchists who were willing to set up a system similar to that of the academia but accessible to ordinary people; the second one merged the hippie and New Age visions with a progressive and ecological approach of technology and technique in order to break away from a world they no longer aligned with; and the third one was rather seeing cyberspace as a vehicle to structuring communities, raising social awareness and generating public debate on a local level. In any case, labor relations were to be reshaped, control decentralized, minds elevated.
Freedom! equality! harmony! they brandished.
A revival of some sort of the 1789 revolution. And if cyberspace wasn’t to achieve this revolutionary ideal, then it was at least going to represent a straight continuation of it –only this time it was going to be led by a virtual community.
In 1987, Howard Rheingold, an active member of the Californian countercultural movement and a close collaborator to its leading figures, wrote a small article in the quarterly Whole Earth Review which had grown out of the original Catalog and in which he coined the expression of "virtual community". In subsequent critically acclaimed and highly mediatized publications, he defined virtual communities as “social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” .
That was the year 1993, and never had the internet been the subject of such attention in national media. Following the utopian template that LSD advocates drew two decades earlier, a new myth was to spread among the masses. That of an unprecedented form of social order, allowing disembodied, balanced, transparent, and emancipated interactions.
Now, you are to belong somewhere, they said.
Rheingold’s apprehension of virtual communities was essentially enthusiastic. He saw in them a rare liberating force, capable of bringing “enormous leverage to ordinary citizens at relatively little cost¬ –intellectual leverage, social leverage, commercial leverage, and most important, political leverage”.
Sociologist Serge Proulx and media researcher Guillaume Latzko-Tot argue that because there are so many definitions and conceptions of virtuality in physical sciences –physics, mechanics, optics–, then the understanding of the notion in relation to the real in social sciences and philosophy come to be de facto broken down into different, often contradictory, approaches too. Proulx and Latzko-Tot will retain three of them.
Rheingold’s is one that they consider resolutive; virtuality as a resolution of the physical world. As what would come to fill the latter’s gaps within a different, separate realm. It implies a complete realization of ends, offers “a portal to the richness of the real”. This is an understanding of the term as a return to one’s veritable essence, or original nature.
Opposite to this view is one that discredits virtuality as only a representation or simulation of the real. A reduced version of it. Illusory and misleading, would it be at worse, and with no added value at best.
And further away from these dichotomic visions, lies a third one that claims a hybridisation of the real and the virtual, where both are constantly feeding of each other in a circular and dynamic movement with no clear delimitation between them.
Nevertheless, the former utopian narrative was the one to prevail. This separatist vision may have in fact contributed to the rapid freezing of any utopian striving, as it failed in acknowledging the ways in which cyberspace and ‘real’ space remain inextricably interconnected –cyberspace alters the physical world’s dynamics and lived experience as much as it gets altered by it. Julie E. Cohen remarks that seeing it as a separate space actually “denies the embodied spatiality of cyberspace users, who are situated in both spaces at once” as demonstrated earlier, and “also overlooks the complex interplay between real-space geographies of power and their cyberspace equivalents.”