|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 analog beings, or objects. All is very tangible.
These things are part of what you may consider to have a verifiable existence, as they come to be filtered through your fives senses.
This is the physical reality, the world of flesh and blood, the meatspace, you would say.
Yet, the screen you are facing and through which you are reading those lines does not exist as a physical object only, it happens to also be a window that allows an entry into another kind of space.
This space does not have any kind of form or physical substance and does not obey to any Cartesian law, yet it incorporates a terminology of spatiality that mimics that of the material world and is perceived and experienced as three-dimensional; for when describing the experience of it, one would articulate his or her activity accordingly to conventionalized spatial and directional metaphorical expressions.
This is the cyberspace.
The latter does not pre-exist to humankind; it has been erected as a perceptual universe whose signified and signifiers can only be understood by humans themselves and whose characteristic features are drawn from what Jakob von Uexküll will theorize as the human Umwelt. Uexküll rejects the idea that there would be a unique world in which the apprehension of time and space would be identical and valid for all species. For him, each being is elaborating his own world by filtering the set of stimuli he gets from his surroundings. Thus, in that perspective, the object of the experience does not merely physically exist, it is rather defined by a network and a set of relations. The cyberspace, usually broken down into three distinct layers – physical, informational and cognitive – becomes through its cognitive aspect, as Audrey Hérisson will argue, a human Umwelt, and consequently, a space of its own.
The windows, or display devices, from which you enter that other ‘placeless place’ may be described as similar on certain degrees to Foucault’s examination of mirrors. Mirrors are palpable visual devices that hold within them a virtual space, as they involve a complex play of gaze and place the viewer in a suspended state of being simultaneously visible and concealed, here and there, included and excluded. Reciprocally, screen devices do not only exist as material objects, they duplicate one’s presence and give access to some sort of disruptive space, a heterotopia in the Foucauldian sense, where a utopia would effectively take place. This space would be holding in its midst a social ordering of another kind and would ‘have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invent the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect’. The cyberspace offers then a computer generated reality in which human fantasies, your own, are thought to once bloom while still being fundamentally linked to the physical world and modifying its dynamics. In that sense, it is not an isolated, exceptional entity but is indeed completely inscribed in the material landscape; it is as much altered by ‘reality’ than it alters the latter itself.
The term cyberspace first appeared in 1968 as the moniker of the collaboration between artists Sussane Hussing and Carsten Hoff initially drawn from the other term of cybernetics. Cybernetics, mainly initiated by mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener, was then a growing field of science that was building bridges across areas as broad as neurology, electronics and the study of social mechanisms and was concerned with the operating principles in complex systems. Later on, this new multidisciplinary field was going to help develop a new technology-based artistic practice that encompasses '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 precisely the first of its kind to feature collaborations between artists and scientists and to explore the relationship between technology and artistic expression. This coalescence of a new kind led Hussing and Hoff to imagine organic sensory environments and experimental architectural structures to interrogate technology as an enriching factor to human life and built environment – without however getting into the digital realm and including any kind of electronics.
The notion of cyberspace then became popular in the 1990s after William Gibson used it in a series of three science-fiction short novels written between 1984 and 1988 to describe the digital dystopian arena in which a ’consensual hallucination is experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation’. This vision of the future of information systems, although crucial, 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 the 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.
The cyberspace, as perceived by Gibson and other science-fiction authors, futurologists and visionaries, all often featured in Wired magazine, then very concerned with the internet’s imaginaire, was giving rise to new perspectives of computer technology and was holding, as Marshall McLuhan stated almost prophetically in 1969, ‘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.’ He adds: ‘psychic communal integration, made possible at last by the electronic media, could create the universality of consciousness... In a Christian sense, this is merely a new interpretation of the mystical body of Christ; and Christ, after all, is the ultimate extension of man.’
What was first instigated under the Eisenhower administration in the 70’s as a way to allow U.S. technological superiority following the Sputnik I launch incrementally converged towards the above almost demiurgic approach – for one thing, researchers were not only concerned with the technical developments of computerised communication networks, but also with what it was going to induce in terms of social interactions across each stratum of society; and for another, the experiments undertaken in those relatively closed academic communities got other circles into developing somewhat utopian network models based on the notion of community. Patrice Flichy distinguished three main tendencies in this project: the first one was led by amateurs, group of hackers and at times anarchists and consisted in setting up a system similar to that of the academia to put it in people’s hands; 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 the cyberspace as a vehicle to structuring communities, raising social awareness and generating public debate on a local level.
In any event, labour relations were thought to be reshaped, control decentralized, minds elevated.
Freedom! equality! harmony! they brandished.
A likely second take on the 1789 revolution; and if the cyberspace wasn’t going to be the necessary condition for the realisation of that revolutionary ideal, then it was at least representing the 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 will define 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 a disembodied, balanced, collaborative and intimate form of interaction; reassuring, perhaps valorizing too, and not to be impeded by body-based prejudices.
Now, you are to belong somewhere, they said.
That was the promise.