Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#1 Geert Lovink 1 Jan 1992


Michael Benedikt, Cyberspace MIT Press Boston MA 1991

If you've already implanted cyberpunk sci-fi in your imagination, taken in a few articles and documentaries on Virtual Reality, maybe even had the goggles and datagloves on, you can now move on to the next round and start applying yourself to the science of cyberspace. If you aren't intimidated by hefty tomes, Benedikt's collection has a lot to offer.


Cover of "Cyberspace" -

Cyberspace: First Steps is a collection of papers written for the First Conference on Cyberspace, which was held in
May 1990 in Austin, Texas. As of 1992 this can be called the most interesting publication in the field. The contributions are well-written and the literature they refer to sounds promising.

Now that the euphoria that characterized the early reports by visitors to virtual reality has worn off, and the scientific journalists have moved away, disappointed (by the lame graphics), the American academic experts get a turn. As the earliest pioneers still happily work on the first commercial vr applications, a theoretical discourse is appearing around the magic word cyberspace. Models are being erected depicting how the matrix might be built up. This speculation on the architecture of cyberspace consciously presents itself as a fictional science. In this literature the permanent revolution being undergone by the hardware is a necessary a priori (to which it otherwise pays no attention). Benedikt's authors make it clear that the us has withdrawn de facto from the realm of software.
The Japanese are implicitly expected within a reasonable amount of time to provide the chips needed for the real-time manipulations of visualized data in an immense network environment.

Cyberspace fulfils the American desire to take over immeasurably large continents. But in this case the jungle must be designed before it may be explored and conquered. Pioneer work is a creative act here, and Benedikt has mobilized all available imaginative power to get this tour de force of software innovation on the road. Every branch of knowledge, from anthropology, architecture and literature to mathematics and information science has its part to play. The interdisciplinary approach is put into practice with a vengeance, and it's no casual get-together, but essential for getting the imaginary reaction going. So it's funny to see all these papers, however rational and businesslike their reasoning, refer again and again with awe to Gibson and Sterling's descriptions of cyberspace. The strict logical approach of the East Coast (MIT) goes well with the subcultural utopias of the West Coast freaks this time; they even enhance each other. Yet to make the coalition workable, many have had to don blinders. Thus no mention is made of the fact that the 'cyberspace building' being excavated is at the moment situated in a desolate urban landscape populated by the dataless. For Michael Benedikt cyberspace is perhaps an unhappy word if it remains tied to the desperate, dystopic visions of corporate hegemony and urban decay, of a life in paranoia and pain (as it is in Gibson).

The military origins of this new medium go unmentioned too, so the book does not directly add anything to the debate on media/technology and war. An assumption of Benedikt et al is that all possible virtual technologies will continue to develop unrelentingly. The writers are already in cyberspace and thinking
from the inside out. It seems to have occurred to no one yet that cyberspace, just like space travel, might be feasible but is probably just as unaffordable. The time and money needed for the writing of all the software are factors the authors are not concerned with. Economists and political scientists aren't involved in this futurology, after all. Partly because of this, the scenarios sometimes look boundlessly naive on paper. But in the land of Hollywood and Silicon Valley we must be cautious about such hasty judgments. Here one would move the heavens and earth in order to enter dreamland. Hiding behind Gysin's credo We are here to go is an impressive libidinous economy of which Benedikt's First Steps is a fine example.

Now that cyberspace is no longer a rumour to make the imagination run wild, we can ask ourselves what exactly it is. To create workable models of cyberspace, the first necessary step is the creation of clearly demarcated definitions. First Steps is bursting with terse definitions. This can be seen as a preliminary stage before the writing of the software begins. As long as the essential hardware and interfaces are lacking, the cyber pioneer must work with the
verbal instrumentarium, in order to make the unimaginable imaginable and the imaginable real.

Benedikt has succeeded in assembling a diversity of contributions which keeps all the options of Project Cyberspace open. We can, for example, classify them according to their attitude to time: some extrapolate the experiences to be presently had with networks and interactivity, while others reason from the future, requiring a dizzying leap be made to create an acceptable model of their daydreams. Benedikt sees four tendencies emerging from the First Steps collection: the cultural anthropology approach (cyberspace will retain a good measure of mytho-logic), thinking from the history of media technology towards a post-symbolic communication, cyberspace as a continuation of architecture by different means (the Heavenly City, Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse, the Hollywood Hills) and as mathematics (spatialization of arithmetical/algebraic operations).

David Thomas opens First Steps with an anthropological analysis of Gibson's work based on terms from Michael Serres, Van Gennep's Rites de Passage and Victor Turner's transition from ''liminal to liminoid. In cyberspace, the classical hardware-interfaced cyborg and the postclassical data-based cyborg
or personality construct meet with new posthuman intelligences. Their activities remind Thomas of shamanistic figures who mediate between traditional sacred and profane worlds. For him cyberspace is not merely a conventional parallel culture, but an original and inventive metasocial operator and potential creative cybernetic godhead.''

The euphoria of computer animation artist Nicole Stenger knows no limits: We will all become angels, and for eternity! Isn't it exciting to live twice? To experience the life of all creatures? For her cyberspace is the realization of the May '68 Paris slogan Power to the Imagination!; it is a sensory lava that will find its way through the cracks of consensus. She rejects the prophets of the Hypercalypse and their ''fear of change and denial of the legitimate
enjoyment that people might gain from these techniques. She also gives a remarkably cheerful reading of the contemporary French philosophers. Virtual sex would probably horrify Virilio. But Stenger apparently hears only positive notes in Paris. She does not mourn a possible loss of corporality: How will your boyfriend know that you've been in your pajamas for weeks if you only meet in cyberspace? You won't need condoms anymore. Cyberspace will be the condom. She warmly invites us into these worlds of the fluids.'' A short-circuit in our datasuits isn't her problem. The Reichian liberation of the bodily fluids seems to have disappeared from the agenda.

For Michael Heim, the author of Electric Language, cyberspace is a metaphysical laboratory. But before we get down to business, he says, we should answer the ontological questions concerning the nature of this reality. Plato's rule is still true: Eros guides us to Logos. Heim stirringly reminds us that We are searching for a home for the mind and the heart. Our fascination with computers is more erotic than sensuous, more deeply spiritual than utilitarian.
He interprets Gibson's Neuromancer as a translation of sex and personality into the language of information. Heim correctly sees Leibniz as the founder of metaphysics, which ultimately resulted in the computer. Indeed, Leibniz's monad is highly contemporary, without windows, but with terminals and interfaces, and part of a network. Heim ascertains deep inconsistencies in this model. On the one hand the network functions as ''computer antidotes to the
atomism of society, while on the other it increasingly eliminates direct human interdependence. They support revolutions (see Tiananmen Square) but also release the villain in us: The barbaric tribes return, from within. In order to combat lurkers intending to commit computer crimes Heim prescribes the human remnant, which is supposed to remind us of the energies of the earth, to nudge us out of our heady reverie in this new layer of reality.''

After all this daydreaming, sociologist Allucquere Rosanne Stone appears with boundary stories from cyberspace-under-construction. An older, single, handicapped woman named Julie once appeared on a network. All the participants who came into contact with her felt great empathy for her. Until it transpired that Julie was a net persona, a piece of computer crossdressing by a male psychiatrist. Some saw it as a successful prank, but another revealed, I felt that my deepest secrets had been violated. The sysops just wearily smiled. They had understood from the start that the network would bring about radical changes in social conventions. In 1978, CommuniTree was one of the first Bulletin Board Systems in San Francisco. The teleconference participants saw themselves less as consumers than as part of a new social experiment. This changed after Apple came out on the education market. Students, it turned out, were not interested in communication. Within a short time the Tree was jammed with obscene and scatalogical messages. In addition, young hackers enjoyed the sport of attempting to 'crash' the system. As a consequence of freedom of expression, within a few months CommuniTree was done for. From this Stone concludes that individuals got used to a textual space that is consensual, interactive, and haptic and to lucid dreaming in an awake state. After giving a short biography of the 'discoverers' of cyberspace, Stone compares vr engineers to phone sex workers: Both are in the business of constructing tokens that are recognized as objects of desire. Her conclusion, then, is that the body factor cannot be eliminated. To enter cyberspace is to physically put on cyberspace (...), to put on the female. Thus cyberspace both disembodies, but also reembodies. We must continually be reminded that life is lived through bodies.

The chapter which speaks most to the imagination is an evaluation of the Habitat project, a commercial, multiplayer, on-line graphic virtual environment by the firm Lucasfilm (its current incarnation is called Club Caribe and there is also a version of it in Japan). After logging on with a simple games computer the users could communicate, play games, go on adventures, fall in love, get married, get divorced, start businesses, found religions, wage wars, protest against them, and experiment with self-government. The experiences are so valuable chiefly because the programmers and operators in Habitat have put their lessons down on paper themselves, without mediation by scientists. They give us a glimpse behind the screen. For them ''the idea of a many-user environment
is central to cyberspace. With a view to further developments they point out, for example, that communication bandwidth is a scarce resource, that object-oriented data representation and communications standards are essential, and that the implementation platform is relatively unimportant. The goal is
to enable the communications between machines to take place primarily at the behavioral level (what people and things are doing) rather than at the representation level (how the scene is changing).''

The inventors of Habitat found out that real people are different. The arrogant attitude of urban development specialists founders here. The 20,000 residents all needed their own 'houses', organized into towns with associated traffic arteries and shopping and recreational areas. ''We needed wilderness areas between the towns so that everyone would not be jammed together into the same place. Most of all, we needed things for 20,000 people to do, interesting
places to visit. Each of those is a distinct entity that someone needs to design and create. It is really not a problem if every apartment building looks pretty much like every other. It is a big problem if every enchanted forest looks the same. Attempting to play the role of omniscient central planners, we were swamped.'' Residents got down to work themselves, and the system operators could often do no more than suggest new activities. Naturally, the do-it-yourself
approach soon led to conflicts, resulting in the election of a Sheriff. However, our view remains that a virtual world need not be set up with a 'default' government, but can instead evolve one as needed. Yet they give a note of caution: You can't trust anyone. They argue for an absolute division between the infrastructural level, where the laws that govern 'reality' have their genesis and the experimental level, which is what the users see and interact with. Running cyberspace is not like managing the world inside a single-user application or even a conventional on-line service. Instead, it is more like governing an actual nation. In short, this proposition is not without strings. Get real. Cyberspace may indeed change humanity, but only if it begins with humanity as it really is.

For architectural theorist Marcos Novak, cyberspace is the habitat of the imagination. Through the duende of poetics (the unimaginable complexity), Malevich et al's Space of Art, and visionary architecture from Marinetti to Constant, he arrives at 'liquid architecture'. Fluctuating relations between abstract elements: cities can exist within chambres as chambres may exist within cities. What the consequences will be for the constructed/developed environment, which will remain behind in classical reality, and for the discipline of architecture, Novak does not tell us. The same goes for the pieces by Steve Pruitt and Tom Barett, who sketch for us the future Corporate Virtual Workspace. The life of the virtual office clerk is painted in rosy hues, but what
happens to all the other toiling earthlings? They're left to stew in their own juices. Like true monads, Pruitt and Barett turn away from the global situation and develop a new high-tech apartheid: Physical locations with high physical appeal will become popular. Separated from the stress caused by crowded and polluted urban areas and able to instantly turn to their real environments for recreation and exercise, cyberspace workers will lead highly productive and healthy lives. Get real - or the cyberpunks will come round and hack you into the Hereafter!

In the chapter Some Proposals architect/compiler Benedikt gives us more than 100 pages of models examining the individual character of the space called cyberspace and manners of visualization. He does this using simple illustrations and graphics and shows how this new space can be mathematically unfolded.
He also draws up a list of conventions. Although he wonders, are we not premature? he also desires to get to work as literally as possible on setting up the Cyberspace Program. Benedikt argues for an integral manner of working which unites the literal and symbolic systems. For him Jaron Lanier's dream of post-symbolic communication lies far beyond the cyberspace project. Kellogg et al also follow the realistic path in the closing chapter. They reason in the opposite direction and ask how a VR can be created in a real world. Opposite the enclosed, simulated reality à la Pruitt and Barett, they pose a distributed, augmented reality, to bring cyberspace to the people.

translation LAURA MARTZ