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2001.02.14. - Pit Shultz, 'Spacial Discursions' - no space

Subject: Re: 'Spatial Discursions' - no space
From: Pit Schultz
Date: Wed, 14 Feb 2001 05:07:30 +0100

brian, risking that we run a ping-pong-dialogue here boring the rest of the nettimers to hell, i'm happy having found a way to continue this thread.

the question is still, 'is there a spaciality of cyberspace?' besides the difficult question what space really means, i think we can agree that one is able to sense the effects of extended space, or geography on the internet in 'features' like availability of access to bandwidth, different languages and national laws. my former argument was going into the direction of speaking about "virtual space" which is the still dominating our idealistic "theory" of cyberspace, as such that it is defined by beeing NOT physical, and NOT real, but interestingly more or less a mirror of it, only BETTER (utopia) or WORSE (distopia). such a caricaturist construction of 'sociotechnial' space is purely fictional, in the sense that there are many different popular cyber myths all coming with their own features and focus.

let's get empirical. if you buy a statistics software packet, there are usually plug-ins which are allow you to map data geograpically. you can do that with the internet too (geographic traceroutes), but only with poor results. geography is not at all fully implemented in the existing network protocols, you won't find many RFCs refering to geographic localisation. interestingly the DNS system is one of the few where people try to implement geographic locality, which often gets subverted by the market. (.tv, .fm, .it, .to)

space as such is just one possible representation of data, nothing more. the fact that data has a somewhat territorial original 'source', a terrestrial coordinate, is just one possibly interesting attribute of a data set. there is no rule that a computer on the net has to reveal its GPS coordinates - yet. if such a rule appears it might have to do with the ability to backtrack traffic, to locate (ab)users etc. the expanding wireless and mobile internet tech might have more of such features included, and they surely not make you just more free.

in the end there is no reason to assume that cyberspace has any spacial extension. spaciality as a feature of physical space is becoming an attribute on the lowest network level, as soon you have a packet with an ip number you need contextual data to track it back to its geographic source. in the implementation of cyberspace, eg. in tcp/ip or more general the OSI model, the physicality of space vanishes on level two. this doesn't apply for the factor of time at all which becomes the all dominating measure system of computing. take the ping command or the popularity of other kind of benchmarking tests.

i would argue now, that after we can forget about the concept of space in cybernetics, we can go over and look more at the concept of time on the net. for cybernetics and computing which are based on logics, the linearity and irreversability of time is substantial. a follows b but not b follows a, even if the switching time between two states, goes ideally near zero, you need different states in an automata to make a difference. space is completly irrelevant on the level of boolean algrebra, or the touring machine, because it belongs to the "hardware" e.g. the electrical sphere which is represented in an abstraction of machine code. only from here you have the possiblity of a running computer, the network and all that. all effects which connect those levels are errors (cellular phones in airplanes) or hard to be managed features (power function on a normal pc). it is an interesting idea to think the whole thing as one, but then how to distinguish it from some kind of pathetically messy gigantomanic holyness? the stuff works because these levels are devided from each other.

interestingly by making space technically disappear, it reappears on a higher level of myth and narratives, the belonging to individual place (myfiles) and home (geocities), the metaphors of ships and captains, (explorer and navigator), the overexageration of planetary extension in the term WWW, or the slogans arround 'surfing' and even the etymology of 'cybernetics' show the mythological background of the net in the history of naviation, colonialisation, exloration on the non-organized surfaces of the seven seas. but for 'cyberspace' there is no elemental, essential level like the sea. it is pure engineering, only the ship.

indeed the analogue world provides its own complexities which we are unable to compute. 'the revolution will be not digitized'. but i quite resist any romantic notion about industrialism, machines of iron and fire, it might have been a fashion in a phase of transition which time has gone. indeed there is a fascination with the material extension or interface of 'cyberspace', but i'd be careful to read too much into it. a router looks like a hub and a network cable like a video cable but they have different functions. most of all you cannot *see* anymore how fast a system is without the proper tools of benchmarking. what i want to say is that the analogue world might provide some surprises, but it would be too simple to idealize it like a technological unconsciousness, a surpressed materiality, an excluded ghost which demands to get back in. surely, these 'uncanny' elemements make cyberspace even more 'gothic', more fictional. it would be also too simple to idealize the industrial working class for beeing nearer to the 'truth' of the copper wires and demand their emancipation by aesthetifying those wires. this looks too much like the heroic pictures of electrification in the stalinist era, as the remains of russian futurism.

netspace vs. nettime.there is obviously the absolute technical time measured in unix-ticks, cpu cycles, organized in time-zones and controled by time-servers and atomic clocks (there is not much which belongs to cyberspace's infrastructure which does the same with 'space') and there is the relative time, or better the subjective time of the user, the 'timing' of news feeds, a highly paralell architecture of events, the social time of an irc chat or a quake-session, the background flow of a streaming media event, organised within a network of moments, in cognitive time-frames of attention spans and the collective but asynchronous time of sharing data objects.

the popular myth of cyberspace as some kind of unknown territory which is there to "explore" (and exploit), to occupy and defend is completly metaphorical as well as talking about a "gigantic library" (computer code is not just "text" it is binary code including images, audio, video, and most of all running programs). there are surely other myths or metaphors which seems to be nessessary for a while, but might be soon 'dead media'. like the desktop metaphor maybe.

nevertheless these myths are driving popular imagination and are therefore useful in marketing, policy making etc. (the superhighway) it seems that especially spacial metaphors make the feeling of otherness, the abyss of a lack of an own imagination beareable. but those 'mediators' can become independent in their own, they establish, institutionalize and soon form schools or corporations with everything from directors to cleaning personal. then try to say that such a term doesn't make sense any more.

i'd quite disagree with ideologizing the absense of space in computer networks on a too early point as 'gnostic' or anti-flesh. of course space gets organized via networks, large technical systems which are overlapping. in the moment we have cybernetic networks, the cybernetic split of dividing matter and energy from information is a irreversible one, you cannot just say "back to nature" and see it all as one BIG THING without supporting a kind of atavistic and misleading myth. soon the net will become a GLOBAL BRAIN and the social history of technology a kind of next step in natural selection. in another moment i might try to defend the position from a more 'analogue' side, but i think that we have to accept that cybernetics implemented quite effectivly the modernist idea of a radical split, with the result maybe that today on a symbolic level everything seems to fit to everything, but that works maybe only in the clean room of an information space which is by definition devided from the physical world.

especially the whole approach of a mimetic space, of virtual cities, virtual communities, virtual everything prooves to be not suitable any more, because in most cases its simply impractical and pathetic. virtual reality was a great idea, but it worked out like hiding a tv set in a wooden cupboard to make it an acceptable device for the livingroom. the cult of cyberspace itself is dying out. you still see it in advertisment, some novels, but in general 'magic globalism' took over...

what is maybe much more needed then a universal space metaphor are visualisations, maps, which make complexity handeable from various perspectives. it will be not needed to conceptualize the network in a disney-like town but it might be a useful approach, especially in entertainment, like multiuser gaming or therapeutical environments to mimick known environments.

the problem of 'virtual reality' was that it just tried to copy or better project the physical space into a 'virtual space' and with this fall back onto the ontological horizon of the 17th century. it doesn't include einstein, quantum physics, the blitzkrieg, the collective experience of the telephone. its too much the absolute god-eye of the observer-king and the extended rationalized space of a territory ready to conquer.

if we want to critique the particulary organisation of power in times of computerization, we have to understand that the control of space is done today through a control and a technology of time. virilio and kittler showed this quite well. displacement and migration becomes a largely popular phenomenon. territorialisation on a larger level easily leads to war like situations. if you live in a big city you have to learn to live with a minimum of space, this becomes a common experience of a majority of the world population. of course it is seductive then to believe that you can escape into another sphere where there is infinite space available.

i am not completly against appropriating a more essentialistic standpoint, but only with the needed care. there is nothing to discover in the wires 'as such', there is no deeper essence of material magic which makes a sculpture more worth when it is made out of metal instead of information. it is just different approaches, and we live in a time of post-conceptual, post-expressionist art where all these aproaches are re-combinable, but not every combination works out fine.

indeed there is a history of rationality, of reason and madness, in the development of sciences, which you especially find in the history 'electromagnetism'. bachelard showed this as many others. but it doesn't help at all to be 'inside' culturally, economically, intellectually, physically etc. and take the position of the 'outsider'. it can become a pathetic or at least schizoid exotism, a pseudo-science, or new age quackery. a true outsider position is i think almost impossible in our one-world if you want to remain somewhat sane or not imprisoned in one or the other way. take the unabomber manifesto, maybe one of the most important documents of the early nettimes. this doesn't mean that there are ways to explore and 'space travel'. such a space then is much more the space of music, of imaginary territories and inner empires.

i think, and i really researched that a while ago, that there is no deeper thruth to be found in the "electricity networks". electric media became digital media, layers on layer goes ontop of each other and old and new media works well together. it is like in an old city like paris or rome. while the architecture, the ground plan persists over very long times media doesn't work the same way, the major territory might be the senses itself, the way certain 'ports' of sensory perception are cultivated and interconnected. mcluhan wrote quite something about the acoustic spaciality and intensive quality of "electric" media, and lately eric davis updated it in an elegant way.

maybe, and thats what i tried to say earlier, human history of spaciality can only change from one major paradigm to another within a larger concept of space. within every larger era of thinking our condition is put in a new 'cosmic' context. cosmology goes together with geography. and that's why i assume that space technology is a technology to overcome to get replace by a somewhat extended information technology which then might be so *real* that it will be indistinguishable and interwoven with what we call the real world. i think in part our 'network society' in the priviledged parts of the world is already in such a phase. new generations will have to first solve the problems of global warming before investing into space travel.

if you go check out molecular biology, human genetics, you will also hardly find *space* as such. you'll find of course carriers of information which are chemical, much more material then let's say computer hardware, because this is no anorganic matter, but matter in progress, a communicating matter/energy. in between the lines of the writing of kevin kelly you find a strange kind of vitalism, a molecular biotech which has its own plans about what to become. i think underestimating the new liason of computer tech and biology is one of the biggest risks by looking into the sky and waiting for aliens.

even if *space* might be a very important feature which is still undervalued in the differentiation of cells the current paradigm of semiotifying everything, of putting a layer of code across *everything* to make it interchangeable, controleable, decodeable and therefore valueable within the purposes capitalism has to still proove to be fully succesful for biotech. the human genome project is a kind of mapping of space which is truly internal, inside our bodies, and even beyond the individuality of a unique human beeing. hacking the human code might be the true end of the innocence of cybernetics and its new romantics about surving and purpuseless navigating. biotech is to computer science what nuclear tech was to theoretical physics.

if nettime has an important step to make it has to overcome the mythology of cyberspace including its criticisms and go over the the fields where the 'ideology of information' has a similary strong impact to our lives as in the short and time-compressed era of the growing internetworks. this is not new at all, and not the only direction it should take.

ah, the community question. i think this is an easy one, it works like in philosphy or in football, right? as long there are people who love to think or who love to play football these communities will exist, and so will mailinglists which cover the topics "philosphy" or "football" and maybe even one which is called "the philosophy of football". maybe nettime is near to such a thing. sociality in itself is an effect of communication technology, its a feature of communication software to have social effects. the "monkey hill syndrome" is a normal group effect and nothing spectaculary original. new is that space disappears, and my "neighbor" sitting in san francisco is nearer to me than the one next door, but that's trivial..

there is finally maybe a possiblity to think both aspects together. as a translation process, as a hybridity of 'how things work' a large technical framework like the net, or the electricity grid, the railway system or the system of highways and streets is a stage for a number of stories, personal ones and written ones. within a larger context of civilisation the story of science, engineering or business is just one possible angle through which one experiences or better travels through those networks. but then we come to the level of narratives, the culture of truck drivers or taxi drivers, network admins and users, anti-nuclear activists or people who feel chased by electromagnetism who all have a different story to tell and produce their kind of collective subjectity. all i say in this context that the story of cyberspace is maybe a chapter in a book which is soon to be closed.