Michael Benson on 19 Sep 2000 07:11:21 -0000

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Re: <nettime> there is no place in cyberspace

Schultz and Carroll's intriguing, ongoing no-place-in-cyberspace debate is
particularly interesting to me because of a personal hobby of mine:
cyberspace space exploration. Above and apart from (well, literally) the
issue of cyberspace as a place is the issue of all that space represented
_in_ cyberspace. I mean deep space; probe-documented space. (As for the "is
there real space in cyberspace" question, which harks back to Negroponte's
archival atoms-bits mantra, clearly there _is_, in the sense that if you
piled up all the routers, chips, cable and drives, you'd get a physical
pyramid to dwarf the library at Alexandria. Though hopefully not as
flammable. Otherwise there's no more "real" space there than you'll find
within the imaginative reach of, say, Borges' story The Universal Library 
in which the size of that archive mushrooms to accommodate the universe  or
Proust -- who shrank the universe into several volumes of obsessive
ruminations. Or, say, ham radio "space" -- all the yammerings thereof. Just
because cyberspace is interactive, and begins to approach "real" time,
doesn't make it essentially different from previous, less immediate, less
ephemeral methods of presenting the 'life of the mind.' The space is just
transformed into our coded language, as per usual. Anyway, as Heisenberg
said, "what we see is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of

But back to outer space, which exists in ways independent of us. One big
change from pre- to post-internet reality is the sudden availability of
densely packed, organically growing image archives -- stuff that
picture-editor gatekeepers in the color magazines and coffee-table books had
a virtual monopoly on before, with the result that only a handful of images
got through their keyhole. Nowadays it's possible, for example, to spend
weeks or even months "grand touring" the solar system, courtesy of the twin
Voyager missions, or of Galileo, a probe currently orbiting Jupiter. This
isn't just their "greatest hits" pictures -- it's a large percentage of
_all_ their pictures. Which means that, in effect, you're right there at the
cutting edge of our expanding knowledge of real space; you're in a front row
seat. Or, for example, you can spend time absorbing the findings of the
Hubble space telescope. Or checking out the latest digital reprocessing of
old pictures of sun-blasted Mercury, which were taken in the early 70's;
whoever did that work made the place pop right out of obscurity.

My point is that these probes are the farthest-flung sensors the net can
offer, a kind of cosmic extension of Carroll's distribution poles,
television transmitters, and telephonic hardware, and the archives housing
their pictures are the interlink between outer and inner space. In fact,
space probes prefigure cyberspace in the sense that, as with the net,
instead of going to Mars, say, that planet came to Earth via our information
gathering machinery. The data, in other words, came home. There has been no
true space exploration by physical people since 1972, with the return of the
last Apollo mission from the moon -- all that dicking around in low Earth
orbit notwithstanding. All the space exploration since Apollo has been
conducted by cybernetic explorers -- the remote eyes of the species. With
all due respect to the Russians and the shuttle astronauts.

One result of this for the non-scientist web user with an interest in such
things is that a great deal of space-time can be spent in the vicinity of
Jupiter, for example. If you're interested in Jupiter's bizarre moon Europa,
a visually dazzling frozen ocean (the only known liquid water ocean off the
Earth: there are clear indications that liquid water exists under the
surface crust), you can go into a high orbit, or a low orbit, or you can
zoom in so close to the moon's mesmerizing abstract-expressionist surface
that you'll feel like you should probably see your own shadow, projected in
all the cracks and bergs. (Or if not our own shadow, than the shadow of that
amazing teleprojection device, Galileo.)

Or take the Hubble. Between December 18 and 28, 1995, the telescope was
pointed at a place above the plane of the galaxy that astronomers assumed
would have minimal activity in it. They expected to see, essentially, close
to nothing. Setting it for the deepest focus imaginable, they sampled "a
speck of sky only about the width of a dime located 75 feet away". The
faintest photons from this tiny piece of space were collected in 342
cumulative exposures over ten days. When these serial time exposures were
processed and digitally fused, they came together to reveal a carpet of
about 1,500 ancient, orange-red galaxies seemingly reaching on and out
forever, deep into space and time. It was called the "Hubble Deep Field".
The galaxies in this core sample of the cosmos are so faint that they're
undetectable by the largest ground-based telescopes. They're four _billion_
times fainter than can be seen by the unaided human eye.

Applicably to the Schultz-Carroll discussion, it's possible to download
this entire file on the net. And when you do that, you're receiving, in a
sense, the original, not a reproduction. Last October I was talking to an
astronomer at the American Association of Astronomy's annual meeting in
Padua, and we fell to discussing the Deep Field -- and the implications of
the image -- and he said "you realize that you got exactly what we all got.
It's the same file." I still have it on my hard-drive.

The point being, Hamlet wanted to be bound in a nutshell and count himself
king of infinite space -- and centuries later, nutshell universes are
proliferating. In May I discovered that my personal database space
exploration methodology had been validated by the so-called National
Resource Council, USA, which recommended that an initial 60 million dollars
be allocated to create a "national virtual observatory". With the quantities
of raw data pouring down from the sky growing ever more unmanageable, it
seems that old methods of observation (in which astronomers point telescopes
where they want to look) are gradually being replaced by something called
"data mining" (in which many layers of prerecorded observations are
examined, frequently for the first time). This, of course, is a true
confluence of inner and outer space, of micro and macro. The sheer volume of
information produced by our multitudinous space sensors has made Hamlet's
outside-in cosmology not just speculation but a dire necessity. With the
Hubble Space Telescope alone downlinking about 2 billion bytes per day, and
with a higher-capacity Next Generation Space Telescope in the wings,
archives capable of housing hundreds of terabytes are necessary. When a
schoolbus-sized probe named Cassini finally reaches Saturn in 2004, its big
high-gain antenna will start firehosing data down from the outer solar
system at such a rate that the flood will keep planetary scientists busy for
generations. Humanity's expanding vision and storage capacities has produced
the phenomenon of supercomputer-wielding scientists who, despite
unprecedented data-crunching abilities, are still only capable of seining at
the shores of the deep data ocean.

While I try not to look at this an an either/or (and some of the above
helps) -- i.e., either we build cyberspace, dive in, and swim around, OR we
explore the cosmos -- it has occurred to me that the human race is becoming
increasingly inward looking, and the net is a key symptom. Maybe it's just
my old space-age programming that makes me look for all those windows _in_
cyberspace which let me look _out_ far better than any previous technology
has allowed. But it seems clear to me that the imaginative leaps that
brought us automated deep space exploration -- that whole methodology --
also prefigured cyberspace. (If you want to read more about this whole
topic, check out my piece in The Atlantic Monthly, which will be in the
December issue.)

Finally, to my mind, Schultz's suggestion that:

>with the appearence of the "information
> space", real space begins to disappear and the kosmos becomes
> a blueprint of how to describe this "space"

...runs the risk of appearing as a typically myopic netcentric thought,
because it presupposes that "information space" is somehow a new thing
(again, see Borges and Heisenberg above), and that using the larger universe
to describe it somehow makes that universe "disappear." To take another
example, the earliest known written language was Sumerian cuneiform, and the
Sumerian symbol for "God" (or "A God") was a star. How is this different --
I mean, as a symbol for a concept -- than using the cosmos to describe our
'new' construct (if not deity), information "space"? And how is it different
from the Hubble Deep Field? (Maybe I should just say that it's interesting
to contemplate the latter question, and serves to underline that there's
nothing new under the sun -- which is a "white dwarf" star, b.t.w! It looks
something like this, in secular Sumerian: *.) Anyway, neither Sumerian
hubris nor using "real" space terms to describe cyberspace, and vice-versa,
pose any danger to "real" space, certainly. So, we can trace a progression
from the 'wine-dark sea' to the wine-dark cosmos (viz., in Croatia they call
it "black" wine) to the ineffable wine-dark interstices of cyberspace -- and
in vino veritas!

For his part Virilio raves very entertainingly about how real-time
transmission is allegedly destroying real space, but for all his brilliant
points about Renaissance perspective being usurped by the view up, into open
sky (a "place" wherein the real vanishing points lurk -- or is that 'point
lurks'?), he never quite grasps that, within the universe's larger frame,
real-time, light-speed transmissions in fact serve as the true yardstick of
the vast size of real space. As soon as you get any distance from our little
data-point, the Earth, this becomes quite clear, because it takes a message
(or a ray of sunlight) hours, days, or billions of centuries just to get
around. In other words, real-time _reveals_, it doesn't conceal, real space.
So when Schultz writes, in reference to keeping his hard drive in Hong Kong:

>there's an
> extreme stretching and bending of time and place possible
> which makes the continuity of optical space a construction

... he's betraying the same lack of understanding as Virilio (so I guess
he's in good company). Time and space haven't been bent, they've been
refined to the highest efficiency possible: the real light speed between
Hong Kong and wherever Schultz keeps his keyboard has been approached, or
(given maximal bandwidth) even achieved. It's more straightforward, not
less, and less bent, not more. It cleans the lenses, making "optical
space" more continuous -- not somehow warped or stretched into a
"construction." (It'll clean your clock as well.)

A postscript: just to use this idea of employing cyberspace terms/tropes to
describe real space, not just vice-versa, Carroll's absolutely valid point
that the net must be mapped from the outside, not just the inside, raises
extremely intriguing cosmological questions about the validity of mapping
the _universe_ only from the inside, doesn't it? Maybe space is only
wine-dark if you live inside it? But how then for the map-makers to
clamber out, clank their magnetic boots down on the hull, and have a
real look around?

Michael Benson

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