Michael Benson on 26 Sep 2000 15:44:15 -0000

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Re:<nettime> Re: there is no place in cyberspace

Brian Carroll writes:

> this thread reminds me of ancient maps depicting the cosmos and
> the world. (...)
> these ancient maps could be considered related to mapping cyberspace
> today; evidence that our maps of cyberspace are social constructions.

I agree.

It never sounds very humble to quote yourself -- even if you just finished
writing the darn thing you're about to quote. But I'll take the risk, since
the below is applicable to the social constructions/maps idea:

The jagged fractal geometry of super-smooth Europa, an ocean suspended in
oceanic time; the idiosyncratic surfaces of the other orbs, floating
serenely in space; the pristine interstellar emptiness, even further
removed; the yet further, more mind-blowing vacuum of _inter-galactic_
space -- that immense, echoing, absolutely empty void between the spinning
galaxies: it all serves as a perfect philosophical mirror image, reflecting
back the dilemma of the species, the limitations of human knowledge. The
frail architecture defined by our distant tools, which places the human
race at the center of "what's known," is actually our own map of ourselves.
Like the orbiting Hubble, peering back millions of years before Sumerian
pictographs and finding the same symbols for God, which in turn we'll hand
down to successive generations -- who may one day see a charming
primitivism, even an intriguing prescience, in our view of _all that._

(By this interpretation, _everything_ becomes a map -- the whole
external-internal schema of the internet expands outward and turns into a
representation of everything we know and everything we're doing and what's
more, all of human history as well. It expands out in space and back in
time. So it's something like Borges' map, the one which has expanded to be
exactly the same size as what it represents -- but is nevertheless a map.
Because it's a social construction.)

> i too think that cyberspace extends into the deep space network
> of probes and rovers and landers. there is supposed to be an inter-
> planetary intranet being developed to relay signals more effectively
> from far flung space probes. the technology is amazing. nuclear
> batteries. fuel cells. solar cells. electronics. i've heard that
> one of the probes had the battery power of a small flashlight and
> another that of a watch battery, sending signals, speed of light,
> back to ground stations on Earth, millions of miles away.

Voyager, which is currently something like 6,788,000,000 miles away, is
sending a signal that may be 'loud' enough when it leaves the spacecraft,
but is so weak when it strikes NASA's global network of deep space antennas
that it's only 10 exponent -16 watts -- or one part in 10 quadrillion. By
comparison, a digital watch uses 20 billion times more power. A signal from
Voyager currently takes more than ten hours to reach Earth. At the speed of
light, of course.

So you could say that's the extend of our hardware bubble -- the full range
of the space that has, at either end, a piece of machinery made by
humanity. Ten light hours. The expanding bubble of radio signals from the
dawn of radio, and then TV signals close behind, is much farther away, but
not that far... Which is the full external reach of the species in the
cosmos, not counting what we've gathered and understood from interpreting
_incoming_ information -- electromagnetic waves, etc. Here I don't mean
incoming data from probes but incoming data from the sum total of the
observable universe.

And as for the other electromagnetic waves, the digitized ones -- the ones
that represent what we know or think we know or understand, plus a lot of
blather, porn and sports -- this is the macro internet. If the net is busy
gobbling up all knowledge and transforming it into bits readily accessible
to anyone with a modem, then it'll end up as a kind of ever-expanding
master map. Or Universal Library.

It's interesting to use the metaphor of a net and place it in real space.
The most distant filaments lead to Voyager, etc. The complex interweave at
the center is spun all around Earth. All the "territory" outside the net is
knowledge waiting to be acquired and incorporated in the net. And paralysed
and consumed, I suppose!

All perception enters the five senses and ricochets at light speed around
inside the brain, that great synthesizer. The internet could be viewed as a
kind of new model of a species-wide nervous system, or even a trunk,
linking the billions of autonomous individuals in a kind of larger
amorphous organism, extended in space. As for these probes, which are
growing more and more autonomous, they're arguably the first early examples
of primitive life made by humans. They aren't post-humans yet. But they
show many of the signs that primitive organisms do, apart from not being
able to reproduce.

One thing I've always found interesting about these probes -- this maybe is
applicable to the time/space/cyberspace thread, or is that a filament? --
is that the farther from Earth you go, the slower the processing power
onboard the speeding, receeding probes gets. This isn't due to some kind
of20 Einsteinian relativity: it has to do with when the spacecraft left
Earth. So the two Voyagers, which were launched in 1977, and which left the
solar system ten years ago already, have processing power inferior even to
the earliest 1980's PCs. Galileo, launched in 1989 and currently orbiting
Jupiter, has some kind of proto-386 processor inside. (It also has an
analog, mechanical tape recorder which has served as an extremely important
tool, because Galileo's high gain antenna got stuck, and so the tiny low
gain one is being used to trickle compressed data back to Earth -- which
necessitates data storage on the recorder.) The Mars Global Surveyor, which
is currently orbiting the Red Planet, was launched in the mid-90's, and is
working at closer to a Pentium 1 speed. So space travel is always and
forever time travel as well -- even when you're just talking about being in
the relatively near vicinity of the Solar System.

Extrapolate into the future and you see a steady procession of smarter and
smarter machines expanding outwards. Do you end up with HAL-9000, a
supercomputer with responses indistinguishible from human ones? Time will

Let's consider Galileo to be the most distant active "participant" in the
internet (since the Voyagers aren't really sending data back anymore
interesting to more than a relatively small circle of scientists). You're
talking about a communication through several levels of time. (A) The 45
minutes or so it takes to get a signal to Earth at light speed from Jupiter
(B) The much longer amount of time -- from a few months to a year -- before
the pictures are actually put on the net (C) The machine doing the
communicating is an antique -- it was actually designed in the late 70's.

> the fact
> that this tranversing of astronomical space and time happens with
> the speed of light as measurement, i do not think passed by Virilio,
> but instead that Virilio made it an Earthly concept. how, for
> example, does one think about radio signal travelling at 186,000
> miles a second, when the fastest physical thing (besides thought,
> speech, sound, and sight, and sensation) is driving a car at 60+
> miles per hour. it is a paradigm of difference. a different order
> of being, of seeing.

Well, but I guess that's the idea -- thought, speech, sound, and sight, and
sensation are all 'lightening fast' -- and our technology has finally
caught up. Well, on a good day. But Virilio waxes nostalgic for a time when
less immediate communications allegedly made the "real" space of the planet
more "real". I can see his point but don't share his perception that the
resulting collapse of shoe-trod space into net-spanned space will yield the

When Troy fell, a chain of signal fires on mountain tops reaching from the
current Asia Minor to southern Greece brought news, at the speed of light,
of the final victory of the Greeks. (I say at the speed of light, though of

course they weren't all lit at exactly the same time. But once they were
all lit, they created a steady light-speed chain signalling the news.)

Actually, it's interesting how many speeds we can perceive if we're
attentive -- or hear. Speaking of "lightening-fast", this "different order
of seeing" mentioned by Brian somehow isn't so very different from seeing
distant lightening, then hearing the sound, then blinking and seeing the
flash imprinted and fading on the retinal screen, is it? Followed
immediately by the imprinted memory of the event: one-two-three-four. We're
surrounded by non technology-produced examples of light-speed and

Or: do you know why a whip cracks so loudly when snapped with even a small
amount of arm-power? Because the tip actually breaks the sound barrier! (In
fact one recent theory about the reason certain dinosaur species had such
long tails has it that they used them as whips. So who says humans were the
first to break the sound barrier?)

Apart from that, I'm told that the speed of light can be broken by
something as seemingly banal as the point of convergence in a pair of
scissors. Imagine a long pair of scissors: if you snap it closed very fast,
the collapsing "V" shape where one blade meets the next actually warps past
light-speed. (Of course, nothing physical is doing the "warp" -- it's an
optical trick, the illusion of a point racing through space). And this may
be an indication that our supposed speed-ceiling is just the glass bottom
of another level of potential speed. In one bizarre recent experiment the
speed of light was apparently exceeded: photons that went in one end of a
box came out the other end before they had actually been beamed in! (the NY
Times May 30, 2000: a story by James Glanz called "Light Exceeds Its Own
Speed Limit, or Does It?" Glanz writes: "Einstein's theory survives,
physicists say, but the results of the experiments are so mind-bending and
weird that the easily unnerved are advised--in all seriousness--not to read
beyond this point. In the most striking of the new experiments a pulse of
light that enters a transparent chamber filled with specially prepared
cesium gas is pushed to speeds of 300 times the normal speed of light. That
is so fast that, under these peculiar circumstances, the main part of the
pulse exits the far side of the chamber even before it enters at the near

>Virilio understood this as both a cosmological
> (and for him spiritual) speed, and also as natural, human speed
> of thought, of information, of energy in the electronic space-time
> of `the light of speed.' another reasoning word for enlightenment.

Yeah -- in the piece by Michael Nash which Pit Schultz posted last weekend,
Nash is pretty effective in describing the ways in which our temporal
perceptions, and our sense of shared temporality, have been altered by TV
language. (I realise you were talking about speed here, not time -- but as
Nash also points out, we're seemingly incapable of illustrating time
without using space as our reference!) Nash dwells at length on how
commodified time within commercial TV has chopped our perceptions up into
units. We also, he says, feel a sense of community due to the fact that the
signal is shared among millions -- that many many others are seeing the
same thing at the same time. He then proceeds to talk about how the net
doesn't really create the same kind of sense of a shared communal time (I'm
paraphrasing, and since I only read it once, I may be getting some gist
wrong), partly because one is much more autonomous within the net -- you
have your own sense of timelessness as you surf around, your attention is
in the grip of the time it takes to download files, etc. So instead of
everyone simultaneously being in the grip of the same unfolding TV program,
we're all individual cybernauts in that space we're currently trying to
talk about, making our own way. In other words, you aren't necessarily
sharing "real" time with anyone as you surf, unless you're in a chat

I don't see this as being so black and white. A culture which experiences
the same successive waves of, say, film releases -- let alone cathartic
events like wars, elections, etc. -- doesn't necessarily go see/experience
them all at the same time, but it _does_ see them in let's say, the same
season -- and the US (or fill-in-the-blank) feels like a shared cultural
space in part because of that. (By the same token, the "provinces" of the
Imperium, such as for the purposes of argument Slovenia, can in part feel
like backwaters because, for example, the over-hyped Hollywood product that
everyone's buzzing about in the center of the Empire takes months or even
years to open in Ljubljana, if at all. So the shared temporality of the
successive waves of cultural production may crash on multiple shores, but
they do it at times different enough so that the sense of a shared,
contiguous cultural space becomes atomized. None of which means that the
power of Hollywood production is lesser in the 'outback' -- just that it's
at a remove from the center. The peasants are kept in their place in the
pecking order.)

Or let's take nettime. There is some kind of shared, nebulous ongoing
discussion, over a period of years, taking place -- and so it feels in some
ways like a kind of shared, sometimes contentious 'cultural' community of
sorts -- even if these aren't "live" chats. (This all still in reference to

But to get back to time, and Virilio, I think that the sense of
accellerated time isn't just due to light-speed/real-time transmission but
also because of the machinery of audio-visual manipulation of "real" time.
Nash dwells on the simultaneity of TV, and while that's worth considering,
I would argue that the simple fact of the atomization of montage -- the
chopping and jump-cutting of reality -- produces the accilleration. So we
have (a) MTV-style atomization of image -- jump cutting, time ellipsis, etc
and (b) the fact of its being viewed by millions at the same time.

I guess that's why I feel that hyper-staccato montage is an instrument of
manipulation and accelleration, while long take structures and
experimentation with real-time sequences in film provide the possibility of
showing time's mechanisms in a more honest way, at least to a certain
extent. It's Eisenstein versus Tarkovsky. But I'm drifting off the message
here I think...

>there appears to be a roadblock in language, in logic, how to address
>multiple perspectives. the route seems to be `i negate, therefore
>i am.' how to build beyond a criticism and into a knowledge system,
>in the ever-shifting sands of collective reason... how can we use
>our multiple points of view (p.o.v.) of a phenomena, to integrate
>these into a larger, more shared, more diverse and complete view...

Those are the questions, and I doubt I've done much here toward those
goals. In fact, I think I stayed too close to the inner-outer space
component of the discussion. There's a lot more to be said about the time
element as well: 'there is no time in cyberspace.' Maybe I have to go look
at those map URLs first...


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