Review of The Pearly Gates Of Cyberspace: A History Of Space From Dante To The Internet by

Book cover for The Pearly Gates Of Cyberspace: A History Of Space From Dante To The Internet

Space is a difficult word to pin down. Colloquially, it probably conjures images of stars and supernovae, Jupiter and Saturn and Mars, and the shuttle hanging against the backdrop of clouds and the horn of Africa. It is—or was—the Space Age, when we were supposed to go forth and colonize the stars. It didn’t work out that way, but our association of the word with “not of Earth” continues. Space can also refer to a place in which certain interactions happen—or to the places between objects. Space is both physical and psychological, and as Margaret Wertheim demonstrates, conceptions of space play and interesting role in our history.

Last year I took a course called Philosophy & the Internet, and we discussed the idea of the Internet as a space. We drew on the work of Manuel Castells and Michel Foucault, who respectively talked about spaces of flows and heterotopias, and we discussed how these terms could apply to the Internet. Although many of us are comfortable using cyberspace as a synonym, I’m not sure how many of us naturally perceive the Internet in a spatial sense. I tend not to (I’m not a very “spatially-adept” person in general). I suspect that will change now that our interfaces are becoming more natural. We haven’t quite reached the submerged, virtual reality level portrayed in Neuromancer or The Matrix, but in many ways the online world has become more inextricably linked to our offline world than most people would imagine. There is a tension between the urge to combine these spaces and the urge to keep them separate.

For Wertheim, cyberspace represents the latest in a long progression of the conception of space throughout the Western world. She sees it as a recapitulation of the fundamental Christian concepts of heaven, or “soul-space”. Cyberspace, like soul-space, is a disembodied world outside our own universe, and thus independent of anything like those pesky laws of physics. The development of those laws is itself linked to our changing ideas of space, and Wertheim traces how the transition from a metaphorical consideration of space to a geometrical one resulted in the increasing secularization of science and spaces. Hence, cyberspace represents both an opportunity for and a response to what Wertheim claims is a growing need for some kind of spiritual space.

The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace was written in 1998, and it shows. Whether this has bearing on the soundness of Wertheim’s arguments is debatable—but it certainly means that I am tempted not to take it as seriously as I should. On one hand, though the Web has exploded in the past thirteen years, the Internet itself has remained largely the same. Most of Wertheim’s points are still valid, if not exactly in the way she intended. On the other hand, seeing references to CompuServe and AOL where I would expect to see discussions of MySpace and Facebook and Twitter is a surreal experience. I think cyberspace has changed enough that some of Wertheim’s predictions have been revealed to be too conservative or slightly off the mark. And many philosophers have since integrated the rise of Facebook and social networking into theories of cyberspace.

This book is both philosophy and history—the best kind! Wertheim makes a lot of good points that individually have merit. For example, she points to the popularity of the Internet as a sign that it fills a need:

People will only adopt a technology if it resonates with perceived [sic] a need. For a technology to be successful, a latent desire must be there to be satisfied. The sheer scale of interest in cyberspace suggests there is not only an intense desire at work here, but also a profound psychosocial vacuum that many people are hoping the Internet might fill. The essence of this desire and the nature of this vacuum needs to be explained; we need to understand the factors that give rise to such intense interest in this particular technology. Specifically we might ask: What are the psychosocial conditions enabling cyberspace to become the focus of essentially religious dreams? What is it about our lives, and about cyberspace itself, that encourages such an outpouring of techno-religious dreaming.

This “techno-religious dreaming” at the crudest level would be the cult of the Singularity, the Nerd Rapture, which believes that we are rapidly approaching a posthuman future where we will be in communion with an Internet-enabled AI. Beyond that, however, Wertheim is speaking more broadly of the optimistic dreams that the Internet inspires. I’m sure I don’t have to expound much further here: just stop and consider, as I do at least once a day, that if I want to know something, I can look it up instantaneously—and thanks to my smartphone, I can do it practically anywhere. This was not possible twenty, even ten years ago, and it is a major paradigm shift that blows my mind. What isn’t possible now? (Of course, the flip side to this optimism is the accurate critique that points out the Internet is still a phenomenon largely embraced by Western, wealthy nations. Wertheim recognizes this caveat, citing scholars who have opined that the Internet isn’t so much a vehicle for freedom and equality so much as the latest front for Western imperalism. And they have a point!)

Wertheim also analyzes the Internet’s potential for fracturing our identities. At its most basic we can say that the Internet allows us to be two people: one person in our offline, “real” life and one person online. We could even be multiple people, one for each online group we frequent. This is that tension I mentioned earlier in the review. We see it when services like Facebook and Google+ pressure us not only to use “real names” but to connect our profiles across various services—they do this, of course, because they want to mine our data and sell advertising. Anonymity is a useful and often desirable aspect of cyberspace, but there is also a great deal to be said for keeping one’s online and offline personae in sync. I started using the Web in a very public way when I was only 14, so a certain level of anonymity was only appropriate. Gradually I decided to peel back that cloak until now I operate very publicly online—and that works for me. But the malleability of identity (if not, as Wertheim says, of self) is one of cyberspace’s most attractive features, and it is intensely spiritual.

For most of the book, however, Wertheim doesn’t talk about cyberspace itself. Instead, she provides a history of space. She begins with the way Dante catalogues Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in his Divine Comedy. She discusses the transition from medieval imagery to the perspective, realistic style of Renaissance artwork. And as our ideas of how to represent space change, so too did the ways in which we thought of the universe as a whole and the Earth’s place in it. Ptolemy’s epicycles and Kepler’s spheres gave way to heliocentric, Hubble-esque ideas of circles and ellipses and inflation and the Big Bang. Absolute space and time proved too inflexible and became relative, even as we realized that the universe is expanding, and that time and space might indeed be one.

Parts of this survey are interesting, but the majority of it is hard to swallow. Wertheim writes with an authority backed up by research, made obvious by the number of sources she quotes directly in each chapter. But this makes for a dry, academic style that works well in journal articles and not so well in hundred-page histories that span six centuries. I suppose this is the common complaint about the survey-style work: so much here could be its own book; alternatively, so much here has been its own book. I waded through my nth telling of Einstein’s development of the theories of relativity. Wertheim talks about so much here, but at times it feels very disparate and disjointed. While there is a clear theme running through the chapters, it is hard at times to step back and see that big picture.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything (or even most) of Wertheim’s theses here. She advances an interesting relationship between various conceptions of space and spirituality, and she might be on to something—but she might not. In particular, her point that cyberspace is beyond the universe, that like our ideas of a spiritual soul-space it has escaped the relentless physicalism that accompanied the secularization of science, is seductive. Yet—and maybe this is just the reductionist in me—it also seems false on some level. Cyberspace, those bits and bytes travelling through fibre optics and silicon, is ultimately the product of atoms and electrons and solid-state physics. It is enabled by the laws of physics and limited by those laws (though what those limitations might be we don’t necessarily know); the independence of such space is thus a convenient illusion.

I can’t recommend this book so much as say that there’s probably something valuable here, if you can devote the time and effort. It’s a little dated and a little long, and I suspect that most of what it says has since been said more succinctly. Still, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace is a well-written, well-researched book, and so it deserves three stars. I cannot deny that it is a seriously thought-provoking and insightful tract.

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