Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Interiority Complex: Who Do We Think We Are in Cyberspace?

In 1982, William Gibson coined the word “cyberspace” in his science fiction short story, “Burning Chrome,” and it was later widely popularized in his novel Neuromancer.  It is a word that has evolved and become increasingly reflexive as we attempt to grapple with how, what, and who it describes.  Although it is tempting to assume we become disembodied information patterns when we situate ourselves comfortably at our desks and log into our online accounts, this is an inconclusive conclusion.  Foundationally, the word “cyberspace” designates a new type of space conceptually unknown until the latter half of the twentieth century, but what is contained within that space, and how or what does the information truly represent?  Our modern love affair with cyberspace technology continues to spawn furious philosophical debate, particularly focused on our degree of cyber disembodiment as well as how virtual culture reformats our collective versus individual identities.  As I proceed through this essay, I will incorporate and briefly introduce some of the interrelated ideas surrounding this debate and close by proposing my own questions and broader notions of cyberspace.  There is, however, one overarching observation that I will carefully weave throughout this discussion: cyberspace has created a shared interiority that penetrates the modern, external world, gripping us as individuals in a collective body as we support and explore the vastness of information and communication in cyberspace.    
Scholarly discussion on the disjunction of dual spaces represented by the physical, exterior world and the interiority of cyberspace has roots in the early twentieth century when artists were experimenting with Charles Howard Hinton’s recently proposed theory of the fourth dimension.[i]  As Linda Henderson proposes in her book The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, artists in the early twentieth century began fervently exploring the concept of higher dimensions and worked to incorporate the theory into their works, no longer constrained by single point perspective or three-dimensionality.  They were liberated to express new spatial relationships, for example in early cubist art, which reflected the mysterious higher dimensional space that Hinton suggested.[ii]  For example, some artists of early cubism tried to pluralize the view of an object as a means of expressing all sides and aspects of it at once.  The viewer was therefore no longer limited to a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional object but could gain access to a fourth spatial dimension that simultaneously revealed all three dimensional surfaces to which he or she was previously denied. 
In a way, these early experimentations that Henderson isolates foreshadowed the philosophical infatuation with cyberspace during the second half of the twentieth century to date.  Once Einstein proposed his General Theory of Relativity in 1919, elucidating the fourth dimension as time, artists generally abandoned the assumption that they could express higher dimensions spatially.[iii]  However, cyberspace today reopens and broadens a collective ability to explore the fourth dimension whether we approach it spatially or as designating a dimension of time.  Cyberspace, similar to what modern artists were hoping to express visually, provides access to all the information it contains without the restriction of linear time or physical constraints.  Information and access to cyberspace is instantaneous and perceptually all-encompassing.  Previously we needed to venture to a bookstore for a new publication; now we download books instantly to our Kindles and read them within seconds of wanting them.  We are no longer aware of time or physical, spatial limitations.  All information can be expressed equally at all times.  There is a parallel between this sense of cyber-immediacy and the immediacy that early twentieth century artists were hoping to represent by subverting previous limitations of time and space to express a more absolute depiction of visual information.         
The major evolution between these two steps of immediacy is that even though some artists create two dimensional artworks to incorporate and visually project four dimensions, the artist’s presence as creator and agent of visual information is always present.  Cyberspace, however, removes organic mediation so that one gains instant connection to the informational corpus through technology.  We no longer perceive the body who designed the tools of access (our phones, computers, GPS navigation systems, etc.); the tools merely appear before us as space/time/information transmitters.  Because we no longer have a relationship to the designer/artist agent, the technological gadget becomes the agent, mediating our relationship with the information it contains.  Not only is cyberspace defined as a central collection of any and all information individuals have provided it, but can also be understood as what Federico Casalegno has described as “an open communication system that exists thanks to the support of the individuals.”[iv]
If we define the structure of cyberspace as I have done above, then what are we specifically when we access the cyberspace that we support?  Do we retain materiality in some way, are we disembodied symbols, or something else entirely?  Our direct relationship to this communication/information system lingers with ambiguity and scholarly resolution often centers on isolating a constant by which to measure individual identity, often by disregarding early, flawed theories.  For example, N. Katherine Hayles, in her book How We Became Posthuman, argues against her “nightmare” of a world in which humans abandon their organic bodies to adorn themselves with purely cyber identities.  It is impossible to download one’s consciousness into a computer, which also disputes liberal humanist theory in which mind and corporeal existence are inherently separate entities yet, thus far, casually merged.  Hayles rejects the romantic proposition that we can abandon this inconvenient coupling and the ennui it gives us in favor of a new, more exciting prosthesis: the computer.  Hayles ultimately states her desire to put the body back into embodiment, despite prior philosophical leanings of scholars toward a theory of human selves that are merely inconvenienced by corporeality.[v]    
Assuming, therefore, that information must always be instantiated into some medium, whether a computer or a body, we can view our fascination with cyberspace as a hunger to connect with the collective body of information.  I am here evolving Hayles’ insistence on embodiment to suggest a new kind of collective embodiment based on shared information and cyber social experience mediated through technology.  Denying ourselves access to this mysterious corpus results in a disconnection from the interiority of collective cyberspace and isolates us from our new social body.  To support this, Michael Heim, in his book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, argues in favor of the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz, concluding that cyberspace elevates us so that we reach an information apotheosis.  Similar to how “God” can see all paths at once, possessing total knowledge, cyberspace is a congruent matrix of information.  Our desire for this powerhouse of information is titillated by the internet as an information matrix, and in turn we wish to extend ourselves into the matrix by both seeing and being seen by the collective body of other cyberspace frequenters.[vi] 
 We can see an excellent example of this in a recent AT&T series of commercials marketing their 4G network phones.  In each commercial, the protagonist becomes an alienated outsider when he or she receives information on his or her inadequate phone much later than the other characters.  The ensuing hilarity warns the viewer that without this phone he or she will clearly find him or herself excluded from the collective body whose phones granted them nearly instantaneous access to the desired information and the temporary community bond it created between those who have the information versus those who do not.  Pointedly, the commercial producers assume viewers will respond to the two intertwined concepts the commercials manipulate: the viewer desires information as quickly as possible, collapsing any sense of elapsed real-time; further, the viewer especially wants and needs to engage in the collective body that already has the information he or she is denied without a faster phone.
Hayles would likely maintain that the phone becomes the posthuman’s prosthesis, an extension of the body because it is held and manipulated by the hand and acts as an autonomous agent transmitting information as part of a heterogeneous whole, the body.[vii]  In this way, it is similar to what the camera is to the flâneur: a technological prosthesis, a tool for the voyeur of information.[viii]  Significantly, the technology requires human actors, reminding that the temporary prosthesis is a tool that projects information into our external world while we connect into the interiority it mediates.  In this way, cyberspace is “a fragmented, divided, and contested multiplicity of heterogeneous infrastructures and actor-networks.”[ix] 
Consequently, the phone, or any type of technology with cyber access, becomes an agent for our connections to the larger body of external humans all meeting in a centralized, interior location: cyberspace.  Heim argues that our virtual selves are also a type of prosthesis, but technology no longer quivers in the guise of an information transmitter: our virtual selves, a type of consciousness prosthetic, can become so enmeshed with machine that amorality prevails in the cyber world.  Humans will rely on their prosthetic consciousness so that flesh encounters cease and our grip on moral, social society will fade.[x]  While Hayles assumes the physical technological object is the prosthetic and works with our bodies to transmit information, Heim’s darker fear suggests the disintegration of the self through the mind prosthesis, or our virtual bodies. 
Heim’s cautions are grossly exaggerated and generally apocalyptic; however, there is some validity to Heim’s foundational theory, which centers on cyberspace and its capacity for human exploration and drive.  Because the individual now has access to this vast body of information in cyberspace to explore as well as the structure and tools with which to create new information in the form of communication, how does this change the nature of the individual him or herself while he or she engages cyberspace?  The final question is therefore: Who does the individual become in cyberspace?  The individual participates actively, manipulating his or her dominion over the cyberspace he or she occupies.  Is the individual presence in cyberspace a complete fissure, a direct mirror of the original individual, or is it represented with varying degrees of intersection between the individual’s original identity and the new projection into cyberspace? 
To answer this final question, I turn now to Wole Soyinka and “The Fourth Stage.”  Soyinka, in a discussion of Yoruba tragedy, tells us that the greatest tragedy is the separation of one’s eternal essence from one’s corporeal form.  The Yoruba will always seek to relieve his or her anguish from this sense of incompleteness, the tragedy that resulted from a loss of totality.  The god Ogun was the original being who bridged the abysses from the three stages: the past eternal realm of the gods, the present realm of man, and the future of the unborn.  Ogun’s fourth realm is the chaotic abyss between the three realms, conceptualized as the space of transition.[xi]  Underlying Soyinka’s philosophy is a language in which reconnection to the eternal, or to the collective, is the determining drive of the human soul.  Soyinka speaks of Yoruba art as possessing “a quintessence of inner being,” thereby contrasting the arts of the classical Greeks that merely symbolized a certain idea or concept.[xii] 
Contextualizing the question of individual identity in cyberspace with Soyinka’s philosophy, are our cyber personalities are either a true projection of our inner beings or simply a virtually represented symbol of ourselves?  Do we remain ourselves or is it merely the illusion; the symbol of a thing, or the thing itself?  The interiority of cyberspace is a heterogeneous abyss of remote identities forming an ultimate collective, and this interior collective is a part of our external world.  Can our virtual selves then become like Ogun, occupying the fourth stage of transition in the abyss by bridging multiple realms?  Are we the bridge between the alienation of living in separate, external bodies and the collective body we join in the interior of cyberspace?  I have only begun to answer this question, but I believe it is not an either-or outcome: we are not either disembodied entities or simply external agents with helpful, prosthetic gadgets.  We are not always visual illusions or always projecting our true essence, filling cyberspace with our authentic inner selves.  Instead, we are beings who occupy a new stage of transition between the interior of cyberspace and the external world. 


[i] For further reading, see The Fourth Dimension by Charles Hinton, 1912.
[ii] Linda Henderson.  The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art.  (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, c1983); 339-41.
[iii] Henderson, 339
[iv] Federico Casalegno. “Thought on the Convergence of Digital Media, Memory, and Social and Urban Spaces,” in The New Media and Cybercultures Anthology.  (Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); 119.
[v] N. Katherine Hayles.  How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. (Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
[vi] Heim, 95.
[vii] Hayles, 3.
[viii] Susan Sontag, On Photography.  (New York: Picador USA; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2001], c1977).
[ix] Stephen Graham, “The End of Geography or the Explosion of Place,” in The New Media and Cybercultures Anthology
[x] Michael Heim, “The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace,” in The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); 101.
[xi] Wole Soyinka, “Appendix: The Fourth Stage,” in Myth, Literature, and the African World.  (Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
[xii] Soyinka, 141.

8 comments:

  1. I like how you built upon Hayles theory to propose the "collective embodiment" in cyberspace. I think this is at the heart of viewing the internet as a community.

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  2. In your conclusion, you mention that "we are beings who occupy a new stage of transition between the interior of cyberspace and the external world." I like this description, but how do you view the relationship between this interior and exterior? Are they parallel constructions or entirely antagonistic?

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  3. I think your writing is amazing! I will definitely be taking some pointers from you! In regards to your argument, perhaps I am a bit of a Marxist b/c while you state "[p]reviously we needed to venture to a bookstore for a new publication; now we download books instantly to our Kindles and read them within seconds of wanting them," one still have to expend a large amount of money to get the kindle and then get internet access, etc to use it.

    Finally in your analysis of the AT&T commercial, what I find ironic is that everyone is focused on their phones and not speaking. Though I get the point of the ad, no one thinks to verbally give the information to each other.

    Again we are all so focused on what our phone say that we are forgetting how to communicate to each other.

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  4. re: Kim: I also find the AT&T commercial ironic and completely bizarre; or rather, I find that aspect of techno-culture pretty alarming. I continue to feel really ambivalent about technology. On one hand, I find it useful and it allows greater ease when locating research materials or communicating more quickly with people I don't ordinarily see. Still, I feel like the psychological obsession portrayed in those types of ads is not something we should be striving toward because it creates the imbalance to which you're referring (here and in your blog essay).

    Also, I did not touch on the issue of who does and who does not actually have access to things like the Kindle, etc., which I know is a small percentage of the world population. I totally agree it is something we SHOULD be discussing more because it is relevant....if we don't get some latest gadget it's not like EVERYONE else in the world has one except for us (the way the AT&T ad pretends). There is a mythology continuing to build uncontrollably surrounding this issue, and if we ask questions like what you just did, I think it would help!

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  5. re: Elizabeth: I'm not exactly sure yet how I feel about the relationship between the interior and the exterior (which is probably why I don't take a definitive stance in my essay!!). I think I shy away from extremes, so abandoning real books in favor of the Kindle or disregarding face-to-face gatherings in favor of Facebook seems ludicrous. Yet, I do see how blending both spaces can provide humans (in societies affluent enough to have the technologies) with useful communication tools and certain conveniences, etc.

    Still, ambivalence reigns!

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  6. re: VCIC: I think cyberspace is an abstract space, but still very real as a defined type of "space."

    I keep thinking of "Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino. This is how I've always conceptualized cyperspace.

    Or, in another way, cyberspace sometimes feels like a collective imagination and everyone is contributing individually to the same dreams and inventions within its parameters. Those parameters have yet to be defined, similar to dreams.

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  7. To build on the VCIC comment and your response, is cyberspace a singular space? I like the idea of a collective imagination, but it implies equal access to all information, which you mention in your post. Thinking beyond those who do not have access due to social, economic, political reasons (which I agree we need to keep in mind), I think there is a lot of variability in experience between those who have access. Could there be multiple cyberspaces or is it just different ways of engaging within one large cyberspace?

    It is interesting that you say "we no longer perceive the body who designed the tools of access... the tools merely appear before us as space/time/information transmitters." In my field (Information studies) we frequently discuss the invisibility of our work. Whether it is the techies who design the new technology or support staff at the local library, the embodied individual that allows for information access is obscured, until something doesn't meet expectations.

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