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Cyberspace culture

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computing Neil Spiller's Cyber Reader offers an overview of cyberspace theories with key extracts from books and essays on the subject

You sit there, day in, day out, mouse or maybe electronic pen in one hand, moving lines purposefully around on a screen in front of you. During those longueurs, while the machine grinds away rendering a complex image, you might briefly have pondered the topic of how this quite familiar and useful personmachine ensemble came into being.

You have a vague notion, maybe, of complex eight and 16-item sets of ones and zeros telling millions of tiny switches to zap on and off at very high speed inside all those grey tablets, with insect legs on the motherboard getting their heat dissipated by the fans whirring away in the computer box under the desk. But it is just a bunch of electronics in a beige case with AutoCAD and maybe Photoshop. Isn't it?

No it is not. Because you and it, sitting there collectively in the office, are the current manifestation of a complicated collection of theories, dreams, arguments and stories by a bunch of near and fully signed-up geniuses and visionaries who have turned a generalised idea of getting machines to do more things into the extraordinary events that go on between you and the beige box.

If only you knew it. And I cannot think of a better way to start understanding all this than reading regular AJ contributor Neil Spiller's Cyber Reader.

Spiller says: 'This book introduces the principal characters and concepts, providing a framework into which to place further ideas and discoveries.' It is exactly that. You are going to have to go out and get the real texts yourself, for Spiller offers tasters three or four pages long of his 40-plus chosen seminal writers. But you can just read Spiller's page-anda-half introductions, dip into the following texts and begin to savour the whole conspectus. Here is a bit of J D Bolter's beautifully clear explanation of Alan Turing's Turing Machine and John von Neumann's Design for Computers. Over here is Gordon Pask on the architectural relevance of cybernetics, here and there are Cedric Price and John Frazer and over there Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari introducing the rhizome concept, and there Eric Drexler on molecular nanotechnology.

And there is some history. Apart from Babbage on the Analytical Engine, there is Vannevar Bush, who, in pre-computing 1945, introduced the notion, though not the name, of hypertext; JCR Licklider, who is the father of interactiveness; and Douglas Engelbart, the inventor of the mouse, with a take on augmenting human intellect.

There are also the philosophers, especially Daniel Dennett on emergence and a group of feminist writings by Anne Balsamo, Sherry Turkle and Karen A Franck, whose piece has a brilliantly double-take title: 'When I enter virtual reality, what body will I leave behind?'

It is not something computer scientists care to discuss too often because their take on imaginative fiction is that it is woolly and unscientific. But Spiller, absolutely correctly, spends some time with the literature of cyberspace: William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Jeff Noon and Greg Egan are among the writers, and there is some proper acknowledgement to Philip K Dick. A lot of such literature lags behind or extrapolates from known science - such as, for example, the brilliant Schroedinger's Cat and Illuminatus trilogies of Robert Anton Wilson, which are based on very close readings of the more surreal parts of particle physics theory.

Spiller introduces William Gibson with this: 'In the early 1980s, Gibson became infatuated with the space that couldn't be perceived in simple arcade video games - a weird space that wasn't real, yet which had some spatial properties. He coined a term - 'cyberspace' - and a new era was born.' What followed was a clear case of science trailing along behind the conceptual footsteps of art.

It does need to be said that the notion of alternative world-environments which impinge on the current real world had been exploited by both science fiction writers of the '60s and '70s (not least, in a slightly different context, by Michael Moorcock) - and in at least one '40s comic strip. It is arguable, anyway, that the original concept goes back to the scatological metamorphosis of Lucius Apuleius in his second century Golden Ass.

Whatever, Spiller offers brief passages from Gibson's Neuromancer, Greg Bear's Queen of Angels, Stephenson's Snow Crash, Noon's Stash Riders, which (potentially) lead rather than follow a science, which now seems to accept the possibility of ideas hitherto strictly in the realm of pulp science fiction, such as being in different places simultaneously, time travel and matter transmission. Of course, they will need beige boxes to work it all out.

sutherland. lyall@btinternet. com

Cyber Reader is edited by Neil Spiller, Phaidon Press, 2002, 320pp, £24.95

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