by Mark Trescowthick - GUI Computing
As is typical over the long Australian Summer break, I find time to sit down with a good book or two. This year's standout (in a year surprisingly devoid of good Internet- or PC-related books) is Margaret Wertheim's "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace".
Wertheim's book is, at heart, a sort of space-based equivalent of Stephen Hawking's "Brief History of Time". And, I would suggest, destined to sell particularly well - there's no doubt that using cyberspace in the title is a guarantee of sales in this nascent cyber age. But make no mistake, Wertheim is not some author looking to emulate in book sales the current Wall Street fad for Internet stocks.
This is a quite remarkable and instructive book, even if the "cyberspace" chapters were to be expunged.
Wertheim's underlying thesis is that Western Civilisation has, since Mediaeval times, been on a long and possibly foolish journey from a dualistic concept of Space (which encompasses Spiritual and Physical Space) to a rather less appealing monistic version, where only what we now see as "real" (i.e. physical) space can be said to exist.
It's a truly amazing journey that begins with Dante and ends with William Gibson, and takes in so many points in between that I find it hard to give you a feel for the book. But let's just examine the Introduction… it footnotes references to, inter alia, Revelations, Marvin Minsky, Harpers', Umberto Eco, Gibson, Negroponte, Lefevbre, Sherry Turkle and Hans Moravec. That's a pretty diverse bunch, I think you'd agree!
Wertheim charts the course of Space through Dante's Mediaeval view of the World, Heaven and Hell, through the Renaissance adoption of perspective, Newtonian space, Euclidean geometry and Einstein's relativism and, finally, into the bizarre world of modern eleven-dimensional hyperspace "reality" - even before she returns to what will be perceived by many as her central theme, the discussion of cyberspace. If the book ended before cyberspace was even mentioned, it would still be on my "Highly Recommended" list.
But it doesn't end there, and her insights into what cyberspace is are all the more fascinating and compelling because, not in spite of , her extensive historical perspective.
It's Wertheim's very clear view that Western Civilisation is the poorer for the fact that our physical sciences have such an all-encompassing view of physical space. She feels, and makes a compelling argument for, that the Mediaeval view of a dualistic approach to space was enriching as well as restricting - an attitude I found a bit foreign as I started reading but was entirely comfortable with pretty quickly.
Basically, our view of what is "real" is now limited to the provable, physical universe. For Mediaeval Man (we have little or no idea about Mediaeval Woman, but that's another story) the realm of the Spirit was every bit as real, and Wertheim goes to great pains to underline the essential truth of this. As a 20th Century being, this took a bit of coming to terms with, but it is - how can I put this? - demonstrably true! Just read the book…
So, we "moderns" have succeeded squeezing out everything but what we would term the "real" and others would term the "physical"… where does that place cyberspace in the scheme of things? Let's let Margaret have her say :-
"In a very profound sense, this new digital space is "beyond" the space that physics describes, for the cyber-realm is not made up of physical particles and forces, but of bits and bytes… No many how many dimensions hyperspace physicists add into their equations, cyberspace will remain "outside" them all…
Like the mediaeval Christian Heaven, cyberspace becomes in these [Gibsons'] tales a place outside space and time, a place where the body can somehow be reconstituted in all its glory…What is extraordinary here is that while the concept of transcending bodily limitation was once seen as theologically possible, now it is conceived as technologically feasible."
Wertheim's view of cyberspace and its potential impact on the human experience in the 21st century is, I'd guess, likely to upset and annoy many. But it is no less valid for all of that, and certainly a more challenging view than some of the simplistic stuff I've read in recent times. If you are of an avowed anti-religious bent, don't let that deter you… Wertheim speaks not only in a spiritual sense, but also in a profoundly practical one. Her views on the likelihood of various cyber-options make a good deal more sense than those of many others.
But even if you have no particular interest in cyberspace, this may still be "the book for you". Taken alone, her five chapters on the development of the Western (and now World) concept of "Space" are worth much, much more than the price of admission.
A dense read, but a rewarding one.
The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace.
Doubleday. ISBN 0 86824 744 8.