Pearly Gates of Cyberspace

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* Book: The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. By Margaret Wertheim.



Michel Bauwens, 2004

In her introduction, Wertheim stresses that the medievals had a space for the body, but also a place for the soul, both unified in a coherent description of the universe, i.e. The Great Chain of Being. However, after the advent of the dominance of science, i.e. after the split by Descartes of the res cogitans from the res extensa, there remained only physical space; though considered as 'infinite', it was a deeply monistic space, that no longer had room for the soul. Again and again, she stresses the wholistic vision of the body which was always part of the picture. She describes the invention and social utility of Purgatory, its intrinsic humaneness, since it is a place of redemption where souls can make progress. It was also the invention of a new space of being, just as cyberspace is. Concerning Heaven, she discusses the contradictions of a resurrected body in a realm beyond space and time.

The next chapter on the emergence of physical space starts with Giotto (13th cy), who introduced 3D objects in flat space, leading to full-scale three-dimensional and perspectival paintings in the 15th cy.

This was a major mindshift since it introduced physical space:

   - I. from the perspective of a body in space (i.e. the self of the viewer)
   - II. seen from the physical eye and no longer from the Christian soul

Soon painters and viewers learned to play with perspective, i.e. you could take on different virtual positions, there by training the Western mind in the existence of physical space. Galileo would finally win over the European mind to his defintion of the featureless three-dimensional void, as the ground of reality. It is a defeat for Aristotelianism and the end of the spiritually infused medieval conception of space. It is the beginning of the ascent of science to cultural pre-eminence.

Just as the late medievals had a dualism of body and soul, they also had a dualism of terrestrial and celestial space, with the latter being a metaphor for the divine heavens. Their cosmos was therefore not homogenous, spaces were qualified.

But what if the new perspectival logic of terrestrial space, with space being homogenous and equal to itself everywhere, would extend to celestial space. What would this mean for heaven ? This was a key philosophical issue of the 16th and 17th cy! Again and again, it was the painters and artists who paved the way for the new scientific conceptions. Indeed, whereas Giotto had still painted heaven and earth as dissimilar, Raphael painted them both in a unified space.

Wertheim then discusses Nicholas de Cusa who as 'two hundred years in advance' in his thinking, and Copernic, who was, despite his heliocentric revolution, still very much a medieval thinker. It was in fact, Jonathan Kepler, with his laws of planetary motion, who finally destroyed the distinction between the earthy and celestial spheres. Finally, seeing the heavens as a concrete physical space, with material bodies, was a giant intellectual leap from medievalism and it would eventually lead to Newton's union of both spaces through the law of gravity. Kepler's genius was to abandon the mystical circle, with the ellipses. All of these developments would also lead to the disappearance of angels from the celestial sphere, to be replaced by concrete aliens of flesh and blood, as described by Kepler in his 'Somnium', which contains the description of a trip to the moon with its lizard-like creatures, and so perhaps this was the first s-f book in history. Kepler's celestial space no longer had place for immaterial angels. Heaven was no longer a spiritual space.

It was Galileo who, through his telescopic observations, proved Kepler riht, and would therefore be associated with this seminal change in western consciousness (Copernic and Galileo stole the show from Kepler, unjustly according to Wertheim). The telescope also showed the mutability of space. Accepting physical space and heliocentrism was much more easier than accepting the idea of a 'infinite' space, pioneered by the Nicolas De Cusa and further defended by Giordano Bruno. Indeed Christianity had always insisted on the presence of form as a sign of the Creator. It abhorred formlessness and the void. To which Bruno replied: "an infinite God can only be satisfied by an infinite act of creation. After this, theologians started to theologize about infinite space and voidness became acceptable.

The next major proponent of infinite space was Rene Descartes who believed that this vision came to him as a divine revelation of an 'Angel of Truth', followed by a series of dreams. The message was that mathematics would be key to unlocking the keys of the universe. Newton then finally showed that gravity was a unifying law that applied on earth and in the heavens.

While both Descartes and Newton were strongly religious, the latter equating God with Space, half a century later, their conceptions would be secularized. The new western worldview is, according to Wertheim, not dualistic, but in fact, profoundly monistic, with only one space and no room to use the spiritual realms. Thus, it was also a major loss for our culture.

The fourth chapter on relativistic space notes that Newton and his contemporaries did not say anything about the genesis of the universe and thus Divine Creation remained acceptable, but this started to change in the mid-18th cy, with the theories of Kant. Kant posited a condensation of galactic clouds, as the birth of stars and planets.

Thus, from here on, the natural universe would have a natural beginning and evolution. However, since it was still unprovable, and therefore mere theorizing, most astronomers believed in cosmic stasis. This idea persisted until the early 20th cy (until in 1920, Hubble proved that stars speeded away). Hubble also proved that the universe was immensely larger than was thought before, and that nebulae were other galaxies, outside our own Milky Way. - Using the ‘redshif factor’, he proved that the universe was in fact expanding. At about the same time, in 1916 and after, came the Einstein bombshell, which rejected the Newtonian notion of an ‘absolute space’, as general background to the universe. With Einstein, it became increasingly clear that time and space were relative to the observer (first, at uniform speed, i.e. the special theory of relativity, but second, in all dynamic conditions, i.e. the general theory of relativity).

Wertheim then undertakes a comparison between the two paradigms, i.e. the Newtonian vs the Einsteinian.

- Comparison Table of Newton vs Einstein

   - uniform space without qualities; passive scenery for objects ><
space is active as a membrane, which is distorted by objects
   - gravity is a separate force >< gravity is a by-product of the
shape of space itself, the so-called ‘curvature of space’
   - the universe is devoid of form >< the universe has an
   - the universe is passvie and eternally existing >< the universe
is dynamic and has a history
   - for Einstein, space and time are bound together in a 4-dimensional
whole (spacetime with time as another dimension of space); whether
space is infinite or not depends on the amount of matter (enough
matter would mean a closed universe)
   - For Newton, matter, force and space are the 3 basic realities ><
the universe, i.e. space itself, is expanding
   - the universe is not created >< the universe was created through
a ‘Big Bang’, 10 to 15 billion years ago

Chapter 5 is dedicated to the topic of hyperspace.

Wertheim explains that the first imaginings of a hyper dimensional space, fourth and higher, date from the 1860s with the mathematician Gauss, and this would give rise to a literature around the concept of a fourth dimension, a household word by the 1900s. She goes into some detail mentioning Well’s Time Machine, the ‘Flatland’ novel, Cubism and Ouspensky. Concerning art, she stresses that one of the primary objectives of early 20th cy artists was one of the primary objectives was the liberation from perspectives, and for this they looked for allies in non-Euclidean and higher-dimensional geometry.

Once the 4-dimensional worldview was accepted, why not imagine more In 1920, the mathematician Kaluza posited 5 dimensions, with electromagnetism as the result of the curvature of the fifth. His math apparently reconciled Einstein (relativity in 4D) with Maxwell (electro-magnetism). However, it could not be proven, and interest temporarily faded away. Until the 1980s that is, when the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’ nuclear force were discovered. What if the four basic forces were an expression of a unified ‘superforce’ ? Physicists discovered that to make this hypothesis work, they needed to posit the existence of 11 dimensions!! These extra dimensions are all microscopic. These hyper-space theories are now also used to explain matter. These ‘theories of everything’ make matter disappear as ‘structured nothingness’ and only curved hyperspace now reigns supreme. It is the culmination of a process of homogenization that was begun by the invention of perspective, and it has now become absolute. For Wertheim, this is also a impoverishment of our vision of the Cosmos.

Chapter 6 is dedicated to the emergence of cyberspace.

With the advent of cyberspace, we return again to a situation of dualism with a ‘plane of existence’ that is not equal to the physical plane. In some ways, this situation resembles that of the medievals. Wertheim goes on to describe the psycho-social dynamics of MUD’s, insisting on their features, that allow a playing out of many hidden sides of our selves, which is a vital ‘postmodern’ function. However, she decries what she terms the ‘naive’ enthusiasm of Turkle and others for these ‘multiple selves’ and for a ‘infinitely malleable self’. This denies the real difficulty of changing oneself.

Chapter 7: Cyber-’Soul’- Space

If chapter 6 examined cyberspace as a realm of the self, here it is seen as a realm of the soul: “we are finally at the pearly gates of cyberspace” (the ‘pearly gates’ are the entrance of the Heavenly City New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse of St. John). It is a space, where the ‘theologically possible’ becomes the ‘technologically possible’. In other words, the cyber-dream of transcending bodily limits is another instance of the age-old aspiration to a ‘glorified body’.

This is envisaged through the notion that we are not based on matter, but on patterns of data, which can reconstitute our bodily selves in any realm, whether this is space or cyberspace. She argues against the possibility of mind down-loading, on the grounds that our unconscious means that not all of our selves are ‘available’ at any one moment, and that many other such difficulties are eluded by the techo-utopians. Concerning cyber-resurrection, the idea that long past dead people can be revived, she notes that it is based on the notion of a soul that is separated from the body, and hence, it implies a refutation of materialist dogma. She notes the Pythagorean nature of these cyber-dreams based on the notion that we can exist as a set of binary code. But unlike the Pythagorean metempsychosis, there are no ethical dimensions to cyber-reincarnation.

Yet cyber-utopias definitely function as crypto-religions (cfr Eliade). After looking at the Pythagorean elements , she then notes the influence of Hermeticism and Rosicrucianism. But the promises of technology is that everybody can participate, not just a select few. At the same time, this cyber-religion seems based on hyper-individualist escapism, making no moral demands on its adherents (see: Pauline Borsook’s book: ‘Cyber-Selfish’).

Wertheim’s comments on Pythagoras, Hermeticism and Rosicrucianism

- ‘Rationally’ literally means, ‘to express the world in terms of ratios’. Pythagors believed that is numbers could be represented by form (four = square), then the opposite was also true: the forms making up the world of matter, must be made from numberw. This is also a definition of virtual reality, where binary code creates more and more complex worlds. Cyberpace is thoroughly Pythagorean!! Wertheim’s earlier book, “Pythagoras Trousers”, shows the emergence of modern physics in the 17th cy. Pythagoras had a gnostic drive, i.e. a striving for intuitive all-knowingness, through fusion with the One, and his gnostic drive is very present in cyberliterature, suh as for example in the book ‘True Names’ by Vernor Vinge and also in Neuromner and Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson.

- Wertheim quotes Johann Andreae, the like author of the Rosicrucian Manifesto’s:

   - “It is man’s duty to practice the technical arts in order that the
human soul .. may unfold itself through different sorts of machinery,
so that the little spark of divinity may shine brightly.”

- She notes that Andreae’s own ‘Christianopolis’ as well as Tomas Campanella’s City of the Sun, share a vision of citizens universally endowed with technical skills.

Chapter 8: Cyber Utopia

There is also an aspect of cyberspace concerned with the betterment of the current mortal life, precisely by enhancing the communal aspects, I.e the virtual community, which expresses a desire for transcendence of prejudice, by elimating direct access to bodies.

After critiquing the darker sides of cyberspace, i.e. the ways in which it reflects the hellish soul-space of Dante’s Inferno, she indeed stresses the the essentially positive element of cyberspace as a ‘network of relationships’. The ultimate conclusion of the book is that conceptions of space always reflect social structures and worldviews of the society producing it. Hence, Wertheim thinks that the creation of cyberspace reflects a deep cleavage in western culture, reflecting its tiredness with purely physicalist conceptions, and it signifies a return of the spiritual as constitutive element of human social life.

Finished reading on 26/7/2003.