4.0179 Metaphysics of Cyberspace (1/75)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Wed, 13 Jun 90 18:17:16 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0179. Wednesday, 13 Jun 1990.

Date: Wed, 06 Jun 90 22:25:58 PDT
Subject: Metaphysics of Cyberspace

Rorschach at Edinburgh would like more on the statement I made about the
conference on cyberspace.

In describing the First Conference on Cyberspace (May 4-5 in Austin,
Texas), I said there was a spontaneous combustion of metaphysical
problems raised by the plans for cyberspace.

First a little about cyberspace. What is it? The fiction of William
Gibson depicts a full-featured cyberspace as a hybrid between an
international data network for business and a three-dimensional
videogame. Users access cyberspace through a computer console, a deck
with electrodes feeding directly into the brain. The user's body is
"the meat" that stays behind to punch the deck and give the coordinates,
while the user's mind roams the computer matrix. Gibson's novel
*Neuromancer* describes cyberspace as "a consensual hallucination
experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every
nation.... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of
every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of
light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of

Several research and commercial projects are producing cyberspace
prototypes. (See Howard Rheingold's article in Whole Earth Review #67
summer 1990.) The cyberspace prototypes resemble the fictional models
to some extent. The prototypes reach for a total sensory environment
constituted by information. The information arrives in holograms and
other multi-dimensional structures, all modelling the phenomena of the
corporeal world. To enter the holographic data environment, the users
don headsets and data suits that transmit retinal images and sensory
stimuli. Multiple users perceive the same holographic objects and
communicate with reference to the same locus points. Instead of moving
physically back and forth in the world, users deal with informational
objects constructed by data. The informational objects include
representations of the users' physical selves. When speaking of
cyberspace as a total environment for manipulating data structures, the
developers refer to a "computer-simulated virtual reality."

While they work out the details of this virtual reality, cyberspace
developers find their language turning strange and their thoughts
getting metaphysical. How, for instance, should the users appear to
themselves? Should they appear in cyberspace as one set of objects
among others, as third-person bodies they can inspect with detachment?
Or should the users appear to themselves as headless fields of awareness
attached to bodies, similar to our phenomenological experience? Does
causality underpin the cyberworld so that an injury inflicted on the
user's cyber body likewise befalls the user's physical body? And what
about the process of creating the cyberspace world? What determines its
qualities and dimensions? Should a free aesthetic imagination draw and
paint cyberspace? Should artists create unique hyper-real worlds, like
cinema, which surpass the mundane tasks of the extracyber world? Or
does poetry cease where the economics of the virtual workplace begin?
(At the conference, American Express and IBM showed a strong interest in
a cyberspace that mimics the contemporary office workplace.) But why be
satisfied with a single cyberspace? Why not several? Must we pledge
allegiance to any single reality? Perhaps reality will be layered like
onion skins, realities within realities, permitting free aesthetic
pleasure to coexist alongside the more task-oriented business world?
Does the notion of multiple systems make the notion of reality obsolete?
Has the word reality lost reliable meaning, really?

These were some of the questions thrown around at the First Conference
on Cyberspace -- at least as far as I can remember and could discern.
Someone else might get a different set of questions from reading the
papers by the programmers and architects at the Conference. The papers
are forthcoming with MIT Press in Fall of 1990 under the title
<Cyberspace> edited by Michael Benedikt.

Hope this fills in what you are asking for.

Mike Heim
Cal State Long Beach