Erik Davis' Figments


Mapping an Online Cosmology

Information wants to be space. From flowcharts to data maps to those yahoo graphs in USA Today, spatial imagery incarnates abstraction into three dimensions. But however rigorous this mapping is, an imaginative residue always remains--population charts using human figures become a cop line-up of dwarfs and giants, while nonrepresentational scientific charts take us into Mondrian. There is a peculiar pleasure to art that we know is also information, a pleasure at once visual and abstract. Think about the first time the teacher sketched a pie chart on the blackboard. For a moment, math suddenly seemed yummy.

When computers enter the picture, information space gets out of hand. With their processing power and graphic muscle, computers not only conjure up juicy pictures but blast the amount of data that can be represented into overdrive. This gives rise to scientific visualization, which the PhDs use to grok complex systems like weather patterns, molecular binding, and the bizarre topologies of math. And, as anyone who has seen the swirling rainbows of a tornado unfold onscreen can attest, even the most functional graphs glitter with dream.

But as the computer visionary Ivan Sutherland recognized in the '60s, computers remain glass bottom boats unless folks can navigate their data. So Sutherland plugged a joystick into the machine. In the '70s, Alan Kay's Xerox PARC research group developed a visual computer interface of windows and icons, whose most famous descendent is the decidedly mixed "desktop metaphor" of the Macintosh, with its environment of folders, menus, mice, and trash cans. Later, the Architecture Machine Group at MIT's Media Lab created "Dataland," which allowed MIT dweebs to fly through a 3D representation of their personal files and programs using touchpads and small joysticks.

Virtual reality sent these 3D desires into the astral plane. By using goggles inlaid with screens, special data-gloves, and powerful image processing, VR may ultimately project the user into the midst of a digital space as concrete, chimerical, and manipulatable as a lucid dream. While VR's applications range from architectural design to theme-park rides, financial wizzes began looking for ways to visualize the abstract flow of financial data. In 1990, a Columbia research project partly funded by Citicorp began developing a system that allowed users to manipulate 3D representations of options portfolios with a special glove, enabling traders to chart changes of value against shifting factors like interest rates. And the VR flagship company VPL was working with an actuary company which wanted to represent discrete collections of information as trees within a vast forest tied to its database.

Though VR materializes from the hyper-hyped mists of the techno avant-garde, there is something decidedly premodern in the image of some suit entering into a leafy forest to retrieve annuity premiums. The notion of Nature concealing an abstract design takes us back to the Middle Ages, when the visionary Christian genius Ramón Lull created the Arbor Scientia, visual charts that attempted to schematize the total encyclopedia of all knowledge into a forest of trees organized under the abstract qualities of God so loved by the scholastics (Bonitas, Virtus, Gloria, etc). There were trees for Heaven and Hell, and all the various actions that would lodge you in one or the other. Insurance data would probably be a hell tree. And what would Lull think of the rainbow apple logo emblazoned on the Mac--an allegory of the first fruit?

As Adolf Katzellenbogen wrote in Allegories of the Virtues and Vices in Medieval Art, trees work because "the highly articulated structure of the growths of nature could lodge complicated systems of abstraction and their upward development could be interpreted step by step--or rather, branch by branch." They were great interactive knowledge maps, and when such trees became allegorical forests, that interactivity became narrative. It's only a few steps from Lull's overdetermined grove to the Bower of Bliss in Spenser's The Faerie Queene, a poem which Coleridge described as occurring "truly in land of Faery, that is, of mental space." For all its sexy shade, the Bower is not a sensual place but a rebus expressing a certain equation of sin. As our hero Guyon discovers, the bower is even artificial, for the apparently leafy green disguises a metalwork of "rare device."

In the actuary forest, digital code has replaced moral code, and cash has replaced the rewards and punishments meted out by The Faery Queene's fantastic Christianity (though Spenser did also feature the Cave of Mammon). The sacred imagination used to navigate life's labyrinth of ethical choices has been reduced to a profane harvesting of profit. But the magic of mental space remains, and its promise of transformation. As computers grow in simulating power, our own rare devices are exfoliating into worlds. Perhaps the Mac's desktop "metaphor" is only the gateway into a huge allegorical realm of technological representation, a realm that is uncharted but already named: cyberspace.

* * *

When William Gibson defined cyberspace in his gritty SF novel Neuromancer, it was nothing less than a throw-down before the age: "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination...A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data" In Gibson's novels, data mercenaries called cowboys enter this candy-colored universe of grids, icons, and architectures through Nintendo-like "decks." Whipping through "the infinite reaches of that space that wasn't space," these data pirates penetrate the iced green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America or soar beneath "corporate galaxies" and the "cold spiral arms" of military systems. Both ordered and overwhelming, cyberspace glittered with what Fredric Jameson called the "technological sublime," a flickering mirage of the awesome totality of today's global information economy.

By connecting the libidinal pleasures of video-game joysticks with dry data banks, Gibson not only captured the unnerving giddiness of our galloping information society, but showed you how you could ride it. "People jacked in so they could hustle. Put the trodes on and they were out there, all the data in the world stacked up like one big neon city, so that you could cruise around and have a kind of grip on it, visually anyway, because if you didn't, it was too complicated, trying to find your way to a particular piece of data you needed." Some have criticized Gibson's cowboys for being generic throwbacks to antisocial tough guys. (As the immortal Clint put it in A Fistful of Dollars: "In these parts, a man's life can depend on a mere scrap of information.") But such critics never felt the rush of opening up a vast database all by your lonesome, and then extracting what you want in seconds.

Cyberspace gave folks a gift, organizing the desires of everyone from hackers to interface designers to network architects. Gibson satisfied their intuition that information was spatial, and their desire to cruise these digital realms without being swallowed (though this remains a dire possibility in both Gibson's and our world). Gibson's essentially fantastic creation actually pioneered a social space, as his word and concept leaked out of science fiction and into the disparate fields of journalism, law, Hollywood, druggy bohemia, and mainstream computer science. With Neuromancer, SF's blend of social allegory, dream, and rigorous pseudoscientific extrapolation penetrated our experience the way phone lines, TVs, and modems penetrate the walls of our homes.

But Neuromancer's phenomenal success also showed that cyberspace tapped into desires far older than digital computers: mystical urges for total awareness, magical urges for total information control. With its infinite boundaries and its vast hierarchy of galaxies and constellations, roads and cities, cyberspace is more than a map--it's a cosmos. In one passage of the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of esoteric texts from late antiquity that formed the basis for European magic, alchemy, and other gnostic flights, the revealed Mind says to Hermes Trismegistus: "If you embrace in your thought all things at once, times, places, substances, qualities, quantities, you may understand God."

But beneath this Faustian rush, the dream of cyberspace promises to resolve an anxiety much closer to home. Most of us feel like fleeting, transient beings in a world of endless flux because we remain moderns. Modernity does not think in spaces, it thinks in times--the past is consumed in forgetting, not contained in memory. The medievals wanted to remember the virtues and vices partly to dodge hell, but also because memory itself is the image of heaven--unchanging space, without decay or the agony of ceaseless renewal. As Walter Benjamin wrote, "An appreciation for the transience of things, and the concern to rescue them for eternity, is one of the strongest impulses in allegory."

Unlike Benjamin, most modernists loathe allegory, perhaps because it's mode of spatializing time seems a musty remnant of the theological mind. Yet allegory continued to inhabit the speakeasies, deserts, and moonscapes of popular culture genres, and it's all too appropriate that an SF paperback delivered cyberspace, postmodernity's image of eternal information. For while computers have jacked up the pace of global change, intensifying the rush of passing time, they nonetheless offer the paradox of total retention, absolute memory. Just as it all spirals hopelessly out of control, it all comes back.

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In his Confessions, Saint Augustine invokes "the plains, and caves, and caverns of my memory, innumerable and innumerably full off innumerable kinds of things." Augustine calls this an "inner place, which is as yet no place," and catalogues the images, knowledges, emotions, experiences that exist there. Then he becomes a cowboy. "Over all these do I run, I fly; I dive on this side and that, as far as I can, and there is no end."

To moderns this all sounds a bit out of hand. Since we've given up our memory to the dry ossuaries of library books or the megabytes of hard drives, our experience of inner recall has been reduced to a fog. But as Frances Yates points out in her remarkable Art of Memory, Augustine is not just waxing poetic, but spinning a technique for him already centuries old: the classic mnemonic art. As described by Cicero and others, the art consists of mentally creating series of imaginative spaces, usually vast buildings, their size and even the lighting rigorously defined. Within these units are placed images of the things or words to be remembered, ranging from striking and fantastic figures of bloody gods to simple emblems like anchors or swords. By walking through the virtual palace, one is able to find the appropriate data-dense icon, and recover its store of words and information.

Sounds as implausible and cumbersome as some comic-book ad for amazing powers, but it evidently worked: the rhetorician Seneca could hear a list of two thousand names and spit them back in order, and Simplicius, a buddy of Augustine, could recite Virgil backwards. The art died out in the early Middle Ages, but was revamped by the stolid Schoolmen, who used it to store the innumerable vices and virtues, their respective punishments and rewards. And what better location to replace the palaces of the classical world than the hierarchic sandwich of the cosmos itself, with its heaven, hell, and purgatory. Yates even argues that the most famous and systematic of imaginative medieval spaces--the cosmos of Dante's Divine Comedy--was in many ways a product of the art of memory, as it followed the classical rule of "striking images on orders of places."

The medieval memory techniques of Ramón Lull took a different tact, replacing palaces and cosmic maps with an incredibly complex systems of wheels within wheels. The rims of these wheels were crammed with letters which stood for the nine qualities of God that Lull had seen in a vision, qualities which reflected and organized the summa of all knowledge. Looking at these diagrams, choked with sigils and dense interconnections, one beholds information art as fractals or diagrams of the global computer matrix. But Lull added a fascinating twist: by shifting the wheels, you could create endless combinations of concepts. As Yates notices, Lull introduced movement into his abstract machinery of knowledge. In his fascinating book Magical Alphabets, Nigel Pennick points out that Lull's combinatorial wheels could be seen as the forerunner of Charles Babbage's nineteenth-century difference engine-- which used a system of gears to perform polynomial equations--and "hence can be considered the occult origin of modern computers."

A bit of a stretch perhaps, even for a practicing geomancer like Pennick, but the sober Yates makes a similar suggestion when she describes the highly systematized and flagrantly magical memory-charts of the Renaissance wild man Giordano Bruno, who ended his heretical days as Vatican kindling. These systems were of "appalling complexity," combining Lull's interlocking wheels with a dense astrological iconography. The hermetic fuel Bruno's charts were running on was the faith that "the astral forces which govern the outer world also operate within, and can be reproduced or captured there to operate a magico-mechanical memory." By mentally organizing all phenomena of the lower world according to the categories of stellar demons, one could achieve "the memory of a divine man" (and a plethora of powers as well). As Yates points out "the Renaissance conception of an animistic universe, operated by magic, prepared the way for the conception of a mechanical universe, operated by mathematics."

Yates saw a "curiously close" spiritual link Bruno's magico-mechanical memory system and the "mind machines" discussed in the press of the 1960s. What would Dame Yates see today, peering into a hopped-up 486 IBM clone? Better yet, what Bruno would see?

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While cyberspace could be said to be born the second Alexander Graham Bell called Watson into the room, it remains a ghost terrain linking fragmented technologies. The closest we've come is the Internet, a sprawling octopus of millions of computers jabbering at each other across the world, swapping documents, providing data services, and drawing together on-line users into a variety of shared spaces like bulletin boards and the World Wide Web. Though network communication essentially consists of series of flat screens, the Internet is conceived of as a space, most notably in its MUDs. A "multi-user dimension" greets online explorers with the specific descriptions of that dimension (a conference room, an s&m dungeon), inviting them to create fictional handles and even to extend the MUD by creating new rooms.

Some MUDs are open-ended spaces of chat, but many are role-playing games similar to Dungeons & Dragons. D&D is a virtual game: players created magical characters out of numbers and imagination, collectively navigating an unseen dungeon (described to them by the dungeon master) where they collect magic spells and treasure while battling trolls with dice rolls. The first digital expression of D&D-style games was Adventure, a text-based fantasy game created by programmers on the mainframes of Stanford's AI Lab in the '70s. By typing simple commands, you would probe Adventure's underworld cartography, get stuff, kill things. Adventure began with this now-famous description:


This image is schematic but strangely potent, and it may remind us of another traveller, at the end of another road, about to begin a grand adventure:

When I had journeyed half our life's way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.

So does Dante begins his descent into the allegorical underworld of the Inferno.

In his landmark Allegory, Angus Fletcher defined his titular subject as "a fundamental process of encoding our speech." If Adventure's virtual spaces feel allegorical, it is partly because they emerge from the computer's strict hierarchies of of codes, which descend from the quasi-English of programming languages like BASIC or C to the babbling "machine language" of ones and zeros coursing through silicon relays. "In a sense," Steven Levy writes in Hackers, "Adventure was a metaphor for computer programing itself--the deep recesses you explored in the Adventure world were akin to the basic, most obscure levels of the machine that you'd be travelling in when you hacked in assembly code."

Similarly, Dante's forests and caves emerge from the imagination's attempt to spatialize a coded hierarchy of meaning. Dante forces us beneath the surface, not just to relish the poetry but to unpack the goods: historical personages, medieval theology, moral philosophy, politics. These didactic codes are not added to the work, but are woven into the images, like the metalwork laced into the leaves of Spenser's Bower of Bliss. Even more essentially, they are as ordered as the Periodic Table. "For the suggestiveness and intensity of ambiguous metaphorical language," Fletcher writes, "allegory substitutes a sort of figurative geometry. It enables the poet, as Francis Bacon observed, to 'measure countries in the mind'." This recalls the blinking geometries of cyberspace as much as the circles of Dante's Hell, and suggests that computers offer some potent alliance of previously estranged aspects of mind. Fletcher points out that modern science depends on a disjunction between the synthetic fantasies of the imagination and the rigor of analytic systemization. Allegory fuses them.

In its blending of nonsensual images with abstractions, its tendencies towards baroque complexity, and the almost necessarily spatial nature of its protoscientific orderings, allegory hints at cyberspace. Both computer interfaces and allegories blend mimetic symbols (trash cans and folders on the Mac, a stake in the heart in the Inferno) with magical symbols (a phoenix in an allegorical engraving isn't just a bird; like a hyperlink, it "opens" onto a particular operation or realm of information). Earlier literary critics refer to "allegorical machines" to indicate the inexorable overcoding of allegorical schemes in works like Pilgrim's Progress. When computers represent the world to us, they cannot help but becoming allegorical machines.

Bunyon's allegorical machines not only structured his doctrinal narrative, they determined the aura of fate that hung about his characters. There is no way out for pilgrims, who must always process the destined dreams of their world. Like Parsifal, they strive to unpack the signs, to ask the right questions, even to destroy the simulated traps, just as Guyon tears down the artificial Bower. Movement is decoding, but it is movement too, an errant reading that always leads to another curious space, another confrontation with daemonic agents. As with The Faerie Queene, Borges's Chinese encyclopedia, and so many allegories, the work remains unfinished.

For the medievals, the fantastic spaces of allegory provided a definite map, a mode of charting thought and experience. Cyberspace too is more than a good story--it is an imaginal map enlivened by the actual forces it represents: computers, infonets, telecommunications, media, global finance. These combined forces are forging what is strangest and most surreal about our moment, and recovering the meaty, comic-book outlines of allegorical vision may give us a (magic) trick or two. Our allegories are dark--for all its psychedelic fun, the world of Neuromancer is decidedly dystopian. And the twentieth century's most famous allegory, Kafka's The Trial, refigures the cosmic system that so calmed the scholastics into bureaucratic hell, a labyrinth of mechanical procedures and tangled hierarchies that computers have only encouraged to flourish. The pop image of cyberspace as a "frontier" alerts us that the allegorical mode may arise most forcefully in lawless, anxious realms. How does one move through the ruins of modernity, this complex forest of simulacra, underground economies, subcultures, violent cabals, secret languages, magic machines? Perhaps we could use some of the allegorist's hieroglyphic ethics. For we are not reading cyberspace from some high and holy hill. We are lost in its thickets.

(First appeared in the Voice Literary Supplement, March 1993)

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