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The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace

This is a chapter from Michael Heim's book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993: 82-108.

Cyberspace is more than a breakthrough in electronic media or in computer interface design. With its virtual environments and simulated worlds, cyberspace is a metaphysical laboratory, a tool for examining our very sense of reality.
When designing virtual worlds, we face a series of reality questions. How, for instance, should users appear to themselves in a virtual world? Should they appear to themselves in cyberspace as one set of objects among others, as third-person bodies that users can inspect with detachment? Or should users feel themselves to be headless fields of awareness, similar to our phenomenological experience? Should causality underpin the cyberworld so that an injury inflicted on the user's cyberbody likewise somehow damages the user's physical body? And who should make the ongoing design decisions? If the people who make simulations inevitably incorporate their own perceptions and beliefs, loading cyberspace with their prejudices as well as their insights, who should build the cyberworld? Should multiple users at any point be free to shape the qualities and dimensions of cyber entities? Should artistic users roam freely, programming and directing their own unique cyber cinemas that provide escape from the mundane world? Or does fantasy cease where the economics of the virtual workplace begins? But why be satisfied with a single virtual world? Why not several? Must we pledge allegiance to a single reality? Perhaps worlds should be layered like onion skins, realities within realities, or be loosely linked like neighborhoods, permitting free aesthetic pleasure to coexist with the task-oriented business world. Does the meaning of "reality"--and the keen existential edge of experience--weaken as it stretches over many virtual worlds?
Important as these questions are, they do not address the ontology of cyberspace itself, the question of what it means to be in a virtual world, whether one's own or another's world. They do not probe the reality status of our metaphysical tools or tell us why we invent virtual worlds. They are silent about the essence or soul of cyberspace. How does the metaphysical laboratory fit into human inquiry as a whole? What status do electronic worlds have within the entire range of human experience? What perils haunt the metaphysical origins of cyberspace?
In what follows, I explore the philosophical significance of cyberspace. I want to show the ontological origin from which cyber entities arise and then indicate the trajectory they seem to be on. The ontological question, as I see it, requires a two-pronged answer. We need to give an account of (1) the way entities exist within cyberspace and (2) the ontological status of cyberspace--the construct, the phenomenon--itself. The way in which we understand the ontological structure of cyberspace will determine how realities can exist within it. But the structure of cyberspace becomes clear only once we appreciate the distinctive way in which things appear within it. So we must begin with the entities we experience within the computerized environment.
My approach to cyberspace passes first through the ancient idealism of Plato and moves onward through the modern metaphysics of Leibniz. By connecting with intellectual precedents and prototypes, we can enrich our self-understanding and make cyberspace function as a more useful metaphysical laboratory.

Our Marriage to Technology

Because we are immersed in everyday phenomena, however, we usually miss their overall momentum and cannot see where they are going or even what they truly are. A writer like William Gibson helps us grasp what is phenomenal in current culture because he captures the forward movement of our attention and shows us the future as it projects its claim back into our present. Of all writers, Gibson most clearly reveals the intrinsic allure of computerized entities, and his books-- Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive--point to the near-future, phenomenal reality of cyberspace. Indeed, Gibson coined the word cyberspace.

The Romance of Neuromancer

Gibson raises the deepest ontological question of cyberspace by suggesting that the Neuromancer master-computer simulates the body and personality of Case's beloved. A simulated, embodied personality provokes the sexual encounter. Why? Perhaps because the cyberspace system, which depends on the physical space of bodies for its initial impetus, now seeks to undermine the separate existence of human bodies that make it dependent and secondary. The ultimate revenge of the information system comes when the system absorbs the very identity of the human personality, absorbing the opacity of the body, grinding the meat into information, and deriding erotic life by reducing it to a transparent play of puppets. In an ontological turnabout, the computer counterfeits the silent and private body from which mental life originated. The machinate mind disdainfully mocks the meat. Information digests even the secret recesses of the caress. In its computerized version, Platonic Eros becomes a master of artificial intelligence, CYBEROS, the controller, the Neuromancer.

The Inner Structure of Cyberspace

As Leibniz worked out the modern Idealist epistemology, he was also experimenting with protocomputers. Pascal's calculator had been no more than an adding machine; Leibniz went further and produced a mechanical calculator that could also, by using stepped wheels, multiply and divide. The basic Leibnizian design became the blueprint for all commercial calculators until the electronics revolution of the 1970s. Leibniz, therefore, is one of the essential philosophical guides to the inner structure of cyberspace. His logic, metaphysics, and notion of representational symbols show us the hidden underpinnings of cyberspace. At the same time, his monadological metaphysics alerts us to the paradoxes that are likely to engulf cyberspace's future inhabitants.

Leibniz's Electric Language

Leibniz's "electric language" operates by emulating the divine intelligence. God's knowledge has the simultaneity of all-at-onceness, and so in order to achieve a divine access to things, the global matrix functions like a net to trap all language in an eternal present. Because access need not be linear, cyberspace does not, in principle, require a jump from one location to another. Science fiction writers have often imagined what it would be like to experience traveling at the speed of light, and one writer, Isaac Asimov, described such travel as a "jump through hyperspace." When his fictional space ship hits the speed of light, Asimov says that the ship makes a special kind of leap. At that speed, it is impossible to trace the discrete points of the distance traversed. In the novel The Naked Sun, Asimov depicts movement in hyperspace: There was a queer momentary sensation of being turned inside out. It lasted an instant and Baley knew it was a Jump, that oddly incomprehensible, almost mystical, momentary transition through hyperspace that transferred a ship and all it contained from one point in space to another, light years away. Another lapse of time and another Jump, still another lapse, still another Jump.[4] Like the fictional hyperspace, cyberspace unsettles the felt logical tracking of the human mind. Cyberspace is the perfect computer environment for accessing hypertext if we include all human perceptions as the "letters" of the "text." In both hyperspace and hypertext, linear perception loses track of the series of discernible movements. With hypertext, we connect things at the speed of a flash of intuition. The interaction with hypertext resembles movement beyond the speed of light. Hypertext reading and writing supports the intuitive leap over the traditional step-by-step logical chain. The jump, not the step, is the characteristic movement in hypertext. As the environment for sensory hypertext, cyberspace feels like transportation through a frictionless, timeless medium. There is no jump because everything exists, implicitly if not actually, all at once. To understand this lightning speed and its perils for finite beings, we must look again at the metaphysics of Leibniz.

Monads Do Have Terminals

Still, there exists, according to the monadology, one actual universe. Despite their ultimately solitary character, the monads belong to a single world. The harmony of all the entities in the world comes from the one underlying operating system. Although no unit directly contacts other units, each unit exists in synchronous time in the same reality. All their representations are coordinated through the supervisory role of the Central Infinite Monad, traditionally known as God. The Central Infinite Monad, we could say, is the Central System Operator (sysop), who harmonizes all the finite monadic units. The Central System Monad is the only being that exists with absolute necessity. Without a sysop, no one could get on line to reality. Thanks to the Central System Monad, each individual monad lives out its separate life according to the dictates of its own willful nature while still harmonizing with all the other monads on line.

Paradoxes in the Cultural Terrain of Cyberspace

If cyberspace unfolds like existing large-scale media, we might expect a debasement of discriminating attention. If the economics of marketing forces the matrix to hold the attention of a critical mass of the population, we might expect a flashy liveliness and a flimsy currency to replace depth of content. Sustained attention will give way to fast-paced cuts. One British humanist spoke of the HISTORY forum on Bitnet in the following terms: "The HISTORY network has no view of what it exists for, and of late has become a sort of bar-room courthouse for pseudo-historical discussion on a range of currently topical events. It really is, as Glasgow soccer players are often called, a waste of space." Cyberspace without carefully laid channels of choice may become a waste of space.

The Underlying Fault


[1] William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984), pp. 4-5.
[2] Ibid., p.33.
[3] Ibid., pp. 239-40.
[4] Isaac Asimov, The Naked Sun (New York: Ballantine, 1957), p. 16.
[5] Mike Pondsmith, The View from the Edge: The Cyberpunk Handbook (Berkeley, Calif.: R. Talsorian Games, 1988), pp. 20-22.
[6] Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 6.
[7] Quoted in Steve Rosenthal, "Turn On, Dial Up, Tune In," Electric Word, November-December 1989, p. 35.
[8] William Gibson, Burning Chrome (New York: Ace Books, 1987), p. 191.
[9] Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 258.
[10] Ibid., p. 106.

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