The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet
Author: Margaret Wertheim
Publisher: New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1999
Review Published: March 2000
It's not often that one comes across a nonfiction examination of a contemporary subject -- in this case, cyberspace -- that can also contain The Divine Comedy, Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes, wormholes, and Cubist theory . . . and be the better for it. Margaret Wertheim's wonderfully creative The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet is one of these pleasant exceptions, making a distinctive and unusual contribution to the overall body of cyberculture literature despite certain limitations.
Wertheim, a science writer known for Pythagoras' Trousers (a study of the relationship of Western religion and physics) and the PBS documentary Faith and Reason, has again produced a magnificently encompassing and inventive examination of a subject that rarely crosses disciplinary boundaries, much less historical boundaries. It seems probable that Wertheim's position as an independent writer frees her to engage in certain types of broad, intensely interdisciplinary work not usually encouraged in the academy. The other side of the interdisciplinary coin is that there is so much ground covered and so many big ideas represented here that none are explored in any detail and complex ideas are frequently oversimplified. Those distinct limitations understood from the start, however, one can get on with the business of appreciating this large-minded book for its creativity, vision, and the sheer pleasure of reading something that so confidently seizes interdisciplinarity by the shirt collar and then takes it out dancing through six centuries and the laws of physics.
Wertheim's stated goal is to consider cyberspace within the context of a cultural history of space in general, and begins by mapping medieval Christian cosmology and the understanding of spiritual spaces. In Dante's description of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, the understanding of space is dualistic, and, specifically, that such a conception allows for an actual space for spiritual places, just as it allows for an actual space for physical places. A key point of this argument is that in these world views, spiritual space is real, and not simply metaphorical. She then moves to an examination of art and how perspective and three-dimensional representation in Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes, for example, reflected the beginning of a shift towards a predominantly physical conception ofspace. Essentially, Wertheim argues, whereas in the medieval worldview spiritual space was equally real but inherently different in nature from physical space, developments in art, astronomy, mathematics and philosophy converged over time to shift the idea of space into a purely physical or monistic view which essentially obliterated the idea of a separate spiritual space. Although the chapters Wertheim devotes to relativistic space and hyperspace are clear distillations of major ideas in astronomy, physics and mathematics, they are also the chapters least relevant to this forum's primary concern of cyberspace.
The last three chapters of the book support various parts of the main argument that cyberspace hearkens back to what Wertheim calls "a dualistic theater of reality" (229). The first of these chapters, "Cyberspace," is used to support her contention that cyber "space" is indeed a legitimate use of the term as it reflects a desire for some sort of "collective mental arena" (230). Here, she considers how forums such as MUDs, Usenet groups, chat rooms and IRC channels create an arena in which people can explore certain aspects of themselves which they might feel unable to do in an otherwise profoundly physicalist world.
I found Wertheim's tussle with the "reality" of cyberspace to be particularly interesting, although relatively short. As a humanities scholar, I am accustomed to realities being understood as fluid, flexible, and usually constructed within highly individualized contexts.Wertheim, however, tends to deal with the concept of reality as an absolute or objective truth (as befits the disciplinary proclivities of a science writer) and as such, explicitly accepts or rejects particular portions of, say, Sherry Turkle's idea of a multiplicity of self. While I would take issue with both her method and conclusions, the content of the discussion is intelligent and would likely prove thought-provoking to individuals on both sides of that particular disciplinary divide.
"Cyber Soul-Space" extends the comparison of the contemporary dualistic physical/cyber space model with the medieval dualistic physical/spiritual space model. Here, Wertheim examines some of the religious language and iconography of the discourse of cyberspace, most notably the idea of uploading one's "soul-data" to some sort of immortality on a network -- the cyberspace version of the soul's ascent into Heaven (or descent into Purgatory or Hell). This is one of the more thought-provoking discussions of the book: although ahistorical and overgeneralized, her comparison of Gnosticism and the discourse of cyberspace is an innovative and potentially useful one for the specific lenses of scrutiny it suggests (i.e., a substitution of the discourse of technology with the discourse of religion).
The final chapter, "Cyber-Utopia," reviews and critiques much of the utopian hype or discourse on cyberspace. Generally critical of utopian claims on the usual grounds of accessibility, the reproduction in cyberspace of misogyny and other cultural prejudices and so forth, she does, however, see a basis for hope. Wertheim argues that the concept of the network is a good metaphor for thinking about human communities and cyberspace; that inasmuch as any idea of space is a communal creation, the act of constructing that space offers opportunities for creating a better human condition, and that at the very least the network of relationships created by online interactions are a start.
There are clear limitations to Wertheim's approach, at least from the academic perspective. Wertheim's "cultural history" limits the cultural universe to Christian Western European cultural history. As she is already covering huge areas of thought over a large period of time, imposing borders and limits is necessary and indeed these may well be theideal borders to use: however, without an explicit global historical context these borders appear to simply valorize Western European cultural forms. Similarly, her use of existing scholarship on cyberculture would appear superficial to the sophisticated cyberculture scholar. Even allowing for the fact that thought on cyberculture moves faster than the publishing process, many of the materials she draws from are somewhat dated and have been analyzed in depth elsewhere. While again one must make allowances for the broadly interdisciplinary nature of this work, it would have been far more interesting to hear what someone with her obvious creativity and vision had to say about lesser-known and more up-to-date scholarship on virtual communities, for example. For someone not terribly familiar with the scholarship, however, it's a well-written review and summation of what have become some of the canonical ideas and arguments in cyberculture studies.
To evaluate this book exclusively with the kinds of criteria employed by the academy would do it a disservice, however, as its best feature is a distinctly un-academic trait. Wertheim's travels through art history, physics, and literature -- of which at least one is likely to be relatively unfamiliar to the average highly-specialized academic -- allow the reader to be an intellectual tourist of sorts and simply enjoy being curious. For this reviewer, at least, this has the effect of reawakening a kind of intellectual freshness and playfulness that spawns new questions and can serve as the catalyst for thinking within more conventionally academic terms.
Claudia Rector is working on a Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she teaches a course in cyberculture. She is currently developing a Web site of resources for scholars of culture and mental illness. <email@example.com>
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