Following on from the publication of my article in Progress in Human Geography, I wanted to post here some thoughts that didn’t quite fit into that paper but nevertheless feel like a worthwhile contextualisation of the long-running engagement with digital mediation and ideas of a ‘virtual’ or ‘cyber-‘ spaces in geography.
Discussions of alternative or transformed forms of spatiality constituted by computation have spawned a range of names and phrases for those spatial formations. As Pile argued, the descriptions of ‘cyberspace’ and ‘the virtual’ are ‘a plurality of clashing, resonating and shocking metaphors’ (Pile, 1994, page 1817). In this post I want to begin to discuss the malleable nature of our descriptions of computation, data and software. In particular it seems pertinent to examine the role of metaphors and how some geographers have addressed that role. Sawhney (1996) describes metaphors as ‘midwives’ that ease new conceptualisations of spatial experience into understanding. However, metaphors that constitute discourses are not politically neutral. If metaphors ‘do things’ as Lakoff and Johnson (2003) assert, what they ‘do’ needs to be explicitly examined.
Paul Adams, Stephen Graham and Ken Hillis all offer examinations of the role of metaphors in understanding the spatial experience of ICTs that are worth revisiting (see also: Graham, 2013):
First, Adams’ (1997) useful review of metaphors in literary treatments of computer mediation identifies three, overlapping, ‘fields’ of metaphors: ‘virtual architecture’, ‘the electronic frontier’ and ‘cyberspace’. Adams argues that, despite fears concerning ‘a metaphor’s power to corrupt’ (1997, page 167), such ‘mythical geographies’ fill in the spaces between established knowledge to form what Tuan calls the ‘fuzzy area of defective knowledge’ (Tuan, 1977, page 86).
Second, Hillis (1999) highlights a background of mysticism to metaphors utilised to describe and explore virtual reality as a ‘cyberspace’. For Hillis, many of the metaphors draw upon understandings of light. Hillis (1999) offers three types of metaphor: virtual reality as a privileged position affording ‘vision’; virtual environments as facsimiles or simulations represented through light, akin to Plato’s shadows on the cave wall, and the virtual as an ability to inhabit images as such. Both Adams (1997) and Hillis (1999) postulate a link between the types of metaphors used and the desire to affirm an elevated or omniscient perspective, drawing upon the remote gaze as a tool of imperialism (akin to Virilio, 1984) or the near-omnipotent reach of light to illustrate that desire.
Third, Graham describes the ‘powerful role of spatial and territorial metaphors’ that anchors discourses of ICTs (Graham, 1998, page 165). Graham (1998) identifies a typology of spatial metaphors through which space and place are conceptualised in relation to ICTs: ‘substitution and transcendence’, ‘co-evolution’, and ‘recombination’. Metaphors of substitution and transcendence, echoing Hillis’ (1999) critique, denote replacing physical territory with a ‘virtual’ using new technologies. A co-evolutionary perspective argues that, while remaining separate, both physical and electronic ‘spaces’ are necessarily produced together.
Finally Graham (1998) posits a re-combinative, topological, understanding of socially constructed forms of spatiality that are ‘sociotechnical’ (i.e. linkages between ‘heterogeneous’ actors, including humans, technology and others, formulate spatial experience). Graham (1998), along with Adams and Hillis, identifies the problematic form of Cartesian dualism (a mind/body split) implied by his first category, which also somewhat underlies the second, and the uncritical technological determinism that often accompanies this somewhat fanciful race away from our embodied existence.
Regardless of the apparently ephemeral or amorphous nature of the metaphorical ‘virtual’ or ‘cyberspace’, such evocations are still grounded in a resolutely material register. As Hillis (1999, pages 160-162) notes, language itself is profoundly spatial, and material, in its expression. Writing is the spatialisation of knowledge, what philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls the externalization of thought recorded as ‘tertiary retentions’ (Stiegler, 2007), most frequently orthographic writing (see: Stiegler, 1998), with different technologies of retention using space differently. The expression of ‘virtual’ spaces is, then, always already material in character. Hillis, in an argument similar to Stiegler (1998), presses further, highlighting the reciprocal, yet fragmented, relation between word and world:
language is not only a discrete, concrete thing… Neither is it ephemeral, language can be thought of as an “embodied prototechnology”, both confirming us to ourselves existentially at the level of embodied voice and extending us to engage with the lived world through its symbolic affect (Hillis, 1999, page 161).
Metaphors and neologisms are, of course, not the sole preserve of geographers or, indeed, academics. Of course, much of this work speaks to broader popular (Western), late 20th century interests in ‘telematic culture’ (Ascott, 1990), the creation of ‘artificial experience’ and ‘virtual communities’ (Rheingold, 1989, 1998), and the convergence of subaltern cultures experimenting with drugs and computing (Rushkoff, 1994). Alternative, less dyadic, conceptualisations of a ‘virtual’ are also offered by geographers considering the growth of digital mediation. Although perhaps now considered somewhat dated, we might note that ‘cyberspace’ or ‘virtual space’ has not been solely evoked as an abstract alternative realm, as Kitchin (1998) has argued:
Cyberspaces are dependent upon spatial fixity, they are embodied spaces and access is unevenly distributed… cyberspaces do not replace geographic spaces, nor do they destroy space and time (page 403).
Following Adams (1997, 2011), Graham (1998, 2005), Hillis (1999) and Kitchin (1998, 2011; Kitchin and Dodge, 2011) we can see how, and perhaps why, metaphors and neologisms are used to describe computer-mediated spatial experience and also how geographers have situated the agency of those terms. Earlier engagements with computation were necessarily speculative and concerned with formulating understandings of nascent or imagined technologies. However, in the last decade the growth in ownership of digital technologies has created case studies of widespread everyday use. Some of these case studies are explored in my recently published article ‘The matter of ‘virtual’ geographies’.