Nature and Cyberspace
Essay Which first appeared as Working Paper #28 in the Man and Nature Series, Denmark


Nature "in" Cyberspace

Most people know the funny but true definition of cyberspace:"Cyberspace is where your credit card money exists even when your pockets are empty." People today are familiar with cyberspace and have come to put their faith in electronic computer networks, television satellites, electronic banking, and global phone connections. Like our money, our daily lives move in and out of electronic space as we watch international news, speak to long-distance friends, and read our airline destinations from computer screens. The word "cyberspace" now belongs to standard American English. And for those who prefer to keep a psychological distance from computer space, a 1987 edition of the Random House dictionary lists cyberphobia as "an abnormal fear of working with computers." Cyberspace adds another layer to the complex reality most of us have to deal with every day. Describing cyberspace would be as easy - or as difficult - as describing a glass of water. What I want to do instead is to talk about not the nature of cyberspace but rather the nature in cyberspace.

Nature vs. Cyberspace?

I want to set cyberspace within the continuing debate about nature. You can call this debate "Is Nature Obsolete?" or "Has Humanity Defeated Nature?" or, quite simply, "Nature Extinct." The debate flared up over a century ago when people began noticing the dirt from industrial smoke stacks darkening the skies and factories dominating the landscape. Thinking people began to weigh the relative merits of Nature versus Culture, and the German philosophers of Romanticism described a war between Natur und Geist. The debate about Nature, with a capital N, began to heat up. At that time, the ancient adversarial relationship to nature seemed to flip. Instead of scratching survival from an overbearing, intimidating, and reluctant nature, human beings felt the tide turn and nature took the role of an underdog. The whipped dog of nature became a domestic pet, and the pet was "seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; wearing man's smudge and sharing man's smell," to paraphrase the lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins from 1877.1

In hot pursuit of nature's secrets, humans had attained the knowledge promised in Francis Bacon's dream of a New Atlantis. But soon enough the Technopolis began losing some of its charm as the dream turned into an urban nightmare. Today, the debate continues as we worry about the holes in the planet's deteriorating ozone layer, as toxic wastes seep into our ground water, and as global economists seek alternate energy sources to replace fossil fuels. This is the actual context in which human beings have learned to pronounce the words "cyberspace" and "virtual reality."

Jaron Lanier: Cyberspace as Consolation for Nature in Ruins

In a March 1993 interview at the SCI-ARC School of Architecture in Los Angeles, a student posed a question to Jaron Lanier, the famed entrepreneur of Virtual Reality. "How," the student asked, "might VR enhance architecture." The stocky genius smiled, shook the dreadlocks in his long hair, and answered enthusiastically: "VR (Virtual Reality) offers users the power to embellish their computer-generated buildings with wondrous enhancements. Users can decorate their electronic environments with dazzling colours and sign them with fun-filled designs." Lanier went on to say that the physical dwellings of the future would probably be cheap, dull, unadorned shelters generated by robot factories to put no-frills roofs over the heads of an overpopulated humanity. To compensate for the squalid physical surroundings, VR will provide interactive virtual buildings for personal expression and aesthetic fantasy. Without no trace of irony, Lanier described a future in which cyberspace offers solace for the loss of natural, liveable, environmental space.

Put aside for a moment Lanier's entrepreneurial enthusiasm and let us take a look at this worst-case scenario: cyberspace versus nature, VR as a consolation for the lost charms of natural things. Is not such a cyberspace just a grand human delusion like an electronic Tower of Babel? Is Virtual Reality an escapist opium for blocking out the pain of planetary responsibility? Is VR an infantile substitute for a real world turned uninhabitable?

The Ancient Question: How - If at all - Does the Human Being "Fit"?

Make no mistake. I do not think cyberspace and VR should become scapegoats for our general technological mess. They do, however, epitomise our technology and bring it to a head - representing all that is best and worst in it. Only by understanding the more remote roots of technology can we understand the range of problems posed by cyberspace and its VR subset. The fundamental question of cyberspace versus nature lies at the basis of modern life.

How does the human being fit - if "fit" is the right word - into nature? The debate in the previous century harked back to modern intellectual giants like Ren Descartes. It was Descartes who in the 17th century sharply divided material quantifiable things, the res extensae, from the thinking things with souls, the res cogitantes. Descartes saw the physical world as a collection of inert material substances and he saw human beings as thinking substances that enjoy the power to mathematically measure and manipulate physical substances. Once Descartes had divided things in this way - thinking beings and material substances - the troubling question was not far behind: How - if at all - do thinking things belong to the quantifiable world that thinking things manipulate and conquer? How are thinking things linked to the material world that thinking things manipulate? Does our incarnation in physical bodies necessarily commit us as thinking things to a basic sympathy or connection or responsibility that thinking things should manifest toward the physical world?

Today we, the thinking things in physical bodies, have effectively moved the 17th-century Cartesian debate onto another footing. Our efforts have built an industrial system steered by information devices stretching over the earth and even reaching beyond the planet to probe alien life outside the galaxy. Our industrial system has turned into a technological system, a cybernetic, electronically self-steering system, so that the industrial age has given way to the age of information. When we apply our human tools with logical consistency, the result is technology. What enables us to apply tools thoroughly and logically is the computer. The computer weaves the actual web of logical consistency and co-ordinates the our skill-based tools. Do computers and nature belong to each other? How does the technological world absorb the human body?

The Meaning of "Natural" and "Artificial"

How does the Technopolis "fit" the human physical body? Today the technological system has begun to incorporate all the human senses. When the human perceiver feels present in computer-generated space, we have the phenomenon of cyberspace. And when the perceiver feels all the senses immersed in computer-generated entities and can also interact with these entities, we then have "Virtual Reality" (VR). The sense of increasing immersion in an artificial environment has become a metaphor, a keyword for understanding many areas of our everyday life. We now apply the VR paradigm broadly and speak of the "virtual corporation," of "virtual communities," and of "artificial life."

As our technological system infiltrates every aspect of life, we find it increasingly difficult to draw a line between artificial and natural life. Sometimes in a college classroom I will pose a puzzle. First I explain Aristotle's distinction between what is natural and what is artificial: Natural things are those that reproduce themselves; artificial things are things fashioned according to a pattern that is extrinsic to the material of the thing and produced by the efforts of someone external to the material. Then I challenge the students: "Look around you, and find one piece of pure nature in this classroom." Students stare at doors, windows, blackboards, desks, and tables. After a minute, some students finally look at one another, their faces lighting up as they realise that their classmates are the only remnants of genuine, non-manufactured reality. They discover that they themselves, their human bodies, are the natural entities in the classroom because their bodies were generated by bodies of their own species and not fabricated by outside agency.

The thought experiment drives home two points.

1. The human subject now dwells in an artificial environment nearly devoid of natural entities. Most urban trees grow according to the calculations and design of some city planner who has a horticultural file on computer somewhere. The human beings alone remain the vestiges of pure nature. By contrast, in pre-modern times, the human subject had always been the artificer, the shaper, the outstanding exception in a world of natural processes. Now the tables are turned. If, as Aristotle taught, natural beings are those that come from the reproductive actions of parents of the same species, then the sole remnant of nature that we encounter in our daily lives remains other human beings. We find ourselves today surrounded by gadgets and fabrications, and even the birth of humans happens more and more through conscious human planning and intervention.

2. Still, even in a totally planned world, as the Chinese Taoists remind us, nature can always be found "within" - if we quiet down and look deep inside. Our subtle body energies and biorhythms reach down to cosmic connections of earth and sky, sun and wind. Our sexual and reproductive powers continually reclaim the force of natural cycles. Our awareness of subtle body processes, of weight distribution and balance, of dryness of mouth and relaxation of eyes, our holistic sense of well-being reveals the underlying, supportive movements of nature. Like the birds, deer, and fish, we humans still move in an invisible field of subtle, instinctive forces that undergird our conscious, calculating mentality. We should not be too quick to say that nature has vanished completely from our world.

The Machine as the New World

The popular imagination, like my students, tends to see a totally artificial environment, especially when talking about cyberspace. In the popular mind, computerised space excludes nature. Cyberspace epitomises artificial contrivance, while real nature falls from the hand of God or emerges from the inscrutable depths of the universe itself. Most people believe that electronic culture belongs to artificial reality while natural things emerge from other natural things. Since antiquity, natura (from the Latin nasciri, "to be born") refers to entities emerging from parent entities that belong to the same species. Natural things, in the ancient and traditional views, are things that arise through the interaction of their own kind, of the male and female of their kind - however much the genders might vary among the different species. Whereas natural things spring from seeds within seed-bearing plants and animals, the creations by artifice derive from the plans of an outside agent. Even God the Creator, according to medieval theology, works like an artist who designs the natura naturans so that nature can reproduce itself. Art has always gotten its meaning from completing, improving, or simply replacing nature, always by contrast to things that are natural. From this point of view, cyberspace is unnatural in the extreme. Cyberspace is pure human artifact.

Nature in America

Since the discovery of the New World, Americans have enjoyed a special romance with nature. When not standing in reverence before nature, Americans put their sweat into exploiting nature and conquering the landscape. America gained its identity from returning - in one way or another - to nature. The Founding Fathers who wrote the US. Constitution put Nature and Nature's Deity at the basis of human rights, and Nature was there too in the meandering walks of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and the other Romantic Transcendentalists of New England and St. Louis. But the romance has grown rocky over the years, and the marriage to nature has changed both partners. Pure nature seems to have disappeared. The historian and former Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, noted in The Republic of Technology: "Just as the American's love affair with his land produced pioneering adventures and unceasing excitement in the conquest of the continent, so too his latter-day romance with the Machine produced pioneering adventures - of a new kind. There seemed to have been an end to the exploration of the landed continent - and an end to the traversing of uncharted deserts, the climbing of unscaled mountains. But there were no boundaries to a machine-made world. The New World of Machines was of man's own making. No one could predict where the boundaries might be or what his technology might make possible. To keep the Machine going, the American advanced from horse power to steam power to electrical power to internal-combustion power to nuclear power - to who could guess what."2

Guessing the next step is easy since Boorstin's 1978 challenge. To keep the Machine going, the American has turned from nuclear power to computer power. Computerised space, cyberspace, promises the next adventure, the unbounded continent we have just recently built under the New World of Machines. In fact, the electronic infrastructure seems to be swallowing all of our previous industrial machines. American industry depends more and more on the stream of bits and bytes that makes up the software of information technology.

A couple years ago, I began researching a book about the philosophy of space exploration. I interviewed leaders and officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas. After months of interviews with NASA planners and scientists, I came to a startling conclusion, a conclusion that made me jettison the book I had planned. Like many people, I had mistakenly assumed that the US. space program was aiming to send humans beings physically to other planets and to distant reaches of the solar system. Instead, I found that NASA was designing robots to explore outer space, robots hooked up by computer to virtual reality systems on earth. Humans on earth could then experience "virtually" what the robot experienced. Humans could see and feel and manipulate things in outer space without travelling to another physical location. Such "telepresence" costs far less than launching rockets manned by humans and burdened by human life-support systems.

From a philosophical point of view, cyberspace had absorbed outer space. What was interesting at NASA was not the machines for hauling humans into outer space, but the electronics for transporting humans into cyberspace. Nature, it seems, including the farthest reaches of the galaxy, is being captured and bottled in electronic space. Nature, as we had thought about it in the past, had disappeared.

The End of Nature

The same sense of nature's disappearance haunts environmental writers like Bill McKibben, who points out that: Our comforting sense of the permanence of our natural world - our confidence that it will change gradually and imperceptibly, if at all - is the result of a subtly warped perspective. Changes in our world which can affect us can happen in our lifetime - not just changes like wars but bigger and more sweeping events. Without recognising it, we have already stepped over the threshold of such a change I believe that we are at the end of nature.3

The evidence for this end of nature, to which McKibben and other ecologists refer, ranges from acid rain to the holes in the ozone layer, from genetic engineering to ecologically induced shifts in weather patterns, from the depletion of fossil fuels to the rise of the oceans. McKibben points to the simple fact of what has already happened: the air around us - "even where it's clean, and smells like spring, and is filled with birds - is significantly changed. We have substantially altered the earth's atmosphere."

Nature in a Child's Eyes: Milwaukee and Shawano Lake, Wisconsin

"Nature" once conveyed a sense of permanence. It was a psychic framework that put felt limits on life. Those limits of nature provided a sense of comfort and security. Even when nature crossed the limits with floods and storms and periods of drought, we still felt the cycles of nature and knew what to expect. Now the psychic framework of nature is withdrawing, perhaps most forcefully in the lifetime of this generation. Every adult alive today can think of examples like the one I will draw from my own experience. Every grownup today has felt the attrition of the venerable capital N in Nature.

The state where I was born, Wisconsin, once prided itself on being a haven for sport fishing and hunting. The vast woods and plentiful lakes of Wisconsin were home to the first group of conservationists long before anyone had heard of the problems we associate with "the environment." In the last twenty years, the largest city in Wisconsin, Milwaukee, grew overcrowded and urbanised, but no event more epitomised the dramatic changes in my home state than the recent 1993 water crisis. For several weeks, the population of Milwaukee had to boil its tap water before using it for drinking. The septic runoff into Lake Michigan had grown to such a degree that Milwaukee's water resources became poisonous. Bacteria made the water undrinkable. The sense of living under a secure, self-balancing Nature was gone.

I felt Nature change to nature as I grew into young manhood in the 1950's and 60's. During those two decades, I felt not so much a shock as a gradual disaffection with Nature. Some of my growing as a young boy took place in East Central Wisconsin - Shawano County, to be exact, just 34 miles Northwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Everyone thought this was God's country, and I thought I lived close to nature. I spent summers with my grandparents on the shores of Shawano Lake, in the little resort town of Cecil, Wisconsin, population 536. Between the ages of six to twelve, my dreams and waking life was populated by fish and frogs and ducks. Gradually, however, in the late 1950's and early 60's, I watched the Shawano Lake I had loved as a boy gradually deteriorate. The fish began dying, the frogs grew scarce, and the whole lake seemed moribund. Shawano Lake was growing repulsive to me, and at the time I had no clues about the source of the changes. Back then, no one spoke about "the environment."

Shawano Lake got its name from the Native Americans who had long ago settled the area. The Shawnee Indians (shaawanawa means "those who live in the South") were part of the Algonquian tribes of Canada. "Algonquian," my grandfather reminded us, means "people who live at the place for spearing fish" (algoomaking). My grandfather, John Heim, was especially proud of living at the shore of the Lake because one of his ancestors was a half-Indian, half-French Canadian by the name of Barbara Harmeyer. My grandfather, who fished and hunted on Shawano Lake for half a century, often spoke sadly of how the sky used to grow dark with the wings of wild ducks as they flew in huge numbers over the face of the sun. He recalled how the Lake once teemed with healthy fish. Now, he explained, the speed boats with their power motors had cut down the underwater weed beds, the fish could not make their spawning beds in the weeds, and the life cycle of the lake was losing its inner momentum. Though his explanation turned out to be inaccurate, my grandfather's observations held the poignancy of someone who was feeling a galactic shift in the human relationship to nature. A lake as big as Shawano - six miles long and three miles wide and fed by the big Wolf River - could absorb the havoc of motor boats. What it could not absorb, however, was the stream of human septic waste that the settlements, including my grandfather's, had been emitting into the lake over the years in ever increasing amounts as the population increased.

In those days, we did not yet know the word "ecology" - even in Wisconsin where the conservation movement had its roots and where the preservation of forests and streams had long been a political priority. Though at that time our understanding of speedboats and vanishing fish was shallow, our sadness ran deep. My attention turned increasingly away from the Lake and toward the fields and open country. If you could not go fishing as a boy, you went exploring what was left of the forests. Not long after that the forests also were to become a source of sadness.

The Dream of Nature

I want to regard the change I am describing here as not a change in physical substances or even in ecological systems. I want to recall a change in psychic frameworks by which we view the world. By that I mean the way human beings feel when, say, a change in an ecological system alters their experience and affects their sensibility. I am considering the affective attitude we bear toward the world as much as the world itself. As beings in the world, we inhabit the world as participants - not merely as spectators who scientifically observe and then calculate for our advantage or disadvantage. The framework of our participation in the world has a look and feel to it, not just a scientific description. When the world changes ecologically, so does the psychic framework in which we work and love, play and observe. The notion of psychic framework appeared not only in my 1987 book Electric Language, but also - as I have recently discovered - in some texts from Oriental culture.

Nature as a "psychic framework" appears in the description of the Japanese tea ceremony in Daisetz T. Suzuki's lovely book Zen and Japanese Culture. In describing the tea ceremony, Suzuki goes beyond the physical facts and points to the atmosphere in which the gestures and actions take place:

The tea-drinking that is known as cha-no-yu in Japanese and as "tea ceremony" or "tea cult" in the West is not just drinking tea, but involves all the activities leading to it, all the utensils used in it, the entire atmosphere surrounding the procedure, and, last of all, what is really the most important phase, the frame of mind or spirit which mysteriously grows out of the combination of all these factors. The tea-drinking, therefore, is not just drinking tea, but it is the art of cultivating what might be called "psychosphere," or the psychic atmosphere, or the inner field of consciousness. We may say that it is generated within oneself, while sitting in a small semi-dark room with a low ceiling, irregularly constructed, from the handling the tea bowl, which is crudely formed but eloquent with the personality of the maker, and from listening to the sound of boiling water in the iron kettle over a charcoal fire.4

The tea ceremony is a highly artificial cultivation aimed at a certain kind of experience. The tea ceremony requires a person to go indoors in order to restore a sense of nature outdoors. Only through artificial means can one regain a sense of harmony with what is natural. Our daily experience distracts us, pulls us from the experience of pure nature. What Suzuki describes as a "psychosphere," or "psychic atmosphere," or "inner field of consciousness" is what I mean by a psychic framework. The psychic framework of the tea ceremony is an inner field of consciousness, but it cannot be separated entirely from the technology of utensils, architecture, and decor that affects the participant's consciousness. The tea ceremony is a technology designed to recapture a lost nature.

Cyberspace, in one of its many facets, can serve to restore us to a sense of nature despite - or precisely because of - its technological power. Like the tea ceremony, cyberspace reinstates nature at another and different level. Or at least cyberspace reinstates the affective life at a new level. So when I speak of "nature and cyberspace," I mean that - from the viewpoint of psychic frameworks - cyberspace can absorb Nature.

In my own life, psychic frameworks have shifted over time, as I think they have shifted in our cultural life in general. I felt the shift of my affection migrate, first from the lake and forests, then to works of art, and then more recently to cyberspace. When the lake and forests held my fascinated gaze, I would walk for whole afternoons along the lake shore, watching fish wriggling through weed beds and darting past turtles and frogs. For hours I watched the hypnotic waves ripple over pebbles and rocks. I spent mornings hiking in the woods, getting to know the trees and bushes, throwing stones at crows and black birds. I climbed fruit trees and disturbed angry hornets' nests. "All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay/ Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air/ And playing, lovely and watery/ And fire green as grass...." as Dylan Thomas wrote in Fern Hill.5

As the lake and woods receded in power, I turned to an inward but similar aesthetic experience. I took to long hours of listening to music, especially Bruckner and Sibelius, Beethoven and Haydn. The texture of the music evoked the texture of the lake and woods. My morning walks went through symphonic orchestras and my afternoons were spent in the thickets of string quartets. I learned to play the cello and explored music from the side of the performer. There was always adventure in music, always surprising vistas and breathtaking grandeur. The pastoral sounds of Beethoven, Bruckner, Sibelius, and Haydn revealed the serenity of landscapes and the moods of the weather.

In time, though, the psychic framework of my life shifted once again. Ten years ago, I became computerised. At first, the computer looked like a tool that would simply facilitate the tasks to be done. Many of us thought we would gain time freed up by computering tasks. That was an illusion. Computers came to occupy a central role and demanded more time. They became more than tools, more than handy time-savers. The personal computer became a central, all-absorbing component of daily life. It became a "second nature," a "second skin" in all our work, whether we were architects or zoologists. The computer began to filter our memories, our communications, and even the organizing and planning of our lives. Much of our time now transpires in cyberspace. Only gradually have I begun to realize that for me cyberspace plays a role similar to what nature and music once did.

Many of the sensations and experiences we once felt with "natural nature" now appear in cyberspace. Of course, the differences are also dramatic, but what I want to bring out are the similarities. These similarities may help explain why the human race finds cyberspace so attractive and why our move into cyberspace is so inevitable. The allure of cyberspace does not arise solely from the convenience of organising our knowledge on computers nor from the way electronic space enhances our communications. Underneath the convenience hides, I think, a more profound affinity. We are finding in cyberspace a second nature, a new home. By nature I do not mean the object of physical science but the mythical romantic "Nature" that once attracted scientists to their profession and that once attracted conquistadors to explore new continents.

The Psychic Framework of Cyberspace: Six Properties

I will catalog several properties of cyberspace, selecting those that refer in a special way to our felt sense of nature. By doing this, I am underlining my point that cyberspace is now absorbing nature - not only by transposing space exploration into electronics through telepresence, but by actually reviving certain qualities that the human being once felt in nature and can feels in cyberspace.

My list draws on the some of the properties of nature mentioned in Svend Larsen's "Is Nature Really Natural," a working paper published at the Humanities Research Center in Odense, Denmark. His list highlights the perceptions of nature that Scandinavians share with Americans. Both countries enjoyed, until recently, vast stretches of uncharted, wild territory. The list includes: infinity, inaccessibility, overwhelming power, fearsomeness, wildness, and primordiality.

Let me address each of these six properties of nature in turn and explain how each appears in the psychic framework of cyberspace - at least as I and many other people experience cyberspace. I will then conclude with a theologically derived property that has attached to both nature and cyberspace.

1. infinity

2. inaccessibility

3. overwhelming power

4. fearsome

5. wildness like "the moors of Jutland"

6. primordiality


Science fiction often anticipates actual developments in technology, and more recent science fiction has even provided some of the vocabulary that technologists use to clarify their projects to themselves and others. The writer, William Gibson, noted for his coinage of the term "cyberspace," wrote about the vast computer network in his novel Neuromancer (1984). The term gave a unifying, if still vague, term for technologists to use as they worked on related projects that were just beginning to converge. They found their underlying unity through Gibson's vocabulary.

In his novel Mona Lisa Overdrive, Gibson refers to cyberspace as "an infinite cage."6 This paradoxical phrase suggests the infinity I have felt in cyberspace, an infinity not altogether unlike the infinity of nature.

Nature's infinity is obvious. The feel of infinity draws us to the rivers, seashores, mountains, and forests. I walk along a river and my eyes flow effortlessly over an endless variety of colours and shapes under the rippling waves of the water. The forest presents my eyes with an ending feast of perspectives and my ears hear an unpredictable mix of birdsong, cricket chirp, and insect buzzing. A hike through the woods relieves our distracted spirits and the confines of our finite identities melt as narrow jobs and burdensome social roles vanish. Our perceptions fly free as the birds.

Similarly, in cyberspace. When first learning to use computer networks, we are stunned by the vast possibilities, we run down endless corridors of data, we seem unlimited in the universe of information. We can travel endlessly in cyberspace, without limits, for cyberspace is electronic. At present, our travel remains restricted by alphanumeric symbols, and words and numbers cannot replace sights and sounds and smells. So Gibson's phrase, "infinite cage," reminds us that the physical side of our amphibious being can only feel trapped by electronic data as long as the data is colourless, tasteless, and disembodied. To a finite incarnate being, such an infinity constitutes a cage, a confinement to a non-physical secondary realm.

As virtual reality enters cyberspace, our finite confines will diminish. Our bodily senses will enjoy an expanded field of awareness. We will roam with graphics for the eyes, 3D audio for the ears, and tactile feedback for the skin. A gap will, nonetheless, still exist between our primary physical biobodies and our newly evolved cyberbodies. inaccessibility

"Nature loves to hide," said Heraclitus, who himself loved to speak in obscure riddles. Some philosophers, like Heidegger, even want to identify Nature (Natur, fusij) with the concealing, hiding aspect of the earth. Rock-bottom reality is, according to Heidegger, opaque as earth, Erde. When such philosophers identify nature with earthy opacity, they rebel against the tradition of Aristotle, who anchored nature in lucid forms and substantial shapes (the genera and species of ancient science). Heidegger likes to point out how Aristotle's shapes belong to a process of growth, and that growth always protects a core of development concealed from outside access. Postmodern people tend to agree with Heidegger that life grows best in marginal corners, shaded from the fluorescent lighting of institutional corridors.

Where everything lies open to see, we have nothing to discover, no truths to call our own. We love the inaccessible because it invites us to explore and discover. It promises adventure. Nature calls us with its fresh pathways and untrodden trails. So do computer networks. The Internet appeals to the adventurer in us because the Internet has no center, no unifying authority. Which means that you must learn the Internet on your own. It is not a single, top-down system. It consists of thousands of nodes linked horizontally. There is no single place or peak from which you can peer down to see everything. Access to the Internet means access to only a single tiny corner of the Internet universe. You never cease exploring the cyberspace of the Internet. It beckons and fascinates, like the woods, like the underwater beds of offshore sea kelp.

Overwhelming power

The first experience a computer user has with Internet nearly always results in panic. "Panic," of course, comes from the Greek god "Pan," and "pan" in Greek means "everything." The ancient Greeks used the word to indicate their deep respect for the sudden panic that overwhelms a human being who confronts vast stretches of raw nature. Standing in a large meadow on a sunny afternoon or gazing over a twilit valley from a mountain top can overwhelm a human being. A feeling of "everything all at once" can suddenly grab us.

Similarly, panic usually overwhelms beginners on the network, not unlike the powerful feeling of the wide, open spaces. There is just so much to see and respond to: bulletin boards and Internet addresses, FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and world libraries of information. And the Net is gradually growing beyond the limited language of alphanumeric data. Electronically, we can represent not only the actual physical universe but also possible and imagined worlds. With such possibilities advancing, the user feels a creeping sense of panic.


The sheer size of the computer network is scary. With hundreds of thousands of users reading the news groups, with millions of messages circling the globe every day, the matrix looms like a mountain on another planet. The Net is so big that the user can never see the whole thing, never even begin to guess its true size. You surmise in your first month of use that cyberspace holds an entire universe of information, far beyond anything you will ever be able to explore in your life time. Such vastness is awesome.

Immanuel Kant developed the notion of the aesthetic sublime. He based the concept of the sublime on nature, specifically our experience of looking at the stars in the night sky. When our eyes wander over the face of the night sky, they tend to group the stars in clusters, in patterned wholes. The constellations of the classical Zodiac provide us with a way of grasping, of getting a hold of the night sky. When we relax our vision and allow depth perception to read ever more deeply into the starry sky, the fixed constellations dissolve into the vastness of the ether. If we try to grasp the stars as a whole with our eyes, we grow dizzy with the effort. Kant says our vertigo comes from the contradiction of a finite sense organ coming up against an infinite object.

The sublimity of the night sky often serves as a metaphor for cyberspace. There is something fearsome about it, something sublime.

Wild "like the moors of Jutland"

With sublimity comes wildness. In nature, the wilderness is where wild things grow, and where wild things happen. Wilderness is nature uncultivated, precivilized. In wilderness, wild things beget other wild things and bring forth the unexpected, the unpredictable, the growth that is unforced. When we are in the wild, we can - in Heraclitus' phrase - "expect the unexpected."

As I mentioned, many Americans today regard cyberspace as the new frontier. In the United States, a society has formed called the "Electronic Frontier Foundation" whose goal it is to protect the wildness of cyberspace. Under the motto of Jeffersonian freedom - protection of personal privacy, respect for diversity, and the fostering of communities - the EFF produces policy recommendations and argues against the incorporation of cyberspace by commercial or government interests. One of the EFF founders, Mitch Kapor, invented the electronic spreadsheet (Lotus 1-2-3), a personal computer application that brought PCs into the business world. Now Kapor worries about preserving the Jeffersonian qualities of cyberspace.7 The EFF movement is, in a sense, an electronic equivalent of the ecological movement in the politics of the physical world.

The Net currently works on the mind like "the moors of Jutland" that still romance the civilized Scandinavians. It is a place of unexpected connections, of non-hierarchical meetings, and of virtual communities that grow their own games, news, and social manners.


At root, cyberspace will always remain unintelligible to the human beings that depend on and use its spaces. At bottom, cyberspace remains inscrutable because computer technology is an essentially opaque technology. Unlike the bicycle or the typewriter, high technology means low transparency. The bike, as a mechanical device, is transparent to the user. When a stone gets caught in the chain or a brake wire breaks, the user can look, analyze, and intervene. With high technology, the user remains outside the nano-world of electrons, microchips, and bit switches. Even more so with the worldwide system of computer networks. Even the expert user remains in the dark about the workings of the mysterious origin from which springs all artificial life in cyberspace.

To this extent, cyberspace recalls a theological property. The theological tradition refers to God as the mysterious origin, always inscrutably beyond full human access and comprehension. Human nature was initially defined by its difference from the divine. God, as a term, remained undefined and tinged with mystery. No entity from the hand of God could reach back to grasp the divine source.

Of course, the traditional conception of divinity insisted on the holiness of God. Which is to say that God was not merely a primordial origin, but also a fullness and wholeness toward which created things tend. The source functioned as a mystery and a mystery that draws humans upward and onward. The source once held out the goal of eventual perfection, eventual participation in divinity. God's creations were to strive to become God's children.

What - if anything - draws us onward into cyberspace? Economic enrichment? Further evolution? Communication for a more peaceful world? More efficient planetary management? Does life in cyberspace imply any ideal of wholeness or holiness? Does artificial existence beckon the human race to a new level of existence?


It is unclear at this time how far cyberspace will draw human sensibility into its net. If I am right about the way nature emerges again in cyberspace, then our species in the next century will have a richer habitat. At the same time, we will have to probe more deeply into the foundations of cyberspace, into the whither of our electronic lives.

One possibililty is that humans may eventually reject life in cyberspace. They may either relegate computers to the role of serviceable agents in the primary world, a world filled with smart buildings and appliances run by expert agents, or perhaps humans will abandon high technology for a simpler life. People might come to agree with the ambivalent Marshall McLuhan who once referred to the electronic environment as a "strictly Luciferan product,"8 fascinating us with its light but satanic in its upshot. Perhaps in wisdom we will one day recoil at the hypnotic, seductive lights of computer screens, at the soulless atmosphere of artificial worlds. Perhaps we will refuse to abandon the shell of our traditions and renew our bonding with Mother Earth. After all, in Greek myth, the hero Antaeus was invincible so long as he could touch Mother Earth. Hercules finally overcame Antaeus by lifting him high into the air.

Cyberspace may be the new Hercules that lifts us from the earth. But, then again, we never were invincible here anyway. Perhaps we should for now just enjoy the ride to new heights?


1] Gerard Manley Hopkins, "God's Grandeur," 1877, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2, p. 1789.

2] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Republic of Technology: Reflections on Our Future Community, (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 47-8.

3] Bill McKibben, "the end of nature," in "The New Yorker, September 11, 1989, pp. 47-105.

4] Daisetz T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, (New York: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series, 1959), pp. 295-6.

5] The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: 1934-1952 (New York: New Directions, 1971), p. 178.

6] William Gibson, Mona Lisa Overdrive (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), p. 49.

7] See Mitchell Kapor, "Where is the Digital Highway Really Heading? The Case for Jeffersonian Information Policy," in WIRED, July/August 1993, pp. 53-59.

8] In a letter to John W. Mole, in The Letters of Marshall McLuhan, selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye, (Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 369.


updated 1993