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January, 2007 : Feature:

The Garden in the Machine

Utopias and Dystopias of Cyberspace

It's Us!

As most of us who spend much of our time on the Internet these days know by now, Time Magazine's "Person of the Year" this year is us. Internet users. People who have built a virtual world in the ether. A dream of community that is at least in part reality: "In 2006, the World Wide Web became a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter" (Lev Grossman, "Time's Person of the Year: You"). While it can certainly be debated whether "we" actually deserve such distinction, especially with so many negative headlines that "we" can hardly influence, Time makes a case for the choice by rejecting the "Great Man" theory of history:

...look at 2006 through a different lens and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes. (Grossman, n.p.)

That's very positive language for a tool most of us use every day without thinking much about what we are up to. But the idea of cyberspace as some kind of technological utopia, a place of freedom and community, is far from new, even though William Gibson's novel Neuromancer (1984), to which we owe the term, was dystopian rather than utopian in nature. Neuromancer is set in a future dominated by the consensual hallucination of cyberspace, a virtual reality which consists of a world-wide network of interacting computer systems. This, however, does not have the same exclusively positive connotations in Gibson as it does in the interpretation of Time Magazine. Cyberspace is dominated by semi-magical personalities, and the world outside is controlled by international conglomerates. Lawrence Person's description of the genre of cyberpunk points out just how far it is from creating freedom for its characters:

Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body (http://slashdot.org/features/99/10/08/2123255.shtml).

Next to the technological skepticism of cyberpunk, however, exists the kind of optimistic belief in technology displayed by the choice of the user of the World Wide Web as Person of the Year—two opposing directions that go hand-in-hand in our culture and have for some time. Forty years ago, in his influential study The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx showed how the industrial revolution made technology a part of the American ideal of the Garden by adding a machine to the picture. As a metaphor for the World Wide Web and the way people are talking about it, we are taking his titular image and turning it around to examine the "garden in the machine"—the ideal embodied in the computer and the Internet.

MySpace, YourSpace, OurSpace

According to the utopian version of cyberspace, the "garden in the machine" can be understood as an electronic space created by the computer, a space with utopian potential for creating change, an anarchic global community, stubbornly defending itself against control and commercialization. There is something liberating about the medium of hypertext and hypermedia, the non-hierarchical, non-linear method of organizing text and image and sound, the links that can easily take you far from where you originally intended to go. Ted Nelson, who invented the term "hypertext" in the sixties, has gone so far as to claim that "THE PURPOSE OF THE COMPUTER IS HUMAN FREEDOM" (Nelson, 44; capitalization in the original).

Marshall McLuhan pointed out over forty years ago that communication technologies are much more important than the messages they transmit: "...it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and interaction" (24). This could mean a number of things for us in our digital world of MySpace and LiveJournal and Flickr, not all of them completely positive. The "democratic" tendencies of even such a largely excellent resource as Wikipedia can also lead to abuse of the system. The entry for Nina Kiriki Hoffman, for example, contained the following "information" on Dec. 29, 2006:

In 1980, Nina went to Mars on the star craft Eclipse. Upon the successful landing of Eclipse, Nina proceeded to play tennis and compete in water polo with the locals. But, a year later, she ran out of food and was forced to return home. Many people followed her journey through space, and when she touched down in 1982, every home in America erupted in applause. Her record breaking discoveries have helped scientists around the world learn more about Mars, the part it plays in our solar system. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nina_Kiriki_Hoffman)

Talk of community and collaboration aside, or the many wresting power from the few, structures that at times resemble the anarchic are also hard to protect from abuse. The example above is relatively harmless, but cases abound in which interest groups have used Wikipedia for promotion or propaganda, and it can take some time before the abuse is discovered and corrected.

While Wikipedia is perhaps the most explicitly democratic online space, the various major online communities reflect the collusion between media and message in how their structures affect the socialization of their users. Purpose-driven community sites such as Flickr and YouTube have social structures explicitly built around their functionality—respectively, photo sharing and video sharing. The content which is aggregated is in the dedicated form rather than generic and the networking model is optimized for sharing that content.

Contrast this with MySpace, which is explicitly built around social networking, and LiveJournal, which is, as the name implies, primarily a journaling environment. MySpace offers a much wider set of features for characterizing a profile and interests, approaching those elements found on personals and dating sites, while LiveJournal is a more text-oriented blogging environment.

In each case the medium promotes the nature of the message, pace McLuhan. This is to some degree a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that the respective site designers certainly had a use-case in mind when they developed their respective media.

Broadly, regardless of specific sites and their design, the world of electronic communication allows "real" communication between "real" people, taking place in imaginary space that different users perceive in different ways—and yet we still remain individual people in front of individual machines, garden or no garden. On some levels, it can be argued that virtuality replaces actuality and revolutionizes our idea of reality. "Illusion" as opposed to "reality" is an integral part of the digital world, but at the same time such oppositions no longer apply: more important than producing an illusion is the realization of possibilities.

At the same time, in its present form, the World Wide Web is a "consensual locus" (Stone 84), as Sandy Stone calls the phenomenon, and not yet equipped with anything approaching virtual reality technology as imagined in science fiction. On a very real level, when we spend New Year's Eve on the Net, it's not the same as spending it at a party—even if it is better than spending it completely alone. Outside of the realm of fiction, the distinction between reality and virtuality is not going to disappear any time soon.

Cyberspace and Science Fiction

The virtual world of the World Wide Web can be seen as a marginal space outside or beyond the "real" world, a flexible world in which participants are temporarily free from the constraints of the body—science fiction in action, as it were. From its beginnings, however, cyberspace in science fiction has carried both positive and negative connotations. In Gibson, despite the bleak world view, cyberspace itself can seem at times to be a kind of escape from the dystopian world outside, a realm of freedom for electronic cowboys—but it can also be a trap. Some stories go a step farther and create a very dystopian image of a future virtual world and its uses. In her story "Steelcollar Worker", Vonda McIntyre postulates a new form of "blue collar" work in which workers are literally strapped to virtual reality couches rather than metaphorically chained to conveyor belts. Here, the new technology means an increase in slavery rather than freedom.

Pat Cadigan's novel Synners, by contrast, creates a kind of cyberspatiality that can draw characters in so far that they cannot find their way out again—or do not want to. Visual Mark is so immersed in the net that when he is dying, his stroke takes out networks all over the world:

There was an ecology here, gradually becoming more and more unbalanced, polluted, and infected. Ecological disaster had been inevitable, even before the stroke had been released into the system; there was no way around it. It would be universal. Computer apocalypse, a total system crash (324).

His former lover Gina goes into the net after him to save him and reverse the damage, but she, unlike Mark, eventually finds her way out again. Thus, while the destructive potential of cyberspace is enormous, it is not as universal as Mark thinks.

An interesting use of cyberspace and virtual reality in fiction has revolved around the aspect of liberation from received identity. In Maureen F. McHugh's short story, "A Coney Island of the Mind," a virtual setting serves as the backdrop for a complicated come-on. The protagonist, who goes by the name of "Cobalt", is well aware that the people he meets in cyberspace can be very different from what they are in reality. So when he meets a beautiful woman at the virtual Coney Island of the "Reality Parlor", he is not about to be fooled by appearances, but rather plays along. "Maybe she's forty years old, he doesn't know. Maybe she's ugly....Wild thought that this beautiful girl can be anything" (95). But despite being this network savvy, he is still unprepared for the kind of masquerade that he becomes a victim of. Not only is the woman he meets not a woman, but the virtual hand he is stroking is not wired to a hand either.

Melissa Scott's novel Trouble and her Friends also creates a cyberspace where identity is what you make it. Here, the networks form a marginal society outside of the law in which women can be cowboy heroes as easily as men. Roaming the net is done by way of programmed icons that go by imaginary names, such as the title figure "Trouble." One character, introduced to the reader in the on-line episodes as a female icon going by the name of "Silk," uses the malleable space of the Net to stage virtual seductions of other figures. "Silk" appears in both male and female guises, however, and it is not until shortly before the end of the book that the reader finally discovers the "true" gender of the character behind the icons.

Cyberspace in these fictional examples is a place where characters use the medium of computer technology—the "machine"—to disguise their "real" physical identities, to masquerade as different people, often with a different gender. Although the figures experience "physical" contact in the virtual reality of cyberspace, there is no actual masking of the physical body, since the action takes place in a computer-controlled "space" independent of physical space. A digitalized image is designed and projected: online identity is a result of imagination and programming skills and is not connected with actual physical appearance.

Of course, appearance alone is not identity, but Scott Bukatman for one sees in the phenomenon of cyberspace a radical threat to traditional concepts of fixed identity. The identity of the electronic age is what Bukatman calls "terminal identity": "an unmistakably doubled articulation in which we find both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station or television screen" (19, 9).

Writers in Space

One of the most interesting phenomena in science fiction today is the multiple intersections between cyberspace as a fictional construct and the reality of social networking and online communication. LiveJournal, for one, has an extremely active community of science fiction and fantasy pros, neo-pros, emerging and aspiring writers, all mingling in discussions, commentary, point and counterpoint. Writers from Charlie Stross to Elizabeth Bear live out the current implementation of what they talk about in their fiction. The messages and their media are mixing in a confluence with the stories and the people who write them. This social networking aspect is surely influencing the development of our field. What was once a distant vision has become everyday reality, evolving as rapidly as the people who write about, and within, the field of science fiction.

Works Referenced

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Post-Modern Science Fiction. Durham and London: Duke U.P., 1993.

Cadigan, Pat. Synners. London: Harper Collins, 1991.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984.

Grossman, Lev. "Time's Person of the Year: You." Time Magazine, Online Edition. Dec. 13, 2006.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

McHugh, Maureen. "A Coney Island of the Mind." Asimov's Science Fiction, February 1993.

McIntyre, Vonda. "Steelcollar Worker." Analog, November 1992, 56-73.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. New York: Signet, 1964.

Nelson, Theodor. "Opening Hypertext: A Memoir." In Myron C. Turman, ed. Literacy Online: The Promise (and Peril) of Reading and Writing with Computers. Pittsburgh and London: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992: 43-57.

Person, Lawrence. "Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto." Posted to Slashdot.org on Oct. 09, 1999.

Scott, Melissa. Trouble and her Friends. New York: Tor Books, 1994.

Stone, Allucquere Rosanne. "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?: Boundary Stories About Virtual Cultures." In Michael Benedikt, ed. Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.


Copyright © 2007, Ruth Nestvold and Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. All Rights Reserved.

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at www.ruthnestvold.com.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com or his Web site at www.jlake.com.

COMMENTS!

Jan 9, 11:55 by IROSF
A thread to discuss cyberpunk, the Internet, or any of the related themes Ruth and Jay discuss.

The article can be found here.
Jan 15, 10:07 by Wendy Delmater
That was a lovely article Ruth, Jay.
Jan 15, 18:14 by Bluejack
One thing I like about the internet is the way, although it is not living up to the wildest imagingings of spec-fic authors (yet), at least in terms of immersive 3D technology and, ahem, a space for the manifestation of emergent intelligences, it is nonetheless transforming every aspect of society, but most especially those pertaining to communication.
Jan 24, 13:56 by Janine Stinson
I'd also recommend the Rifters books by Peter Watts (IROSF, Dec. 2004, "Storming Gehenna") and <i>Idolon</i> by Mark Budz.

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