Is the Internet the new heaven?

"The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace" examines the spiritual realm of non-physical space -- and finds that Giotto painted VR frescoes.

Published July 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The idea of the Internet as "cyberspace" was a shaky one from the beginning, cobbled together as it was from bits of virtual reality research, emergent Net technology and science-fiction novels. But the cyberspace metaphor has proven ungodly persistent, not only in the fact that there are plenty of apparently reasonable people who still endorse it, but to the point where figures such as Jennifer Cobb, author of "Cybergrace: The Search for God in Cyberspace," and Carnegie Mellon roboticist Hans Moravec are now speaking seriously of the Internet as a spiritual realm. They refer to it as a place like heaven or the new Jerusalem where you can float, bodiless, as an angel or live forever as pure data, in God's image.

Margaret Wertheim's "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace" is a timely, often brilliant investigation into whether these folks are on to something or they've just gone barking mad. It's also, ultimately, an ambiguous sort of effort that succeeds best as a book about the history of our conceptions of physical space, while raising more questions than it answers about spirituality and the Internet. It's a good first book on the topic; there's yet room for another.

Wertheim's book is about virtual reality as a return to the medieval concept of non-physical space (like the "virtual" realms of heaven and hell), and about the possibility of interpreting computer technology in traditionally religious terms. But by failing to deliver a conclusion on the topic, Wertheim invites widespread disagreement about the book's message.

Even its blurbists can't agree on what line of thinking she advocates. On the back jacket alone, you have John Horgan, author of "The End of Science," praising Wertheim for discerning "profound analogies between cyberspace, Dante's 'Paradiso,' and Einsteinian physics" -- while just underneath, skeptic David Noble ("The Religion of Technology") chuckles that Wertheim's insightful analysis "cuts through all the gibberish about the supposed transcendent potential of cyberspace." But which is it?

Is Wertheim a sort of low-key Net-prophet, or a debunker?

Actually, she's both. "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace" is a book for everyone: Wired-type futurists can use their copies to whop skeptics over the head; skeptics can bonk the optimistic futurists with theirs. That's because Wertheim manages to give credence to some fantastical interpretations of cyberspace early in the book (like the notion of disembodied beings cavorting in the virtual world), but sharpens her thinking later on.

Still, everyone gets a riveting account of the evolution of the idea of space (from the Greeks through the Renaissance, and up to the current 10- or 11-dimensional theories of space-time), and a revealing survey of the history of physics -- but nobody has to close the back cover offended. In the final analysis, Wertheim's opinion is that cyberspace raises interesting issues of identity and community, but that she "cannot imagine a worse fate than being downloaded into immortality in cyberspace."

Wertheim, for her own part, is a rigorous, light-handed popular-science writer with a gift for compressing the most difficult ideas into concise, lucid phrasings; but as an editorialist she tends toward the "some would say it's possible to suggest" school of reflexive equivocation.

Some would say it's possible to suggest that the book was conceived purely as a history of physical vs. spiritual space, and that the stuff on the Internet was tied to the roof-rack after the bus was already full. Who buys books on physical space? Architects? Geometry teachers? Ah, but the Internet ... In any case, the general rigorousness drops out as soon as the topic shifts to cyberspace. Pop-sociology replaces physics; MUDs and chat rooms take over from Copernicus and Hubble; speculation replaces data and a personal tone starts to overtake her prose.

It's a terrible shame. Wertheim has written an eminently cool book on the history of physical space, describing the conceptual shifts that allowed philosophers to conceive of the duality of matter and void; that allowed artists to rationalize the rules of perspective and astronomers to think of celestial bodies as physical objects.

But until the stuff on the Net really gets moving, whenever a term like "cyber" or "virtual" crops up in the text, it's generally a signal that Wertheim is about to hit you with a doozy, making a connection so vertiginous that all you can do is grab your chair and hold on.

Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes, for example, are a "hyper-linked virtual reality" because they imitate physical [as opposed to religious] space, and present a story through a series of separate panels. Well, but then so's "Beetle Bailey." Dante, who gets an exquisitely detailed treatment here, is occasionally described as some sort of medieval hacker -- with the imaginary realms of the divine comedy constituting another example of a "virtual reality." Well, then so is the town of Springfield on "The Simpsons" -- but that's actually another of Wertheim's own examples.

What she's doing is trying to connect the spiritual, religious sort of non-physical space (again: heaven, hell, purgatory) with the cyber-variety by establishing that the fundamental concepts of cyberspace have long been with us. But you have to wonder where it all stops, and indeed, how it helps to explain anything. If everything is somehow vaguely like the Internet, then what's so special about cyberspace anyway?

Historians call this "presentism," and frown darkly upon it. But then, if you look at the notion of "cyberspace" in rigorously historical terms, the idea that a person running a Web browser is somehow flying through an ethereal realm of pure data is just the flip side of the notion that if you open up the TV, you'll find little people dancing around inside. It's a queerifying way of looking at things that throws the physical and the technological together in an artificial way.

Erik Davis, in his book "Techgnosis," says that societies will view themselves and the world through the lens of their dominant technology, to the extent that technological metaphors like "cyberspace" will tend to leak out and invade our notions of consciousness and spirituality. Jim McClellan of the London Guardian writes, "Davis suggests that ... we can't help projecting dominant technologies on to the world and ourselves. So when clockwork machines were state of the art, people imagined the world worked in the same way. Now that information technology is king, people think of their brains and even the universe as computers with God as a hacker/programmer."

Think on that for a moment. If Wertheim is worried about spending an eternity floating around cyberspace, imagine the theological horror of a God hunched unshaven on his kingly throne, surrounded by junk food wrappers, and typing ... typing ...

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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