Surfing History, Hacking Metaphor:
Two or Three Ways to Know Yourself in Cyberspace

Pam Rosenthal
UC Berkeley, March 25, 1994

My interest in computers and their applications issues from 3 separate set of determinations in my life. The first is my job--I've been a computer programmer for 14 years. I'm not a very hi-tech visionary cyberspace programmer. I'm a business programme r--one of those legions of folks who moves money around, and gets called at 3 am to fix the bug if the money stops moving. But the very quotidien nature of this work has made me aware of the ubiquity of some of the questions facing us, I think. The seco nd aspect is that when I was a member of the editorial group of SR, we did some work and published some articles on post-industrialism, or post-fordism, and I found that what I knew from my job was very apposite. Finally, I bring from my academic backgro und in literature a lifelong conviction that we use literary and linguistic tools and practices to describe many modes of experience that are not literary at all.

What this has meant in practice for me is that I've done a whole lot of intellectual hustling just to understand how what I do every day for a living seems to fit into the wider scheme of things, and how it's affected the ways I approach experience. I've found that I need to mix and match paradigms from a lot of areas, and this makes sense to me. Computers are thought machines. And huge spaces in the history of western thought have been devoted to thinking about thought. So I think that the ways we th ink about computers are rooted in other thought traditions, sometimes in a surprising and eccentric mixes of them. This talk will follow a rather eccentric trajectory, I guess. I'll be tracing a path that will hit--cyberpunk science fiction, the work of the post-structuralist Jacques Derrida, medieval allegory and dungeons and dragons, and structuralist marxism. I've given out a bibliography kind of as a scorecard. But I'll also try to make my trajectory explicit.

What I'm interested in then, is the kinds of hidden stories that we tell ourselves while we're doing other, more explicitly understood tasks at our computers. And I want to ask about the effect of these hidden stories on the other big stories we tell our selves as we try to live real lives--stories of identity and agency and power and history. What we really want to know--while we're moving and manipulating information--is how the access we're gaining and the facility we're learning will affect the shape of participation in the social process. How are information technologies related to social empowerment. Or are they, anyway?

1. I first started to think about this stuff when I discovered cyberpunk, so that's where I'm going to start. With a quote that should seem very familiar to a lot of you.

. . .In some weird and very approximate way, it was like a run in the matrix. Get just wasted enough, find yourself in some desperate but strangely arbitrary kind of trouble, and it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data. . .Then you could throw y ourself into a high-speed drift and skid, totally engaged but set apart from it all, and all around you the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market.

This, as I'm sure many of you can feel, if not recognize, is from WG's Neuromancer, which I think is a remarkable depiction of what it feels like to be immersed in your computer. Drift and skid, speed and desperation. When I first read Neuromancer, I was trying, at my workplace, to put in a new release of a big, big system. It's the automated clearing house-- the 24-hour a day direct deposit system that puts social security and paychecks into checking accounts, and takes the money out when you pay with your bank card at the supermarket. The dance of biz. We were working on a very short deadline, I was fried, and in my miniscule spare time I'd read Neuromancer. And with all of its space opera melodrama, I felt like it was talking about exactly what I was doing.

Neuromancer is a picture of what it's like to negotiate a complex mental model--of anything, I think. It's what it feels like to try to understand something from the inside out, to imagine its shape and logic as a physical, inhabitable space. To stretch your sensorium until you can perceive abstract processes through a kind of visionary empathic understanding. It's a kind of postmodern romance of thinking.

2. I find the Neuromancer model to be densely described in Of Grammatology by JD. It's exactly the discomfort and the irony and the thrills and chills that Derrida is getting at:

  1. First of all, in some ways human memories are not what we wish them to be. We simply can't keep very many variables consciously in our minds. And we want them to be there. One of the technologies we've turned to is writing . OG is a dense meditation on the subtle insight that western culture cherishes a kind of hidden resentment toward writing--because it's a mediation of experience, a technology, a disruption of the immediacy of feeling, imputed to oral experience, a screen between us and something essential about us.
  2. Derrida has observed that this resentment has woven itself into the fabric of our culture/technology interface--in fact, the philosophical complexities of this resentment wouldn't have been possible without the writing technology that allows the philo sopher to order his or her own multiple, cacophonous, simultaneous ideas.
  3. Moreover, D. points out that thinking technologies work by spacializing the thought process. We don't think it's strange that when we have a problem, we reach for a piece of paper--a clear space, in order to make a list or a chart or a picture. Or wr ite down several lines of words and punctuation.

It was Neuromancer that helped me understand the rush of elaborately coded and spacially imagined mental process, and it was Derrida who helped me understand how central this sense of rush is to so much of life when it's mediated by language. This uncomfortable, ironic, suspicious involvement--which never settles into the immediacy of speech or the complexity of text, but which shuttles between them, never quite at home. Like Case putting on the trodes or taking off the trodes. Where am I r eally? Am I in experience or am I in logic, description, manipulation, action.

3. Neuromancer doesn't describe a user friendly world. It's too frenzied, too hyper, too difficult and desperate and fried. You wouldn't want to embark on a largescale marketing campaign to sell it to people who are already nervous about co mputers. And people are nervous about computers, I want to suggest, because they this share this everyday suspicion of abstraction--of textual manipulation of symbols as a disruption of everyday experience. The task for the computer interface designer, I think, was to find a way to make the disruptions--the shuttling between experience and abstraction--more userfriendly. I want to shift gears now and move to an alternate way to see you rself in cyberspace. And even though it's from an older literary frame of reference, I think in some way it's more uptodate. It delineates a friendly and more familiar space at the tube. It goes like this:

"These devices are placed on the picture plane withough any clear location in depth. Their relative sizes often violate perspective (they are often out of proportion), and at the same time they preserve their identities by being drawn with extremely sharp -edged outlines. This is not the result of a sheerly compositional criterion. . . . 'Isolation' of imagery follows from the need to maintain daemonic efficacy."

This is from a book of literary criticism called Allegory--The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, by Angus Fletcher. This particular passage describes allegorical painting, mostly from the Renaissance. But when I read it, I was struck by what a goo d description of the GUI screen. The graphical user interface. That flat plane, with its disproportionate little pictures representing processes. It really doesn't look like a desktop. I always paint my desktop backgrounds blue. And I think it's becau se it feels like a kind of abstract, cosmic space for invoking power. To click on an icon is like grabbing a sword or amulet in a fairy tale. Or opening a window through that sky out to the spheres beyond it. I think that if I could design a windows de sktop wallpaper, I'd choose blue, with clouds.

Fletcher's passage was about the way that the images are isolated from each other--they do not interact in space. And he said that "isolation of imagery follows from the need to maintain daemonic efficacy." The worldview that sees a cosmos populated by daemons and spirits is a protoscientific one, not an anti-scientific one. It theorizes, as Fletcher says, "an endless series of divisions of the world into separate elements for study and control." It reflects an intuition that you control nature by gra sping invisible principles. It's a theorization about the relationship between power and knowledge. If Neuromancer was a postmodern romance about thinking, the allegorical mode is perhaps a premodern romance of thinking. And I'm suggestin g that the stories we tell ourselves at the computer screen have some of their roots here as well.

Well, it's not exactly me who's doing the suggesting--this part of my talk follows directly from a terrific essay I read fairly recently. It's by Erik Davis, and it's called "Techgnosis, Magic, Memory,"-- it's in a recent issue of SAQ, which is about computers and which is called "Flame Wars," and page for page it's probably the smartest book about the cyberculture yet to come out. Davis' article talks to a question that has been bugging me for a long time--the happy- talk side of the cyber culture--the eagerness to talk about wizards, the echos of the dungeons and dragons subculture.

It reflects, of course, a set of tropes you find throughout science fiction--there's a kind of hunger there as well, to describe worlds articulated by present and future science and technology in terms of ideological and narrative structures that are reso lutely pre-capitist, pre-democratic, even pre- industrial. So I could never quite understand why, when you were talking about cutting-edge machinery, you wanted to situate your stories in fairytale social landscapes.

But it's Davis's essay that convinced me that there is a genuine set of correspondences between what it feels like at the tube and the narrative rules obtaining to fairy tale, romance, and allegory.

What Davis outlines in this essay is the story of a particular long-term counterculture within the western intellectual tradition. This is a set of related beliefs in mysticisms and magic--gnosticism is a part of it, as it allegory. It posits the univer se as a kind of web of correspondences--virtues and vices, for example, have their quasidivine representations in various demi-deities. If you want to enlist their power, you make contact. It helps to wear their colors, for example, to know their symbol s and emblems. And it super-helps to know the magic word, or win the magic sword.

The gnostic, hermetic, allegorical traditions, related of course to astrology and alchemism and numerology, were ways of trying to find power points, if you will, in the universe, to press on and cause the universe to do your bidding. Sometimes it simply depended on knowing magic words, as in the Kabbalistic tradition. But words and names and actual demonic forces are not separated in this way of looking at things. Davis describes Trithemius, the abbot- necromancer of Wurtzberg. He wrote huge tomes, s ome of which are simply lists of the names of demons, as a kind of index to available magic spells.:

"when properly directed [Trithemius] claimed his seals and spells invoked entities such as Saturn's angel Oriphiel, who would create an astral network that delivered messages anywhere within 24 hours"

Trithemius coded a wide-area communications network.

To exercise such power over nature--to overcome the limitations of everyday experience--was to dream of scientific power before such a thing as science existed. And the forms such dreams took were in religious or magical mysticisms. To imagine such powe r in a prescientific world was to imagine yourself as God. And what's the definition of being God? It's knowing everything everywhere at the same time. God is a kind of black hole, or perhaps a white hole--an ultimate heavy implosion of immanent knowledg e.

And these dreams of power have survived into the mythologies of science fiction and those surrounding computers. Here's a passage, also quoted by Davis, from a Sci Fi novella by Vernor Vinge, called True Names. The hacker protagonists have saved the earth from the evil virus, but in the process all the data has gone through their sensoria:

"Every ship in the seas, every aircraft now making for safe landing, every one of the loans, the payments, the meals of an entire race registered clearly on some part of his consciousness. . . . By the rules of the covens, there was only one valid word fo r themselves in their present state. They were gods."

This sort of cosmic datadump denouement happens a lot in Sci Fi. And after reading Davis, it struck a resonant chord with me--now here's a quote I think a lot of you will recognize:

We are as gods and we may as well get good at it.

That, of course, is the credo of the Whole Earth Catalog, whose later avatars include the Whole Earth Review, the Well--that widespread online Bay Area conferencing system--and HR's books about Virtual this and that. What I've concluded is that the traditions of allegory, hermeticism, and gnostic mysticism are remarkably robust--they've led an underground existence and they have received a remarkable jo lt with the advent of the computer, and particularly the cyberpunk and hacker cultures.

Because for the first time, really, in history, the dream of the gnostics and hermeticists contains some physical truth. Magical names and powerful agents are wired into the cosmos. Objects that have the power to influence loans, payments, and safe land ings can be grasped, or at least pointed to and clicked on.

And what I'm suggesting (with Davis' backup) is that a way to see yourself at the terminal is to see yourself within this set of stories--as a kind of hero traveling through a vast world studded with powers and agencies and windows looking out to the surr ounding worlds. This is somewhat overdetermined--being able to get instant response to our commands by definition seems magical--and the interface was encoded with this syntax of magically-linked power and knowledge as one of its deep structures. Davis quotes Allan Kay--we want to give people a magic piece of paper--and they do envision little agents and demons, little personalities you'll call up at the screen--to guide you through. Prescientific mythologies of power, then, are ways of imagining yourself manipulating power and not getting fried and exhausted and overwhelmed like Case in Neuromancer. Rather than imagine yourself careening through a dark, bumpy, dangerous space, you can imagine yourself in a magical world, where points of interface are embodied as symbols that are there to be grasped. The form such a journey takes is a kind of heroic quest, by the individual, or by the small heroic band of brothers. (I w as always struck that one of the early computer games companies chose to name itself Bruderbund). The setting for the allegorical world is a kind of magic version of the natural world. One gets lost in the forest, for example--as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, finds himself in a the realm of the spirits. And it's here that our outside, natural world gets redeemed. Problems that can't be solved out there in the real world of contingencies and relationships can be sorted out by higher powers.

Now, there's both a profound truth and a big lie intertwined in this kind of mythology. One the one hand, it's true working out, again, of an important protoscientific intuition. Often, to affect physical change, it is necessary to manipulate matter in a way that is beyond the reach of our ordinary human limitations of time and space, size, scope and speed. But at the same time, it flies in the face of other kinds of intuitions. Quite simply, it substitutes non- human, spiritual agency for collective h uman agency. And the fact that such mythologies have gotten such a shot in the arm at a time when it seems that we are particularly pessimistic about our human abilities to solve big social problems shouldn't go unnoticed.

Now, I began this talk by delineating what I called a postmodern romance of thought, and then I skipped back to the premodern one. Was there a modern romance of knowledge and power? Sadly, I'd have to say yes--there was one--and that's the one you find when you read the more utopian and visionary passages in Marx's Capital and the Grundrisse. That modern romance wanted to entirely liberate itself from magic spaces-- knowledge and practice could come together in those moments w hen the worker at his or her machine, could grasp the principles that made the world go. And this knowledge could be shared, and organized politically, for the first time--not through hermetic practices, but by collective everyday activity by a growing n umber of people. The dream was collective agency--scientific knowledge as social knowledge. It imagined a secular sharing of what was previously elite knowledge. Or maybe it was the most magical of all the dreams of knowledge and power--maybe it saw th e workspace as a totally magical space, where "correct" solutions would always be obvious, where problems of organization and interpretation would be transparent. The troublesome negotiations between abstraction and experience just disappear in this view . This is much too compressed a discussion of a huge and important chapter in the ongoing romance of technology, power, and knowledge. But I wanted just to hit on it--because even if this way of looking at things is totally inadequate, it still asks some of the most important questions. That is, how do you bring the magic spaces of knowledge back home to where you--and your body--really live?

I've been describing discourses of immanent power--the crazed, wasted power rush of Gibsonian cyberspace, the magical heroic enlistment of powerful agents of the GUI interface and beyond. But what about power when you turn away from the computer screen? So I want to move to the third, most difficult, way to situate yourself in cyberspace--the question is, what is it like to situate youself both in cyberspace and in history?

The promise of computerization is, of course, that it will widen everybody's discursive space. It will bring us more information, it will give us magic paper to shuffle the information around on, to solve our own problems, and it will give us the ability to share our work and solutions. There's a really inspiring description of a VR world in HR's book that seems like a blueprint for this. At the University of NC, scientists use a VR system to study something called molecular docking--the attractive and repulsive forces that hold matter together. Scientists put on goggles and look into a machine that visually represents theoretical models of matter on the molecular level. And they use their hands to try manipulating these models. The idea is that they can enter this realm of representation to try out visual, intuitive solutions to problems they're working on elsewhere, through calculations and theory. So the point isn't just what you see through the goggles. The point is to amplify ongoing work you're doing by giving you new windows into it and new space for experimentation. Shoshanna Zuboff, in her book, In th e Age of the Smart Machine, discusses another model. Workers in a paper mill used to know whether the industrial processes were on target by immediate sensory data--how their hair felt, smells in the air. Computer automation took these people off the shop floor and had them peering into screens, where production data was represented numerically. It took them away from direct sensory data into a world of abstraction. It was a wrenching change, but, for many workers, an invigorating one--one that , in fact, gave them more variables for adjusting the process, more space to experiment and more power to improve things.

Such visions, I think, approach the ones that Marx was looking for and didn't find. They make us remember that there was immense democratic promise in the development of technology. Assembly line production and deskilling management philosophies like Taylorization have almost made us forget this. The idea of learning more about a process by engaging in it, by having the mechanism of asking a process to reveal its secrets is a very exciting one. For a programmer, it's exciting to be able to code in a popup window--a space that will open up when the user needs to know something about what's going on. The ideal of learning to get better at what you do, of improving the process and empowering yourself at the same time is a wonderful one. All the earl y mythologies that saw a link between knowledge and power were right. The dream of a symbiosis between the space of imagination and the space where we put our bodies every day is a genuinely utopian vision.

But what's needed is a point of view and a process. The ability to access and manipulate lots of information becomes exciting and liberating if you have a place in the world to bring it home to. The thrills and chills of negotiating the fake spaces of k nowledge should illumine and enhance the world you're building by manipulating this knowledge. Information tools are exciting if you are fortunate enough to have an ongoing project to develop. You could be engaged in world- building (which for many peop le might mean your job) or shared enthusiasm (which if you're very lucky might also mean your job--or might mean some very recherche interest you share with others on a network). The question is, what meaning can information space have for you if you do not have these ongoing, institutional roots somewhere in real space?

And sadly, we all know that real space is quickly becoming impoverished and ongoing institutional roots are in crisis nowadays. And we know, moreover, that improving the productive process is not necessarily continuous with strengthening your own positio n--keeping your job. Well, none of this is accidental--it would be naive not to link the growing enrichment of fake space and the increasing immiseration of real space we see around us.

In a very dense and important book called The Informational City, Manual Castells has outlined some of this dynamic. Using a framework derived largely from Marx and Foucault, Castells posits that the current era can be characterized by what he calls "the informational mode of development." To give a very-- almost comically--brief precis of what this means, Castells suggests that the way capitalism has been restructuring itself since the 70s was to imbed complex information processing and communication wi thin all its productive processes. Our productive processes themselves are simply smarter than they used to be-- they have their own discursive spaces encoded into them. They are flexible--they can respond to changing market conditions quickly. They ca n change production runs overnight without huge expensive physical retooling.

Also, our productive processes can manage a huge, unevenly skilled, on-again-off-again workforce. They can treat widely dispersed workers as though they were geographically contiguous. Physical proximity and temporal continuity are no longer necessary. In fact, they aren't preferred. More profit can be made when you have a flexible workforce-a small team of designers now, a larger team of by-definition non-unionized, casual workers later.

The flow of information determines how the labor process is structured, and where you find yourself in it. There are good jobs to be had, designing and administering this electronic infrastructure, but we also notice that there are a growing number of sw eatshops. And not just in Malaysia, but in our cities again--Because the owners of these sweatshops can sell their products to large manufacturers, who no longer have to maintain a permanent workforce with benefits and health care. Castells calls the la ndscape that encompasses both system administrators and sweatshop workers the "dual city." He says:

The fundamental contemporary meaning of the dual city refers to the process of spatial restructuring through which distinct segments of labor are included in and excluded from the making of new history." (p. 228)

That's a devastating quote, I think. Are you included in or excluded from the making of new history. It's a kind of inversion of those heroic allegories of power-- magic space now overwhelms everyday bodily space. Is what we are doing wiring the landsc ape so that some of us are in a place to shape its contours and some of us are not?

It's wonderful to be able to work and play in fake space when you have a secure position in real space. But fake space--that wonderful playground that can enrich our lives back where we live--is reshaping real space at an alarming rate. And if power is o nly available for those who are favorably situated within the flow of data, discussions of electronic democracy have to go a lot further than calling of electronic town meetings. They will have to begin to talk, as Castells says, about the relationship b etween the space of the production process and the everyday places where people actually live and work. Because any other view of history is surfing it, or pointing and clicking, or just changing channels--rather than living it.

Impact Speakers Main Menu