British Academy Research Grant

Britac
A segment of this research, entitled Nature Metaphors in Virtual Landscapes, is funded by the British Academy and
will take place during a Visiting Scholarship to the University of
California Santa Barbara in the Department of English in 2009.

Nature Metaphors in Virtual Landscapes
Cyberspace is a virtual entity generated by the imaginations of the
people who use it, but these imaginings in turn arise from their
knowledge and experience of real locations.  Writing about an entirely
different imaginative space, Shangri-La, Peter Bishop suggests that
“Places are produced by a dialogue between cultural fantasy-making and
geographical landscape’[1] and Richard Mabey writes that ‘We constantly
refer back to the natural world to try and discover who we are.’[2] The Wild Surmise
will map the connections between the landscapes of cyberspace and their
origins in the personal geographies of those who create and imagine
them. According to Lakoff and Johnson ‘new metaphors have the power to
create a new reality’ and therefore play ‘a very significant role in
determining what is real for us’[3]. This is powerfully demonstrated in
the metaphors which have arisen around the virtual terrain of the
internet, commonly known as cyberspace. The term was coined by William
Gibson in 1984 in his science fiction novel Neuromancer, and its
emphasis on the connections between online culture and the urban
environment has had a profound influence on the popular imagination.
However, an examination of the language used by those who designed the
internet and those who now inhabit it reveals a contradiction.

The language and concepts adopted by many internet users exhibit
their strong sense of the online world as a natural landscape, and
rather than imagining themselves in a slick inner-city environment they
often display an affinity with notions of exploration, homesteading and
cultivation. They make frequent references to the body, as if
virtuality has prompted them to remember, rather than forget, their
earthly existence. Indeed, since its earliest beginnings computers and
cyberspace have been saturated with images of the natural world:
fields, strings, webs, streams, rivers, trails, paths, torrents, and
islands. Then the flora – apples, apricots, trees, roots, branches, and
the fauna – spiders, viruses, worms, pythons, lynxes, gophers, plus the
ubiquitous bug and mouse. My preliminary research has revealed
interpretations of the internet as a solar system, a jungle, a desert,
a swamp, an archipelago, a subterranean world, an estuary or, to quote
novelist Bruce Sterling, a ‘bubbling primal soup full of worms and
viruses.’ The popular geography of online culture is an extremely
important issue because although we have never encountered virtual
space before it is already challenging much that until now has been
taken as given. Today we face the growth of global collective
intelligence with its concomitant threats and opportunities such as the
ability to communicate across cultures and geographical boundaries, and
the capacity for vast information storage. It is vital that we
understand the cultural construction of virtual space.

The Wild Surmise will examine this phenomenon, including the impact
of the international spread of cyberspace upon the ways in which it is
conceptualised and imagined. Preliminary desk research (Barbrook,
Curtis, Davis, Laurel, Markoff) has shown that there is a great deal of
evidence for the widespread use of nature metaphors in the design both
of early computer interfaces and of the internet itself, and that many
of those influences originated in Silicon Valley and Southern
California. Indeed, the World Wide Web, invented by Englishman Tim
Berners-Lee working at CERN in Switzerland, was informed by a research
visit he made to Palo Alto and San Francisco in 1992. The same year,
the term ‘surfing the net’ was originated in Cupertino by journalist
Jean Polly Armour who has been commissioned by the Wilson Library
Bulletin to write an article explaining the internet and was searching
for a suitable metaphor. In 1990, the text-based virtual world
LambdaMOO was created at Xerox PARC, Palo Alto, and designed by
computer programmer Pavel Curtis as a replica of his own house and
garden. Today, many games and virtual worlds, such as Second Life, are
designed and built in California, and their default landscapes still
bear an uncanny resemblance to the Mojave Desert. It is inevitable that
the design of these new virtual geographies will echo the local
landscapes encountered by those who work in them. The section of my
research traces the history of these influences in California.

Research Objectives

  1. Collect personal accounts of the early development of nature-related language and concepts pertaining to the internet
  2. Visit significant locations where ideas were initiated and
    developed e.g. corporate and university campuses, private homes,
    natural landscapes.
  3. Present results and gather peer feedback.

[1] Bishop, P. (1989) The Myth of Shangri-La, London: Athlone Press Bishop p.9
[2] Mabey, R. (2006) Nature Cure, London: Pimlico p.19
[3] Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press p.8

Background Reading

Here is some of the background reading I’ve been doing.  I’ll be adding more from my notes, and further suggestions are very welcome.

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[last updated July 2007]

Jungles and forests

Across the river from my flat is an area of riverbank which is bare in the winter but overgrown with trees and bushes in the summer. In the winter the deciduous trees create a lot of empty space visited by no-one except the occasional peeing man on the way back from the pub or drug dealers selling their wares, and now and then one or two school kids exploring. But when the vegetation is heavy, as it has become in the last few weeks, the proximity of sudden wildness in the centre of the city seems to drive people a little crazy. This week, in the hot weather, I’ve heard them yelling and whooping in there. Although they are only a few metres away, across the sluggish old River Soar, I can’t see them for the trees, but I can hear them very clearly. Yesterday a drunk girl sang extended contralto riffs while her male companions described their toileting, oblivious to the fact that our apartment block is so close. They can certainly see us, even if we can’t see them. As the weeks go by I expect lots of more of this, especially if the weather is hot – perhaps there will even be campers pitching their tent and lighting a campfire next to the old railway wall. This has happened before, although I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more often. When I was a kid we were always looking for these kinds of scrap ground to make dens on.

Anyway, this behaviour led me to see a correlation with the way people often behave when they visit virtual places for the first time. Many times I’ve seen sensible people drop their inhibitions the minute they enter a MOO, a chatroom, or more recently Second Life. I haven’t seen it happen so often via voice on applications like Skype – perhaps the voice is a little too real for such behaviour. But it’s clear that newbies often feel shrouded and hidden in the jungle of virtuality, and thus enabled to misbehave in a somewhat exhilerated way. Sherry Turkle has written about this phenomenon quite widely. I’m mentioning it here because I think it works as a nature metaphor – the web as jungle or forest. I’ve written elsewhere about the web as the site of The Tempest but now I’m also thinking that it’s a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream, just like the one that takes place across the river from me every summer.

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