About The Book

I remember rising from my keyboard and walking out to the bluffs overlooking the Pacific near where I live (near Santa Barbara, California). Looking out over the Pacific at sunset that day, I felt I was on the edge of something vast and unfathomable: new media as ocean. And I remember thinking of that ‘wild surmise’ that came to Cortez at the end of Keats’s ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. Alan Liu Professor of English, University of California at Santa Barbara.

Nature and Cyberspace: stories, memes and metaphors is a monograph to be published in print and online in 2012 by Bloomsbury Academic.

The book brings together a complex legacy of thinking and writing about the natural world with contemporary views of computers and the internet drawn from texts, personal interviews, surveys, and of course the web itself. The result will be a narrative of the many ways in which we use our experiences of nature to situate and comprehend our experiences of cyberspace, and will include perspectives from many different countries and cultures.

Picture this:
You sit immersed in a wireless cloud, navigating your way through the folders on your hard drive. It is a floating forest of branching tree directories anchored to a root folder buried somewhere deep inside the machine. You are listening to streaming audio whilst a torrent of more music flows into your MP3 player. While it downloads, your system is organising your music library into fields within a database and generating a feed direct to your homepage. Via your Flock browser you twitter to your friends about the latest item on the newsriver then post a few paragraphs to your blog, where they join the complex trail of links and paths going in and out of your site. While you surf, it’s easy to forget that beneath you lies a creepy invisible underworld populated by spiders, bugs, crawlers, worms, and microscopic viruses, whilst above ground your transactions are hungrily devoured by sheep that shit grass before being aggregated into the Long Tail. That data trail you’re leaving behind stimulates the synapses of the global brain, which is in turn pulled towards the gravitational core of the Web 2.0 solar system… from Windows Vista: Dreaming Nature in Cyberspace

In The Practice of the Wild (1990) the poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder writes that the word ‘nature’ is usually interpreted in one of two ways:

  1. The ‘outdoors’, meaning the physical world, including all living things (this definition excludes the features or products of civilisation and human will), or
  2. The physical universe and all its properties (this definition includes the products of human action and intention)

The internet is, of course, a product of of human action and intention, as in 2. But could the experience of cyberspace be altering our sense of the physical world, as in 1?  I’m curious about the synergies between the virtual and the natural, especially in relation to the ‘natural’ physical. I would like to know:

  • Which metaphors and images of the natural world are commonly found in computer programming and design, and in popular computer culture?
  • What are the origins of those usages?
  • How do those usages vary between countries and cultures?
  • What conclusions can be drawn from this research, if any, about the intersections between human beings, cyberspace, and the natural world?

I’ve been working with computers and in cyberspace ever since I bought my first machine, an AmsCorrespondence_overlooktrad 6128, in 1987. Right from the start I was struck by what felt like very intuitive connections between computers and what we think of as the natural world, but unravelling those synergies has been a slow two-decade process of gradual revelations Hello_world_raw_nerveand occasional surprises. Over the years I’ve written two books directly exploring them – first, a novel, Correspondence (1992) and then twelve years later a memoir / travelogue Hello World: travels in virtuality (2004). Now I’m writing a third – The Wild Surmise.

The earlier books were drawn from my own personal experience but The Wild Surmise. will look at the wider cyberspace community and its relationship with what we think of as the natural world.

“Most people know me from cyberspace and assume that I live there. I  do spend many hours a day online, but what they don’t know is that my body is sitting outside, with my bare feet in contact with the earth. I don’t know that I could live in any other way.”  Howard Rheingold

 

Windows Vista: dreaming nature in cyberspace

With the release of the Vista operating system, Microsoft wants us to believe it is finally throwing open the Windows and allowing screen-burned users out into the fresh air. We can wander free through the pastures of cyberspace and frolic in Aero’s transparent mists. Vista recognises a deep truth – that when we log on to join the flow of collective intelligence, we bring with us a subconscious desire for cyberspace to be just like the (never-was) Edenic countryside of our youth, a verdant Elysian Fields of virtual harmony.

Sounds unlikely? Picture this:

You sit immersed in a wireless cloud, navigating your way through the folders on your hard drive. It is a floating forest of branching tree directories anchored to a root folder buried somewhere deep inside the machine. You are listening to streaming audio whilst a torrent of more music flows into your MP3 player. While it downloads, your system is organising your music library into fields within a database and generating a feed direct to your homepage. Via your Flock browser you twitter to your friends about the latest item on the newsriver then post a few paragraphs to your blog, where they join the complex trail of links and paths going in and out of your site. While you surf, it’s easy to forget that beneath you lies a creepy invisible underworld populated by spiders, bugs, crawlers, worms, and microscopic viruses, whilst above ground your transactions are hungrily devoured by sheep that shit grass before being aggregated into the Long Tail. That data trail you’re leaving behind stimulates the synapses of the global brain, which is in turn pulled towards the gravitational core of the Web 2.0 solar system…

And all this time you thought you were just cruising the information superhighway. In fact, the metaphors we use to describe our encounters with the internet are much closer to the natural world than the cyberpunk urban fantasies we’ve absorbed ever since novelist William Gibson invented the word cyberspace in 1984. The strikingly numerous examples above don’t come from any single deliberate attempt to influence internet culture, but are the result of an evolving vocabulary which has been around since the earliest days of computing.

Consider the traditional organisation of data into fields, strings, webs, streams, rivers, trails, paths, torrents, islands, and even walled gardens, And then there are the flora – apples, apricots, trees, roots, and branches; and the fauna – spiders, viruses, worms, pythons, lynxes, gophers, not to mention the ubiquitous bug and mouse. Indeed, Vista was previously code-named Longhorn, after a breed of cattle noted for its ease of calving and long lactation period – make of that what you will.

All of this is bad news for Vista because it turns out that its smooth romantic landscapes are just one more fantasy. In reality, the organic, holistic, evolving eco-system of Web 2.0 connectedness is less like a travel brochure and more like a brackish swamp seething with mutations. It’s messy, steamy and soggy. To quote science fiction author Bruce Sterling

if the internet were a landscape it would be ‘a bubbling primal soup full of worms and viruses.’

Not exactly the pristine prettiness of the Windows Media Center coral reef, but most certainly an interesting example of the estuarine meeting of transliteracy and geography.

[x-posted from the Transliteracy blog, 24 March 2007]

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