Alien Lands in Cyberspace

by Briggs Nisbet

What does it feel like to be an alien in your own land? To be outside while others are inside? To know that other worlds lie just beyond your reach, as if beyond a locked door, and visible only through a tiny keyhole. Do you remember what it was like to be a child who could not read? The books lay there, the ones without pictures, a Rosetta stone of your life to come. Like an immigrant seeking entry across the borderland, I desire to be within, to be a member of this community of tap-writers, of silent conversations and timeless travel in cyberspace. I have not left the limits of my room, but I am an alien in a new land.

Sailing into the Sea of Etymology

The Greeks called him kybernet, helmsman. Turning into the wind, the cybernet steered a course upon the freeways of the Mediterranean, carrying figs and olive oil, news, music and poetry from port to port. Centuries passed. Cybernet, as the myths may tell, half-human and half- machine, born at the dawning of a new age, commands the helm of a sailless ship and steers a course through the waterless seas of Cyberspace.

Whether ancient mariner or cybernaut, the explorer must have a vehicle. To sail to unknown ports or to travel the byways of the electronic community.

As I stare at the panels of my space-ship, a blue screen for horizon, I am like a boat in dry dock, marooned, disconnected, and longing to travel.

Into Inter/Outer Space

Cyberspace means the space in which machine communication takes place. The social space occupied by people linked by networked computers and communicating with each other. Geographers define social space as a synthesis of perceived and actual dimensions of space. Perceived or subjective space is the values, aspirations, and cultural traditions that people project upon a place. Objective space is phenomenological, the place where things occur, time passes and is experienced.

To the Yurok people of the Pacific north coast, the Klamath River is the center of the world. It is both heaven and earth. From the river, everything is begotten and to the river everything returns. In Yurok social space there is no west or east or south or north or left or right. There is only the flow of water upstream or down. Without a river, they would not be Yurok but some other people.

Socially constructed spaces are as varied as humans themselves. They may be literal or literary. Dante's Inferno is a social space hierarchically constructed by bad deeds. They may be essentially exclusionary as is Amish social space, visually separating themselves from others in the style and construction of their vehicles, their dress, and their speech. The Village Square, The Zocalo, The Plaza, The Common are historic social spaces, organized geographically at the center of settlements where people meet to socialize and conduct business.

Today in western culture, the most significant social space is the Office -- the social space of work. Here possession of space, of views, of equipment, and of staff signify status. Communication is formalized, by memos, and by mastheads on letters, and yet interaction among office-inhabitants may be extremely informal. Friendships and enemies are made, secret negotiations and public alliances, trivial talk and important communications take place.

Social space is a dynamic realm where individuals make decisions, act and interact with each other. It is the realm of exclusions and inclusions, membership and boundary where people and their cultural institutions collide and intersect. Here are democracy and slavery, ritual and law, taboo and anarchy. Here also are creative acts and communication, reaching across barriers, and evolutions of thought and perception.

Oaxacan Marketplace

Oaxacan marketplace . . . this drowsy capital city of southern Mexico. The slow daily rhythm of candy vendors in the streets and businessmen sipping coca colas under the awnings of the hotel cafes. A few strollers in the zocalo and women coming from mass. The streets narrow as you leave the city center and soon there is nothing but the packed dirt alleyways that meander to the countryside, past the smokey butcher shops and the skeletal, barn-like market hall where a few vendors have piled their produce into brilliant bouquets of fruit and flower.

Then, as the dusk settles into Friday evening, a curious procession begins. From the outskirts of the city, leading donkeys laden with baskets or simply carrying bundles on their heads, the farmers and potters, weavers of cloth and hatmakers wend their way along the dirt lanes leading to the marketplace. A rising sun washes color on the stragglers from more distant villages and farmlands who reach the city just as the Saturday market begins. It has appeared as if by magic, an endless tent city filling the narrow streets with vendors, wares, and crowds of people. The people who have come to sell and to buy, to browse and to gawk, to talk and to flirt, to argue and laugh.

Windows on a New World

Something can be illuminated on a screen, and a screen can hide or exclude. On a moonless summer night, the first moving picture flickered across a white cloth screen as entranced onlookers murmured under a starlit sky. Today, a flickering image on the television screen shows us what we can be, what we can buy. To be screened is to be examined. This screen is a barrier and I may be screened out, rejected, excluded.

The first step into the cybercommunity is a screen. This screen facing us is a slate for our thoughts. It can be a private confessional, only reflecting back to us what we have written. But it can also be a window on the world, revealing to us texts from a thousand libraries, or a missive from a friend.

Taking My Exit

There is a highway outside my window. Its signature is a rushing sound -- the sound of speed, of travelling, of wheeling toward a destination. From my window I mark the passages of a million travellers (in a year? a month?) past my domain. They don't see me, I don't know them. Until one of those constantly flowing particles separates and takes my exit, descends to the tangled network of narrow streets and stops at my door. How to get t/here is the question that has launched a thousand inventions. The history of human civilization is nothing if not the tracings of technological solutions dreamed up to solve the problem of distance between people and places. We humans crave connection. We cannot thrive in isolation from one another. And we have spent the greater part of our long lives inventing ways to communicate with each other.

Window. Highway. These two metaphors are helping me to imagine the world I am about to enter where my hands speak a metaphorical language and I communicate within a hierarchy of signs and symbols all rendered electronically. Where once we struggled to span the planet by foot, asea, airborne, now we tag our messages to each other on an invisible kernel of pure energy. This unseen highway could someday be travelled by every one of us. This small blue screen would then truly be a window on the world.

Copyright 1995 Briggs Nisbet
Enterzone Copyright 1995
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