Cyberspace and Virtual Places
Author(s): Paul C. Adams
Source: Geographical Review, Vol. 87, No. 2, Cyberspace and Geographical Space (Apr., 1997), pp. 155-171
Published by: American Geographical Society

Most of these place metaphors imply action over time, exploration, settlement, and virtual habitation. Enthusiasts speak of dwelling in computer networks. Some computer users even think of themselves as hybrid beings combining human and machine components, selves spread out through space along wires, radio waves, and optical fibers. For these cyborgs (cybernetic organisms; Caidin 1972) the codes at the root of identity are as likely to be located in CD-ROM as in DNA, with constituent ele- ments including microcircuits, nanotechnology, and cells. (Adams 1997:155) The metaphor transform the boundary between different worlds and let us ¡§live¡¨ in the virtual space. cyberspace contains an ontological metaphor (a network of nodes and links can be functionally equivalent to a space; a field of opportunities for movement and interaction);-p157
Though less symbolically novel than cyberspace and electronic-frontier metaphors, architectural metaphors have symbolic import. They erode a traditional symmetry of place and identity, with its strong ties between social structure and a mappable space of places. They anticipate a world with no sense of place (Meyrowitz 1985), a space of flows (Castells 1989) or a "mediascape" (Appadurai 1996) in which the con- texts for construction of identity surpass the mappable world.-p160
At the threshold between structural metaphor and ontological metaphor is the con- cept of the electronic frontier. The frontier is not exactly a familiar element of daily experience, like other structural metaphors, but the image of the frontier is well worn in the mythology of American culture, and "surrogate and second-hand experiences ... infuse present perception" (Lowenthal 1985, 40). The electronic frontier ambiva- lently suggests a scene from the past and a whole new kind of space, because the elec- tronic frontier did not in fact exist before the act of settlement.-p160
feminization. The containment of indigenous peoples, the enclosure of land, and the domestication of the frontiersman reinforce a par- ticular image of liminality, a journey from space to place.-p161
The noble savage is reincarnated as a cyborg: a being part human and part machine. In- triguingly, in this replaying of the classic theme, the frontier's inhabitants are neither masculine nor feminine, native nor settler. Technology annihilates distinctions by making them arbitrary choices, fluid states of being that anyone can "cycle through" (Turkle 1995). From a linear view of personal history we move to multiple histories, a pastiche of parallel selves evolving on separate courses. The biography occupies not a virtual line but a virtual space.-p161
This is frontier of reality: "the old concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context, based as they are on physical manifestation, do not apply succinctly in a world where there can be none" (Kapor and Barlow 1990). -p162
Whether we consider the challenge of forming an identity without a body or the struggle to master new technologies, the challenge of preserving social justice in a space without laws, or the struggle to maintain the privacy of one's personal boundaries, we encounter the "inevitable conflicts [that] have begun to occur on the border between cyberspace and the physical world" (Kapor and Barlow 1990). The existence of such conflicts, combined with the newness of the medium and its per- petual flux, supports the concept of an electronic frontier. -p164
The third main metaphor used to understand computer networks is cyberspace. In a word, the metaphor of cyberspace is about disembodiment. A system of interacting nodes is a kind of space, defined by interaction (as opposed to geometry, energy, or freedom of movement). In an interaction-defined space, up and down, inside and out, here and there take on particular meanings; vision ceases to be structured by the horizon and Cartesian geometry; movement shifts from a two- or three-dimen- sional space to a multidimensional space; phenomena in distant places are fre- quently connected instantaneously. The most similar conceptions of space are those associated with quantum theory and magic (Sack 1980; Zukav 1980). The strangeness of this ontological use of metaphor is its contradiction of what has been called the "first law of geography," the principle that near things are more closely related than are distant things. -p164
People ostensibly come together more completely in cyberspace than in real space, merging with a technology in which other persons are also merging, tran- scending a lonely individuality and the tragic contradictions of sameness and differ- ence that are inherent in real communities (Tinder 1980).-p164
Community created through shared experience re- calls a form of magical union, like the taking of communion in church: Many per- sons join in a single body through an act of symbolic consumption. In cyberspace, however, it is oneself that is consumed, as machines convert identity and ideas into information to be stored or transported at the speed of light and reconstituted in one or many distant locations.-p164
Cyborgs buy chemicals and surgically implanted devices that boost their strength, senses, and cognition to enhanced levels, then use their superhuman abilities to turn a profit from the monstrous corporations that run the world, arrange sexual encounters, or upgrade their "wetware." The Marxian cycle of creative destruction crosses the threshold of the body!-p166
Future analyses of electronic contexts will deal with a frontier contained in vir- tual architecture-not "home on the range" but a range reconstituted in the home, a frontier occupied by virtual organisms that merge with a landscape or architecture. Like a newly discovered continent, the outer boundaries of computer networks are charted, but the interior parts-the space between the metaphors-is filled in only by extrapolation.-p167
With computers and network society, the extrapolation is not from an old place or landscape to a new place or landscape but from place and landscape in general to a sociotechnological system that is largely immaterial yet seems to have the attributes of a place or landscape.-p167
Similar complaints could be posted for any of the metaphors introduced in this article. Consider, for example, the oppressive potential of architecture and hence, presumably, of the architectural metaphor. Built environments are often means of incarceration and control, as evident in "complete institutions" like a prison, asy- lum, or factory (Bentham 1843; Goffman 1961; Foucault 1979). We might worry that the primary function of virtual architecture would be a kind of containment, in which there were no longer an "outside" and populations were everywhere con- tained and subjugated.-p167