Understanding the Cyberspace Continuum: A Critique (MSTU 4020; Week 7)
The following is a critique on Adrian Mihilache's “The Cyber Space-Time Continuum: Meaning and Metaphor” for a graduate course Social & Communicative Aspects of the Internet at Teachers College, Columbia University. Abstract Adrian Mihalache’s article “The Cyber Space-Time Continuum: Meaning and Metaphor” argues against “ready-made” (2002, p. 293) ideas about spatial meanings and metaphors of cyberspace. Mihalache believes that these notions suffer from two major deficiencies: 1) Cyberspace as a preexisting territory and, 2) Cyberspace as a metric space. He points to the works and ideas of poet William Blake as “extremely” useful examples for making sense of cyberspace (p. 29). In the interest of researching connections between theories about space, place, time and practices according to identity formulation and knowledge production through online interaction, I found the author’s arguments persuasive. However, I also found his arguments critique-worthy, particularly pointing to the hierarchal division the author implies between the arts and sciences to understanding the cyberspace-time continuum. Considering Mihalache’s positions, I seek to further investigate the question: How does identity formulation happen and knowledge production emerge from/within digitally connective spaces like cyberspace? This question requires in-depth analyses that borrow from various theories and practices that span across multiple disciplines. Keywords: cyberspace, space-time, place, identity, virtual, real, epistemology, ethnography
Multiple Meanings, Multiple Approaches: Understanding the Cyberspace Continuum In his article “The Cyber Space-Time Continuum: Meaning and Metaphor,” Adrian Mihalache argues against “ready-made” (2002, p. 293), and mostly scientific, ideas about spatial meanings and metaphors of cyberspace. Mihalache believes that these ideas about cyberspace suffer from two major assumptions: 1) Cyberspace is a preexisting territory and, 2) Cyberspace is a metric space. Mihalache further argues that mathematical operations are not meaningful to interpret cyberspace because they are limited to understanding virtual space as “a set of objects and rules of interaction,” which fail to explain the connection to the real world (p. 295). To interpret cyberspace as a preexisting territory “waiting to be filled” (p. 293), and to describe it using mathematical operations reinforce a false divide between ‘real’ and virtual worlds. Finally, instead of understanding cyberspace as topographical or in relativistic time-space terms, cyberspace, according to Mihalache, is better understood through the works and ideas of multimedia artist, William Blake.
To better understand meaningful metaphorical constructs of cyberspace, Mihalache points to the multimedia technology of William Blake’s plates. Blake’s plates “blended the text and the image” (p. 296) to produce new meaning. Mihalache believes that multimedia technology, past and present, is imbued with aesthetic power and imagination necessary for meaningful production. He relates modern web experience to the function of Blake’s multimedia works in how both mediums “transform . . . events into lived, meaningful experiences” (p. 297). Through analyzing Blake’s multimedia work, Mihalache asserts a view of cyberspace as a place where spatial divisions are useless metaphors based on an the precept of connection.
While I agree that a false dichotomy exists between the ‘real’ and virtual, I find Mihalache’s explanations of interpreting cyberspace ironically narrow. William Blake’s multimedia art and his notions about the Web are powerful examples of interpreting cyberspace. However, in celebrating these metaphorical interpretations of William Blake, namely by rendering scientific notions useless, Mihalache perpetuates (perhaps unintentionally) the very thing he critiques: a false divide. Though Mihalache points to scientific and mathematical concepts to understanding cyberspace, he does so only to set up a hierarchal model that separates the aesthetic from the material. These ideas do not necessarily function independent of one another. Mihalache refers to Blake’s idea that the arts and sciences can exist, but only in “minutely organized particulars” (p. 296). Even Blake’s slight acknowledgment of the interconnectedness between the arts and sciences is further weakened by Mihalache’s commitment to argue against, for example, post-Newtonian ideas, which I believe can provide equally useful interpretations about what cyberspace is and how we can make meaning in, and of, the digital age. To this end, Mihalache seems to forget the peculiar idea that scientific concepts can be aesthetically meaningful. To better understand identity formulation and how knowledge production emerges from/within digitally connective processes, I argue for broader perspectives and insights that span across disciplines. Going forward, I will look toward various theories, disciplines, and practices to address the following research questions:
1) How does identity formulation happen and knowledge production emerge from/within digitally connective spaces?
2) How can we measure when identity formulation happens and knowledge production emerges in digitally connective spaces, particularly in the context of learning environments?
In-depth analyses that employ multiple disciplines and theories may inspire multi-method approaches to pedagogical and ethnographic practices (Leander & McKim, 2003). Notions that perhaps even Mihalache, in the spirit of William Blake’s works and ideas, can appreciate.
Leander, K. M. & McKim, K. K. (2003). Tracing the Everyday 'Sitings' of Adolescents on the Internet: a strategic adaptation of ethnography across online and offline spaces. Education, Communication & Information, 3(2), 211-240. doi:10.1080/14636310303140 Mihalache, A. (2002). The Cyber Space-Time Continuum: Meaning and Metaphor. The Information Society: An International Journal, 18(4), 293-301. doi:10.1080/01972240290075138