What does the space created by the Internet look like? One answer to this question is to say that, because this space exists “virtually,” it cannot be represented. The idea of things that cannot be visually represented has a long history, ranging from the Romantic sublime to the Jewish God. A second, more prosaic, answer to the question of what cyberspace looks like is to imagine it as a diagram-like web. This is how it is represented in “maps” of the Internet. It appears as a mix of crosshatching, lattice-like web figures, and hub-and-spoke patterns of intersecting lines. This latter representation, though, tells us little more than that the Internet is a computer-mediated network of data traffic, and that this traffic is concentrated in a handful of global cities and metropolitan centres. A third answer to our question is to say that Internet space looks like its representations in graphical user interfaces (GUIs). Yet GUIs, like all graphical designs, are conventions. Such conventions leave us with the puzzle: Are they adequate representations of the nature of the Net and its deep structures? Let us suppose that Internet space can be visually represented, but that diagrams of network traffic are too naïve in nature to illustrate much more than patterns of data flow, and that GUI conventions may make misleading assumptions about Internet space, the question remains: What does the structure of this space actually look like? This question asks us to consider the intrinsic nature, and not just the representation, of the spatial qualities of the Internet. One powerful way of conceptualising this nature is via the concept of hyperspace. The term hyperspace came into use about a hundred years before the Internet (Greene, 1999; Kaku, 1995; Kline, 1953; Rucker, 1977, 1984; Stewart, 1995; Wertheim, 1999). In the course of the following century, a number of powerful visual schemas were developed, in both science and art, to depict it. These schemas were developed to represent the nature of four-dimensional geometry and tactile-kinetic motion—both central to the distinctive time-space of 20th-century physics and art. When we speak of the Internet as hyperspace, this is not just a flip appropriation of an established scientific or artistic term. The qualities of higher-dimensional geometry and tactile-kinetic space that were crucial to key advances in modern art and science are replicated in the nature and structure of space that is browsed or navigated by Internet users. Notions of higher-dimensional geometry and tactile-kinetic space provide a tacit, but nonetheless powerful, way of conceptualising the multimedia and search technologies that grew up in connection with networked computing in the 1970’s-1990’s.
The most common form of motion in computer-mediated space is via links between two-dimensional representations of “pages.” Ted Nelson, a Chicago-born New Yorker, introduced to the computer world the idea of linking pages (Nelson, 1992). In 1965, he envisaged a global library of information based on hypertext connections. Creating navigable information structures by hyperlinking documents was a way of storing contemporary work for future generations. Nelson’s concept owed something to Vannevar Bush’s 1945 idea of creating information trails linking microfilm documents (Bush, 1945). The makers of HyperCard and various CD-Rom stand-alone computer multimedia experiments took up the hypertext idea in the 1980s. Nelson’s concept realized its full potential with Berners-Lee’s design for the “World Wide Web” (Berners-Lee, 1999). Berners-Lee worked out the simple, non-proprietary protocols required to effectively fuse hyperlinking with self-organized computer networking. The result was hyperlinking between documents stored on any Web server anywhere in the world.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Haptic: Relating to the sense of touch
Multi-Perspectival Space: A spatial field viewed simultaneously from different vantage points
Metaphor: The representation, depiction, or description of one thing in terms of another thing
Web Server: A network computer that delivers Web pages to other computers running a client browser program
Virtual Space: Space that is literally in a computer’s memory but that is designed to resemble or mimic some more familiar conception of space (such as a physical file or a window or a street)
Hyperspace: Space with more than three dimensions
Design: The structured composition of an object, process, or activity