Of Cyber Spaces:

The Internet & Heterotopias

1Postmodernity, as is its wont, conjures up new ways of thinking about everything, and it is no different with ideas about space. One such analysis is the idea of 'heterotopias'. Published in the French journal Architecture-Mouvement-Continuité under the title 'Des Espaces Autres', and subsequently published in English as 'Of Other Spaces' in 1986 was an essay written by Michel Foucault in the mid-sixties (see Soja). In it, he coined the notion of heterotopias -- 'absolutely Other and differentiated social Spaces'. The ideas he presented formed the basis of contemporary writings on the nature of space -- with many authors using it as a way into examining 'postmodern spacings'. Given that the Internet may be the archetypical postmodern space, how useful then is the idea of heterotopias in considering cyberspace?

2In his essay, Foucault contrasted his notion of Utopias -- idealised conceptions of society, impossible to locate in reality -- with the idea of heterotopias. These, he suggested, were Other spaces; socially constructed counter-sites:


There also exist, and this is probably true for all cultures and all civilisations, real and effective spaces which are outlined in the very institution of society, but which constitute a sort of counter-arrangement, of effectively realised utopia, in which all the real arrangements, all the other real arrangements that can be found within society, are at one and the same time represented, challenged and overturned: a sort of place that lies outside all places and yet is actually localizable.
(Foucault 351)

4 Foucault went on to present examples of heterotopias, and a set of principles which govern their existence; a kind of heterotopology. He suggested that every human culture is made up of heterotopias and in their description persists implicit social, moral and political oppositions such as private/public or pleasure/work.

5 He initially generalised two types of heterotopia. There are heterotopias of crisis, such as the boarding school or military service, where young men were banished to experience their initial adolescent sexuality. And heterotopias of deviance, such as rest homes, clinics and prisons where those considered abnormal could be spatially isolated.

6 Foucault also suggested that society can reshape existing heterotopias, so that they function in very different ways. The cemetery, for example, has changed from being a place of little importance, to one that is revered -- as western atheism has placed more emphasis on the dead body in contrast to older religious societies, whose understanding encompassed ideas of resurrection, and de-emphasised the physical container.

7Similarly, a heterotopia can juxtapose several contradictory spaces in a single real place. Such a place is the cinema, where many social spaces exist in the one physical location -- the two-dimensional screen projecting a three-dimensional space for the pleasure of a real life audience.

8Of course, heterotopias have a relationship to time. Places like museums and fairs can be defined by their respective biases towards chronology. A museum leans towards the eternal, a fair towards the transitory.

9As well, heterotopias contain within their spaces a system of opening and closing that isolates them -- and excludes those without the necessary permission to enter. Or only accepts those who have been forced into its confines.

10Finally, heterotopias have a function which places them between opposite poles. They create "a space of illusion that reveals how all of space is more illusory". And they form a space of compensation -- one that contrasts the utopias that otherwise exist.

11To Foucault then, heterotopias are conceived as socially defined spaces that embrace material and immaterial, and yet are located outside of all other places -- even though it may be possible to indicate their position 'in reality'. Indeed, his most concrete example may in fact be that of the boat, a floating space searching for new colonies -- themselves imagined heterotopias that represent most clearly the Other.

12With that example in mind, we can briefly explore the idea of framing the Internet as a heterotopic space. If we take as a given that the new communications and computing technologies have resulted in the formation of new social spaces, it is a relatively straightforward task to map this so-called cyberspace as a heterotopia. Some, such as McKenzie Wark, have done just that.

13Without holding cyberspace up to each heterotopic principle in detail, it is apparent that, at first blush, cyberspace contradicts none of the previously described Foucauldian principles. Cyberspace handily embraces notions of the other, limits access and presents contradictions of purpose, illusion, the imagination and deviancy. The romantic ideal of cyberspace as the Other World, conjured up in countless science fiction novels and articles in the popular press seems to confirm its heterotopic status.

14On closer inspection though, some (none too) subtleties emerge. Initially, cyberspace should not be thought of as a single space. Whilst the network is a kind of malleable, expandable, linked unity, the actual social spaces that result from its amorphous being are many in number and vary in both quantity and quality. The early cyberspatial constructs range from sex-based chat-rooms to commodified digital libraries and embrace almost every spatial possibility in between. Thus, not only can cyberspace as a whole be considered a heterotopia, but within cyberspace itself there must exist heterotopias -- and indeed utopias. Within this larger 'other' space, there must be a mosaic of normality and deviance, imagined and real, juxtaposed and otherwise, that reflects the social relations emerging in cyberspace. Within the colony of the Internet, there is an emerging complexity still to be explored.

15More widely though, the very idea of heterotopias suggests a problem with the definition of 'other'. Foucault's initial contrast between utopia and heterotopia was not particularly detailed and provided few clues as to how to locate the essence of difference. Whilst it is tempting to use the term 'heterotopia' as a catchcry for new conceptions of spatialisation, as a kind of postmodern reframing of space embracing generic notions of 'Other', it is perhaps a simplistic approach that produces little.

16As Benjamin Genocchio points out, "scouring the absolute limits of imagination, the question then becomes: what cannot be designated a heterotopia? It follows that the bulk of these uncritical applications of the term as a discontinuous space of impartial/resistant use must be viewed as problematic" (40).

17Or in this context, bluntly, what can be gained from suggesting that cyberspace is a heterotopia -- or even a heterotopic set?


The key lies perhaps in Foucault's final principle of heterotopia: Finally, the last characteristic of heterotopias is that they have, in relation to the rest of space, a function that takes place between two opposite poles. On the one hand they perform the task of creating a space of illusion that reveals how all of space is more illusory, all the locations within which life is fragmented. On the other, they have the function of forming another space, another real space, as perfect, meticulous and well-arranged as ours is disordered, ill-conceived and in a sketchy state. This heterotopia is not one of illusion but of compensation, and I wonder if it is not somewhat in this manner that certain colonies have functioned.
(Foucault 356)

19The suggestion here is that a heterotopian framing for an observation of cyberspace can be valuable. For example, the character of cyberspace -- the different social and individual constructs that are becoming visible in the so-called virtual communities -- forces us to reflect upon the other spaces that exist in our societies. The nature of the new spaces gives us overt clues as to the construction of our existing societies.

20Further, cyberspace is a new space -- a compensatory space, which exists in contrast to that initial reflective realm. Moreover, this particular new space has characteristics that allow it new freedoms of construction. Its lack of material constraints give rise to new ideas about risk, consequence and relationship. The ease with which rules (expressed entirely in malleable software schemes) can be changed alters ideas of existing social mores. And there are myriad possibilities, both intended and accidental, which will unfold as the power of the new technologies becomes apparent.

21It is early days yet. If the history of the Internet is paralleled to that of the motorcar, we live in an era just before Henry Ford introduced the Model T. As the story of cyberspace unfolds, new spatial conceptions -- new heterotopias -- will emerge that give rise to different social possibilities.

22Perhaps this is the point of heterotopias. Not that they exist as a way of categorising, but that as a way of examining social spaces, they give rise to new discourses about what those spaces are, how they arise and what they may mean. New discourses about knowledge, power and society. Which ultimately are reflected in the constitution of our human relationships.

23Just as the colonisation of the new world eventually shattered established western social conventions and changed the shape of the western world, the settlement of cyberspace may do the same.