The n-Dimensional Village

Coming to Terms with Cyberspatial Topography

How to Cite

Bruns, A. (1998). The n-Dimensional Village: Coming to Terms with Cyberspatial Topography. M/C Journal, 1(4).
Vol. 1 No. 4 (1998): Space
Published 1998-11-01

These days, when we speak of the Internet, electronic networks, or computer-mediated communication (CMC) in general, the term 'cyberspace' all too readily presents itself as a blanket description of these communications systems. Without question it's an attractive and powerful metaphor -- and that "the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor" (Lakoff & Johnson 3) has by now been proven convincingly by the work of cognitive linguists. They have found that "metaphors serve to organise and interpret experience" (Closs Traugott 49), and so the influence, especially on users only just coming to terms with the Net, of an image of computer-mediated communication processes as taking place in a cyber-space of some description is immense: it's no accident that we speak of homepages and attempt to enter Websites and ftp servers, which in turn protect themselves from the outside cyberworld using firewalls.

In itself, that's no problem -- we need salient metaphors in order to conceptualise new realms of experience, and a spatial approach to experiencing the Internet comes naturally, given that in 'real life' we interact with a spatial world, after all; we're experts in understanding things through spatial analogies. All those analogies tend to be limited to three- (or, allowing for the temporal dimension, four-) dimensional spatial models, however -- most obviously in the science fiction literature that first popularised the term 'cyberspace', where writers like William Gibson describe the network matrix as a "transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity" (Gibson 68). Quite obviously, this form of cyberspace basically replicates the structures of the 'real' world: it's merely adding an easy changeability and a suspension of physical laws which material existence cannot offer, but sticking to three dimensions.

Outside the VR labs and slick computer graphics-heavy Hollywood movies, however, 'cyberspace' as we experience it today is far removed from such three-dimensional dreams. For the average Internet user, cyberspace has come to stand mainly for the World Wide Web, and here the deeply-ingrained 3D concepts the term conjures up serve to confuse rather than aid an understanding. At the most basic level -- that of the computer screen --, cyberspace inevitably appears in only two dimensions, of course, and it's hard to imagine one's clicking through a range of Webpages as an effortless glide over, or at least a walk through, the global village. On the other hand, with regards to organising the documents that make up that cyberspace, there is no reason why a three-dimensional approach should be favoured over one in any other number of dimensions: as calculating machines without the perceptually-determined preferences of humans, computers can think in four, five, n dimensions just as well as in three. Were we to force our 3D thinking on the machines, in fact, we'd probably end up limiting their usefulness (which in many cases is limited enough as it is).

The problem that cyberspace isn't simply a common, Euclidean 3D space is what frequently confuses its human visitors, though: like Homer J. Simpson stepping out of the 2D cartoon into the third dimension, we're disoriented, even frightened -- ask any novice Websurfer who is just trying to find their path through cyberspace. Jumping from site to site, the relative locations to one another of the places they visit remain unclear; 'how do I get to...' is one of the most frequently heard questions. Many of the paths through the Web are temporary, after all, and there are many unexpected shortcuts and hidden passages, as well as roadblocks and detours. Again, an overly three-dimensional conceptualisation obscures more than it describes here: while we may well regard the sites and servers of major organisations as the highrisers in the cyberspatial cityscape, entering them through the main foyer (the central Webpage) is just one of our many options: we might just as well 'materialise' directly in a basement room, as it were, by following a link to a specific page on the site, or enter the hidden thirteenth floor by jumping to a page that hasn't been publicised. Hyperlinks are our wormholes in cyberspace, defined only by their beginning and end, with an indefinite distance in between. How do you explain such feats to someone applying a strict 3D thinking to the Web? Stuck with the traditional options of three-dimensional experience, such a person wouldn't even think these actions possible.

That cyberspatial geometry is far from fixed makes the situation even worse. The perception of space crucially depends on understanding the relations between lengths, heights, depths, and locations, but in cyberspace the lengths, heights, depths, and locations depend on one's perception: Websites seem extensive or small to us depending exclusively on how much of them we've explored -- largely, this is because there is never any way to view a site in its entirety, simply because there is no vantage point in cyberspace from which to do so (we're always either immersed in a site, looking from within, or at an unknown distance from it, unable to see from without -- but never just close by, where we might survey the whole site). And our perception of relative location depends entirely on the available hypertext links we are aware of -- the sites listed in our bookmarks are merely a step away, nextdoor, but those we're only vaguely aware of and have to hunt through Yahoo! and other search engines for can be a very long way off. (But we can bring them into immediate proximity simply by adding a bookmark later on.) Finally, while we may change the geography of our cyberworld through our own interventions, attaching Webpages to our individual nets by way of links, these may also slip away again unnoticed -- like a boat from its moorings -- by relocating to a different server or by restructuring their site contents. The relatively stability of three-dimensional space in the 'real' world just doesn't translate to cyberspace.

These problems with the spatial metaphor for the Internet and the Web also affect other metaphors similarly grounded in three-dimensional experience. The most persistent and influential of these is the image of the 'global village' that was invented by Marshall McLuhan. This village model has inherited all the 3D limitations we've already seen, and additionally this particular three-dimensional arrangement also introduces further complications in that the idyllic and simplistic image the word 'village' conjures up hardly fits the confusing, contradictory, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and highly-populated nature of the Web -- calling this structure a 'global metropolis' seems to be at least some improvement over the 'global village' model (cf. Bruns sect. 4 bite 15ff.), as it opens up the possibility of individual suburbs with their own local identities, of a city centre with the major communal services, of internal politics amongst opposing factions of citizens, and of a number of outskirts areas with various connections to centre and outside.

Again, this thought construct necessarily falls short of describing Internet reality in its entirety, of course -- an even more accurate term than 'global metropolis' may be 'Western-hemispheral n-dimensional population centre of variable shape', but that's a bit of a mouthful, really, and so I'll stick with 'global metropolis' for now, adding the caveat that the apparent three-dimensionality of this image shouldn't be taken for granted. In this, interestingly, cyberspace perhaps isn't all that far removed from the 'real world' -- after all, modern physicists are increasingly convinced that there are more dimensions to the universe than the human eye may be prepared to see.

Author Biography

Axel Bruns