Right now, I’m about halfway through reading N. Katherine Hayles’ My Mother Was a Computer as part of my research for my utopias project.* Chapter five of this book can practically be called “Lessons from Cryptonomicon.” One of the things I like about applying ideas from literary theory to philosophy (in this case, its political and technological dimensions) is blurring lines between philosophy and fiction.
*More on the utopias project in one, or more likely several, History Boy posts.
My fiction projects are informed by my philosophical writings and explorations.** And Hayles reads Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon as a philosophical text about the nature of rebellion, authority, the bonds of friendship, and the complex connections that can run across the chaos of material history. What most interests me for this post, though, is a point she makes about one of the dreams of cyberspace: the internet as a place that exists on a different plane from physical reality.
**More on how my fiction is philosophical (and perhaps vice versa) in many, many future installments.
This is an old stereotype about the internet: that cyberspace is on some kind of different plane from real space, that the connections you make on the internet aren’t bound by old-fashioned limitations like physical contiguity. But really, that’s a sad, sad lie. Because the internet can link us so quickly with a huge variety of different places around the world, this idea has become prevalent in our culture that it doesn’t really exist in space. I think we now know how naive this notion really is, but it’s still part of our conceptual heritage when it comes to the internet, and it’s true in part. One reason the Arab Spring happened was because the dictatorial/totalitarian governments of the revolting countries couldn’t control people’s communication on the internet. But this was only because the servers the revolutionaries were using were in different countries.
Because the internet still has to have a place to be. Those files have to sit somewhere. It could be on a server farm in Sweden or Cupertino, or, as in Stephenson’s book, in an enormous cavern in an obscure Pacific Asian island sultanate. And those servers must still be physically linked to your computer through undersea cables and satellite signals. Physical places and physical connections, all of which are vulnerable to physical threats and accidents. Huge swaths of India lost internet access for days a few years ago because one ship was careless about where it dropped anchor and snapped a cable. No matter how idealistic and utopian we may feel sometimes about the potential of the internet when it’s at its best, we have to remember that it’s still a physical network of hard drives and wires. Our works are inescapably physical. Our knowledge never escapes media.
The problems that physical distances and locations can cause for communication and closeness are important for one of my fiction projects, but that’s for another time (and probably many more times after that).