S t o r m i n g   D i g i t a l   H e a v e n
by Tal Brooke
SCP Journal, volume 19:4-20:1, Winter 1995, pp.4-17

A vast formless machine is quickly wrapping itself around the earth like a "virtual glove." It is being built from an endless array of electronic components whose power, range, and size is far greater than the sum of its parts, which weave across the planet like a neural network. This titanic but largely hidden structure is the nervous system of "cyberspace." Like the human nervous system, much of it lies underground, hidden in the flesh of the earth.

For the first time, this maze of electronic hardware extends the human nervous system across the globe. Its potential for altering the course of human history could echo that of the Gutenburg printing press which, for the first time in history, provided books to the masses. Until then, only royalty, the church, the aristocracy, and the academy had books, unique, rare, and penned by human hand. With the press, literacy expanded rapidly through this public conduit of information and ideas. Medievalism and feudalism were replaced by the Renaissance as the social order of the West changed. Today, computers, cyberspace, and the information superhighway could again change the social order, taking present day society fully into globalism as spatial distances collapse between previously divided groups.

The more rudimentary ancestor of cyberspace began in the last century with the telegraph machine laboriously sending out Morse code pulses along analog wires at so many words per minute. Later came the analog telephone system for voice transmission, allowing significantly more words per minute with the added quality of mood and personality over the transmission. The telephone started the great task of wiring the globe. Then microwave towers, satellites, and grand trunk cable came on the scene to transmit vast amounts of information across continental divides. Computer data entered this bit-stream. More recently fiber optic cable has come on the scene to replace copper wire -- and all of a sudden we have a digital capillary tube--copper wire--being replaced with an oil pipeline--fiber optic--upping the transfer rate, by analogy, from thumbnail amounts to millions of gallons per minute.

The powerful hardware that awakens the mechanical nervous system of cyberspace is the computer, the last interface with the human nervous system through eyes, ears, hands, and brains. Yet the hardware is lifeless without the human interface. Consciousness is the key.

In the words of Time special editor Philip Elmer-Dewitt, wires and cables and microwaves are not really cyberspace. They are the means of conveyance, not the destination; the information superhighway, not the bright city lights at the end of the road. "Cyberspace, in the sense of being 'in the same room,' is an experience, not a wiring system. It is, like Plato's plane of ideal forms, a metaphorical space, a virtual reality."1 Yet this new technology is only in its early hours of infancy on the earth.

The term "Cyberspace" was coined by William Gibson, a 44-year-old American science fiction writer living in Vancouver, who was wandering past the video arcades around Vancouver's Granville Street in the early 1980s. He saw teens intently hunched over video machines, and the idea of cyberspace hit him. Their eyes seemed frozen by this pale otherwordly light. Gibson turned the disturbing image into a novel, Neuromancer, the first novel to win SF's triple crown. It became a cyberpunk classic, attracting a computer savvy youth audience. According to Dewitt, "Critics were intrigued by a dense, technopoetic prose style that invites comparisons to Hammett, Burroughs and Pynchon. Computer-literate readers were drawn by Gibson's nightmarish depictions of an imaginary world disturbingly similar to the one they inhabit."2

In Gibson's fictional realm, cyberspace is a computer generated landscape that characters enter by "jacking in"--sometimes by plugging electrodes directly into sockets implanted into the brain. What they see when they get there is a three-dimensional representation of all the information stored in "every computer in the human system," great warehouses and skyscrapers of data.

In Neuromancer cyberspace is described as a place of "unthinkable complexity," with "lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding." This is an idealized vision of where cyberspace is heading.

At present, cyberspace teems with many millions of inhabitants all over the globe who send billions of signals across its electronic synapses. It includes, in the images of Dewitt, the rapidly expanding wireless services; microwave towers that carry great quantities of cellular phone and data traffic; communications satellites strung like beads in geosynchronous orbit; low flying satellites that will soon crisscross the globe like angry bees, connecting those who are too far- flung or too much on the go to be tethered by wires. Some day even our television sets may be part of cyberspace, transformed into interactive "teleputers" by so-called full-service networks like the ones several cable-TV companies (including Time Warner) are building along the old cable lines, using fiber optics and high-speed switches.

A Cornucopia of Information

But what can cyberspace actually do in its touted ability to transmit and navigate through oceans of information across the world?

In the Spring of 1995 I traveled from Berkeley to Cambridge, England over a period of almost a week, using cars, planes, trains, and subways to get to the Cambridge University library. I made the same trip by cyberspace, entering the same library in seconds through the Internet. The cyberspace visit cost pennies and was instantaneous. The physical visit and flight to England cost far more (yet had different and tangible rewards). Of course there were differences. In the real world I parked behind the Cam river on the back side of Trinity College and wandered around the perimeter of Clare College to the library. Books could be held and retrieved, but took time. In cyberspace, sifting through large number of books is much faster. Rather than writing a quote on a note card in the stacks, scratching the quote out with pen or pencil, one can download the text in a fraction of a second. Still, the Cambridge library--like our own Library of Congress--is far from getting all of its books in digital format, though the catalogs are digitized.

It is through the "World Wide Web"--the most powerful and sophisticated of the four Internet gateways (the others being Gopher and WAIS, FTP [file transfer protocol], and Newsgroups)--that it becomes simple and commonplace, for instance, to go from Berkeley to a town in Finland, to Rome, then Paris -- in seconds. This is called "surfing the Net." A work about Rilke or Cline at the Sorbonne can be found through cyberspace in far less time than crossing Paris on the Metro and working through the Sorbonne library system in person.

In cyberspace, a hundred page book, a color photo of the Great Pyramid, or a small software program can be "downloaded" into a computer's memory in well under a minute (On this end at SCP, via a 28,800 baud Global Village Teleport Platinum modem connected to a Power Macintosh 8100 that has 32 megs of ram, and a one gigabyte hard drive --- yes, a new language is emerging.). That is the magic genie aspect of cyberspace--seemingly instantaneous access to knowledge in bit streams of data that can lure you all over the world (and this is where less prepared minds can get trapped in cyberspace, as we will see later).

Yet this is only the beginning of the information explosion from the world's storehouse. A new interactive, indeed tactile, universe is emerging through cyberspace's most complex doorway, virtual reality. Rather than the still color images that most people get on the Web at the moment, it will be full immersion into a computer generated alternate reality. What the mind thinks, reality will become. What is presently holding things up is that computers need much more data access to bring this off. Right now, the world wide web can only give you "quicktime" movies on a computer screen. But one day, anyone will be able to put on a helmet and see wide spatial distances in full color in three dimensions.

Then three dimensional town meetings will take place, with levitating participants from around the world meeting in an electronic designer universe with any kind of backdrop conceivable. Although the participants may be in cities ranging from New Delhi to Bonn, they will be able to assemble together in a vast virtual space like Hindu gods gathering on some Bardo plane. Participants might decide to appear in designer-bodies -- for instance, the CEO of a global database corporation morphed part way into an ancient Boddhisatva from Tibet meeting another software giant who is morphed into Zeus, and so on. All of this lies in the near future as central processors, the brains behind computers (such as the Pentium and the Power PC) become much more powerful, and as storage and transmission become truly immense. We are already part way there.

The Exponential Process

If a Power Macintosh Risc processor 604 alone has more power than ten thousand Univac computers combined, what happens if millions of these Risc processors are connected? Few are able to sum up the vast scales of amplification that lie behind this new universe of digital power--utterly unknown in the 1940s--better than George Gilder, a kind of dean of the technological edge. We have seen the power of the computer chip not just in the individual case, but now interlinked as cells to a greater meta-chip. Gilder gives the following example:

The Emperor of China was totally infatuated with this new game of chess that had been invented for him. He was so grateful to the inventor that he came to him and said, "I'll give you anything you want in the kingdom as a tribute for this wonderful game you gave me."

And the inventor said, "Well, I want one grain of rice. I want one grain of rice on the first square of the chess board, which has sixty- four squares, then I want two grains of rice on the second square. Four grains of rice on the third square, eight grains of rice on the fourth square and so on."

In other words, this is an exponential process.

And the Emperor happily granted this apparently modest request, and everything went fine for the first thirty-two squares. He could produce the several billion grains of rice fairly well on a quarter square mile of rice fields. But after the first thirty- two squares, things began to get interesting.

There are two ways the story ends. One is, the Emperor went bankrupt because after sixty- four squares, this was several billion trillion grains of rice, which would take the entire surface of the earth, plus the oceans times two to produce. The other end of the story was that the inventor lost his head.

But in any case, to get some perspective on how this applies, Kurzweil estimates that by 1993 there had been exactly thirty-two doublings of computer power since the first digital computers were invented in the early 1940s. So we've now completed the first half of the chess board, where things really become interesting and where the Emperor began to take notice of this process.3

Rather than grains of rice, futurist George Gilder tells us that microprocessors are on the chess board--increasing in quantity and power.

As we proceed into the second half of the chess board, as Ray puts it, the personal computer is just going to blow away television and all these broadcast technologies associated with it.

... Early in 1993, both Bill Gates and Andy Grove, the world's leading experts on computer production, essentially, both projected a great year. ...Worldwide computer production in 1993 was nearly fifty million, almost 4% greater than most projections. This is a tremendous upside surprise.4

The fundamental particle of cyberspace is not the atom but the bit-- the binary digit, a unit of data usually represented as a 0 or 1. Nicholas Negroponte, director of M.I.T.'s Media Lab, observes that information may still be delivered in magazines and newspapers (atoms), but the real value is in the contents (bits). Bits are different from atoms, Negroponte observes, and obey different laws. They are weightless. They are easily (and flawlessly) reproduced. There is an infinite supply. And they can be sent across cyberspace at nearly the speed of light. When it comes to moving bits across the earth in this new nervous system, barriers of time and space disappear.5 Hence the Rilke passage from Paris to Berkeley in mere minutes, reproduced on the screen and downloaded, all in digital form. Pictures can be made digital as well, whether it is a "home page" on the "World Wide Web" with graphics and pictures (scenes out of the movie The Net, for example), or NASA's Jupiter probe sending close-ups of Jupiter in streams of digital data back to earth to be assembled from the outer reaches of cyberspace. NASA bulletin boards in cyberspace carry the latest space shuttle photos. Indeed, there are now declassified photos from several U.S. spy satellites available on the world wide web.

The Origins of Cyberspace

Thirty years ago, in "The Computers of Tomorrow," (Atlantic, May, 1964) Martin Greenberger wrote about an earlier prediction of computers: "Nineteen years ago, in the July, 1945. . . Vanneva Bush predicted that the "advanced arithmetical machines of the future" would be (a) electrical in nature, (b) far more versatile than accounting machines, (c) readily adapted for a wide variety of operations, (d) controlled by instructions, (e) exceedingly fast in complex computation, and (f) capable of recording results in reusable form."

The Internet evolved from a computer system built 25 years ago by the Defense Department to enable academic and military researchers to continue to do government work, even if part of the network were taken out in a nuclear attack. It eventually linked universities, government facilities, and corporations around the world, and they all shared the costs and technical work of running the system.6

Unlike most telephone transmissions, the Internet works on a "packet-switching" protocol. A packet-switching network is so decentralized that it is practically indestructible--the reason the Defense Department paid to create and expand the Internet, starting in the 1960s. Each message sent over the Internet is broken into its constituents--that is, into small units of data, or "packets." Each packet that is sent from your computer may take its own independent path to its destination, through different phone lines and connected computer networks. On arrival the packets, from a few to many hundreds, are reassembled into a complete message. This is a technical marvel, and it keeps the entire network as bottleneck-free as possible, since each packet follows a path that is, at the instant it departs, less crowded than all the others.7

The scientists who were given free Internet access in its early days quickly discovered that the network was good for more than official business. They used it to send each other private messages (electronic mail or E-mail) and to post news and information on public electronic bulletin boards (known as Usenet newsgroups). Over the years the Internet became a favorite haunt of graduate students and computer hackers, who loved nothing better than to stay up all night exploring its web-like connections and devising new and interesting things for people to do. They constructed elaborate fantasy worlds with Dungeons & Dragons themes. They built tools for navigating the Net -- like the University of Minnesota's "Gopher," which makes it easy for Internet explorers to tunnel from one place on the world network to another, or like programs that are able to locate a particular word or program from vast libraries of data available to Net users. More and more newsgroups were added, until the bulletin-board system had grown into a dense tangle of discussion topics with bizarre computer-coded titles, like alt.tasteless.jokes, rec.arts.erotica and alt.barney. dinosaur.die.die.die.8

Virtual Communities

What over 30 million modem-equipped computer users around the world have discovered is that cyberspace allows them to leap over barriers of time, place, sex, and social status and connect with strangers who share a particular obsession or concern. "We're replacing the old drugstore soda fountain and town square, where community used to happen in the physical world,'' says Howard Rheingold, a Berkeley-based author who has written a book on what he calls Virtual Communities.9

Along with Rheingold, the Bay Area is full of cyberspace visionaries, from Jaron Lanier, inventor of the term Virtual Reality, to the two main cyberspace magazines, Wired, based in San Francisco, and Mondo 2000, based in Berkeley. A large percentage of cyber visionaries worldwide happen to live in Berkeley. Many have their own habitats not too far from SCP. Inventive anarchy has always been in the air of Berkeley (which is why SCP remains in the belly of the beast). Berkeley also has a large population of computer wizards, hackers, and software gurus. The joke is that a large number of Berkeley's advanced hackers who barely know or talk to one another when they pass on the street probably gush with intimate confession once they meet anonymously over the Net (perhaps thinking the other person is in Norway rather than being a neighbor around the corner. A gasp at Berkeley's Cafe Roma on Bancroft: "You mean you're the Nirvanic Liberator? and that's Commander Cody?)

There has never been anything like this. People can be totally vulnerable with utter strangers. They can also project various kinds of assumed identities into this new social realm, like folks at a perpetual Beaux Arts ball changing masks, accents, and stories while constantly moving through faceless crowds and encountering an unending stream of strangers behind changing masks. You can be virtually anybody.

But these virtual communities in cyberspace have quickly created rapidly expanding virtual red light districts, ghettos of depravity, with meetings and deals being made. With an open gateway and no age limit, anyone can get in, as the cover of Time shows in its Cyberporn issue. Curious young minds can see it all. It is far worse than a pre-teen walking down Hollywood Boulevard and seeing open displays of hard core porn. This stuff is live and interactive, with predators on the loose reaching vulnerable young kids with names right out of The Exorcist: "Hi, Melinda, this is Captain Howdy." They might meet in kid cafe's or one of countless conference rooms set up to discuss a range of topics.

And it has created yet another social phenomenon, cyberspace runaways; not just kids leaving home, but this time kids being sent bus tickets by adults to rendezvous at secret locations. This is especially true among homosexual virtual ghettos. A "chicken hawk" on the Net can stake out some vulnerable lad with indeterminate sexual boundaries -- another symptom of our permissive era with its broken families and open mindedness about "alternative" lifestyles. Soon the child is recruited, initiated. A twelve year old boy flew from Seattle to San Francisco after being mailed a ticket by a gay pedophile. They met over the Internet. It probably went something like this:

"Hello there Jeremy. This is Batman looking for Robin. I have a picture in your mailbox." Jeremy then downloads a hexadecimal GIF file [alt.binary.erotica.pedophilia], watches it through a graphical interface....and ends up blanching like the kid on the cover of Time. It might be a scene of sodomy or something far worse, a shot of a San Francisco gay bathhouse in full swing ("anal justice," "rimming," etc.). Jeremy can then be instructed to go to various global bulletin boards that carry thousands of pictures that would not be allowed even in the most hard core adult stores in America. The stuff from Amsterdam and Copenhagen is especially bad. It's all available: bestiality, bondage, sadomasochism, kid porn. Jeremy's life suddenly takes a new turn, and he may never recover. He is defiled.

Time's Cyberporn issue of June, 26, 1995, gives one of many examples:

Ten-year-old Anders Urmacher, a student at the Dalton School in New York City who likes to hang out with other kids in the Treehouse chat room on America Online, got E-mail from a stranger that contained a mysterious file with instructions for how to download it. He followed the instructions, and then he called his mom. When Linda Mann-Urmacher opened the file, the computer screen filled with 10 thumbnail-size pictures showing couples engaged in various acts of sodomy, heterosexual intercourse and lesbian sex. "I was not aware that this stuff was online," says a shocked Mann-Urmacher. "Children should not be subjected to these images."10

How available is cyberporn? Martin Rimm, a Carnegie Mellon research associate working on a study of pornography in cyberspace found out the answer. He used Carnegie Mellon computers to download 917,000 dirty pictures that ranged "from simple nudity to pictures of men and women having sex with animals. He tracked how often the pictures had been downloaded, or called up by a computer user -- 6.4 million times."11 And that is not all of the Internet, not by a long shot.

The world's galleries in cyberspace bustle with activity like Manhattan on a Saturday night, with everybody up and partying. It seems a perfect cure for loneliness. Singles can meet over the Net. Or, you can surf through the various conference rooms, clubhouses, and gatherings and end up in the strangest places. A curious teen can plug into a bulletin board called "alt.witchcraft," and attend a virtual coven. He can also find out where a live coven meets in his geographical locale. It is an instant connection, a sort of Manhattan transfer, from gallery to gallery. Those who want to check out Satanism, where to buy the drug ecstasy, or find out where the next all night Rave concert is in Menlo Park can do it. This push to explore the Net is partly driven by the fact that everybody is faceless, anonymous. Like the Billy Idol song, the participants are "eyes without a face" and remain truly anonymous until they decide to meet in the flesh.

And while anonymous intimacy grows on the Internet, friends and intimates in the real world are often put on hold as a new sort of addiction grows among those who have tasted the Internet. Irwin Winkler, who produced the movie The Net, which is among a new wave of cyberspace intrigue films released in the summer of 1995 (others are Virtuosity and Johnny Mnemonic), now describes himself as an "Internet widower," with a wife who has been disappearing for long hours on the Net. Once greeted cheerfully with martini and meal prepared, Winkler is now all but ignored by his wife when he comes through the door. His wife stares transfixed at a computer screen, while navigating the world wide web, barely acknowledging his presence.

For the rest of this article and the four other articles included in the Cyberspace Journal Cyberspace -- Storming Digital Heaven.

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