Artbyte (New York) 1, no. 4 (October-November 1998), pp. 16-17
What does cyberspace look like?
Anyone who's been to a Web page knows what the Internet looks like from the point of view of an individual browser. Having given up waiting for the vertiginous three-dimensional datascapes imagined by William Gibson and promised by vrml, most surfers have resigned themselves, at least in the short term, to the beveled toolbars and scrolling pages of Netscape and Explorer. Here, though, I want to ask not what we now see as end users when we peer into our monitors, laptops, and cell phones, but what we would see if we tried to visualize the space between these peripherals. How would we draw a map of cyberspace?
The question is not just an exercise in visualization. Despite its etymological origin--the Greek word %kyberos%, meaning "helmsman"--cyberspace still leaves many visitors feeling adrift without landmarks to steer by. Orienting ourselves to an increasingly virtual world may be the first step in determining whether technology is empowering or manipulating us. As early as 1984, the neo-Marxist critic Fredric Jameson called for "cognitive maps" to remedy the disorienting effects of a global communications network controlled by multinational corporations.
Over the succeeding decade Jameson's call for cognitive maps has given rise to innumerable footnotes in academic journals--but very few maps. The reason may be that until the last few years so few people have had the hardware necessary to trace out global telecommunications networks. Thanks to the personal computer and modem, however, millions can now begin to triangulate their positions in the electronic wilderness we call the World Wide WebA number of online projects have recently sprouted up in an attempt to do just that.
These would-be charters of cyberspace face some challenges similar to those encountered by early cartographers of that other "New World." Proportions are difficult to gauge in a territory as vast as the World Wide Web; hence maps of cyberspace will necessarily vary in perspective and emphasis, just as the Massachusetts coastline loomed large in 16th-century English maps while the Florida coast loomed large in Spanish ones. Unlike their 16th-century predecessors, however, cybercartographers may find time a more daunting challenge than space. While John Cabot and Juan Ponce de Leon could assume for all practical purposes that continents stayed put once they were charted, the frenetic pace of Web site proliferation and domain name registration means that entire new cybercontinents surface while others sink on a monthly basis. (The more philosophical question of whether cyberspace is a mappable "space" in the first place will have to wait for another Cross Talk.)
To illustrate some strategies for dealing with these challenges, I'll mention four examples from CyberAtlas, the Guggenheim Museum's compendium of interactive maps of visual culture, as well as a fifth example created by the collaborative team I/O/D. (Readers interested in alternative approaches to mapping digital culture should check out OMNIZONE, a soon-to-be-launched project of Plexus founders Yu Yeon Kim and Stephen Pusey that offers essays and maps by various digital artists. For a bewitching collection of scientific maps of cyberspace, visit the Cybergeographies site curated by Martin Dodge of University College London.)
The most conservative approach is to chart the "loose coupling" between the Internet and the familiar geography of continents and coastlines. Back in 1996 when I charted Electric Sky, the first map in CyberAtlas project, the heavenly firmament of cyberspace had not been entirely detached from its terrestrial moorings. Apart from its aim of showcasing some of the most interesting art sites available at the time, this map served to reveal the academic and cultural liaisons across the globe that spurred the growth of such sites. While most museums, galleries, and other repositories for art remained firmly implanted in the soil, a few of the more adventurous institutions had established footholds on the Internet, usually by collaborating with a university or commercial server. Few institutions had bothered to register their own domain names; most Web addresses were nested aggregates like "http://www.razorfish.com/pace," which made it easy to discern the collaborations among institutions with physical anchor points (like Pace Gallery) and those with primarily virtual status (like Razorfish). Electric Sky depicts such collaborative networks as constellations, with stars for Web sites.
With the proliferation of servers and domain names over the past two years, a geographic map like Electric Sky is no longer appropriate to describe today's World Wide Web. But one conclusion of the Electric Sky map is still valid: If a nation's identity derives from the area enclosed by its borders, a network's identity derives from the links connected to its nodes. Now that institutional liaisons are less visible (and perhaps less relevant), which connections should a map foreground?
Intelligent Life, a map charted by Laura Trippi, emphasizes thematic connections between a selection of sites that explore the fertile analogy between digital technology and biology. Appropriately enough for this analogy, she chose for the layout of Intelligent Life the metaphor of a "neural net," a method of computer programming modeled on the interconnected neurons of the human brain. In Intelligent Life, developments in "input nodes" like biology, complexity theory, and computer science filter down to the "output nodes" of art, theory, and popular culture, where they are redirected and dispersed throughout the neural net. This gives rise to the interdisciplinary clusters of nodes pictured in the middle of the diagram, clusters with names like artificial life, remote sensing, and global evolution. Lines running between the nodes of the map hint at the formidable complexity of a multiply connected network--whether the brain or the Internet. Mutual influences are also the subject of Tim Druckrey's map Digital Techtonics, although here the influences operate over a field rather than over multiple linear connections. Digital Techtonics takes the form of a mutable landscape, in which Web sites constantly shift and realign themselves in response to each other's mutual influence. Sites dedicated to theory exert an upward pull on this landscape, attracting artists and critics toward higher and higher altitudes of abstraction. The weight of history, meanwhile, acts as a downward force capable of grounding its disciples in the past. If the cultural field produced by these constantly jostling influences is a landscape, it is one where the glacial pace of geological change has accelerated into electric overdrive.
Extension, a dynamic display of art-related Web sites selected by former members of the ada'web team, takes the depiction of influences among sites one step further by charting not just who's connected, but how. The existence of a link from one site to another is not, after all, a Platonic necessity; it is a deliberate choice by the master of one domain to affiliate with another, and is not necessarily reciprocated. Visitors to Extension who click on a particular site name--say, Rhizome--can choose to cluster the remaining sites in one of three ways: to see links into Rhizome; to see links out from Rhizome; or to see other sites that perform the same function as Rhizome (e.g., "reading room"). Extension's directed graph reminds us that the Internet reflects the social network of human players in the digital art world, where just because A is interested in B doesn't automatically imply the reverse.
All of the above maps have expiration dates. The selection of sites is a fixed curatorial decision, and their addresses are "hard-wired" into the maps themselves. Of course, an unavoidable result of the accelerated continental drift of cyberspace is that the addresses and links in these maps may go out of date with the passage of time. They are preserved in CyberAtlas as historical records of the very recent past: snapshots from a perspective, and of a cyberspace, that may no longer exist.
The Web Stalker, a project by the collaborative team I/O/D (Matthew Fuller, Colin Green, and Simon Pope), takes a different tack that ensures its maps will never go out of date. The Web Stalker comes with no preordained curatorial selection, but generates a different map each time. To begin, the user draws a blank rectangle on the screen, then loads a Web address. This page loads in a radically stripped-down format: raw html without frames, images, or other media. Once this page is loaded, the Web Stalker begins to trace out every link that this page connects to. The resulting map, generated on the fly by the Web Stalker's code, consists of circular nodes connected by line segments that connect to other circular nodes. The longer the user stays online, the more insanely complex the map becomes. This nimble project--essentially a lean, clean alternative to Netscape and Explorer--collapses the distinction between browser and map.
Of all the projects mentioned here, the Web Stalker is perhaps the closest mimic of the Internet's actual structure: it changes every time it is invoked, and it operates from the bottom up. Unfortunately, the Web Stalker's pre-programmed directive to map out feverishly every possible link to a given Web page, no matter how dull or irrelevant, makes it not very useful as a map. Perhaps someday we can look forward to maps of cyberspace that are both selective and self-generating. In the meantime the maps described above offer a glimpse of the space between the the nodes.
CyberAtlas can be found at cyberatlas.guggenheim.org. I/O/D's Web Stalker can be found at www.backspace.org/iod/. OMNIZONE is slated to premiere this fall at www.plexus.org/omnizone. Cybergeography can be found at www.cybergeography.com/atlas/websites.html .
[CAPTION FOR SMALL IMAGE WITH "art", "theory", "popular culture" CIRCLES AT BOTTOM:]
Laura Trippi, Intelligent Life
Interactive map at cyberatlas.guggenheim.org
Image courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
[CAPTION FOR BIG IMAGE WITH OVERLAPPING CIRCLES WITHOUT TEXT:]
I/O/D's Web Stalker in action
Web browser available at www.backspace.org/iod
Image courtesy of the artists