The ‘Cyberflâneur’ – Spaces and Places on the Internet

Cyberspace is a different form of space to personal space, bodily space, architectural space, or any space that can be conceived or perceived in tangible physical terms. It exists solely as bytes and bits on computer circuits and telephone lines. Cyberspace is Information Space, but is this space imaginary or real?

This largely unchartered space is not something that can be measured in centimetres or inches. In a way, it can be understood as a virtual reality, a type of alternative digital world, made by real people that we experience through manifestations on our computer screen. Information Space has become a very real element in our lives. But while it is possible to exchange views on the Internet, order a pizza, play games or do research, there are no real people in cyberspace. The ‘inhabitants’ of cyberspace have shed their bodies, they have become ‘ghosts in the machine’.

Living in Cyberspace

The way we ‘inhabit’ Information Space is different from the way we occupy our other living spaces. Of these spaces McKenzie Wark says that “we live every day in a familiar terrain: the place where we sleep, the place where we work, the place where we hang out when not working or sleeping. From these places we acquire a geography of experience.
We live also every day in another terrain, equally familiar: the terrain created by the television, the telephone, the telecommunications networks crisscrossing the globe. These ‘vectors’ produce in us a new kind of experience, the experience of telesthesia -perception at a distance. This is our ‘virtual geography,’ the experience of which doubles, troubles, and generally permeates our experience of the space we experience firsthand.
This virtual geography is no more or less ‘real’. It is a different kind of perception, of things not bounded by the rules of proximity, of ‘being there’.”1

Nicholas Negroponte, in his book Being Digital, argues along similar lines when he states that “in the same ways that hypertext removes the limitations of the printed page, the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in a specific place at a specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible.(…)
In the post-information age, since you may live and work at one or many locations, the concept of an ‘address’ now takes on new meaning.”

Are we are witnessing the deconstruction of the Bachelardian concept of domestic space? In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard himself stated that “inhabited space transcends geometrical space,” so if we are increasingly inhabiting Cyberspace, how is that affecting our physical spaces?. Perhaps we need to develop a ‘Poetics of Cyberspace’, a documentation of the move from ‘representational space’ or actual living space, to ‘representations of space’, or virtual space.

Besides the click of a mouse or pressing of keys, there is not much activity involved in traversing the Infosphere. But Bachelardian parallels to the physical world manifest themselves clearly in the language we use to describe these spaces: Referring to the on-line “community” we speak of the “Global Village”. We call information on the World Wide Web “homepages” or “sites” that have “addresses”. We refer to Information Space as the “Information Superhighway” (or Infobahn) and we “surf” the Net. The software applications we use to view the World Wide Web are called “browsers”, the most popular being Netscape, a name invoking the word ‘landscape’. A system to connect two incompatible networks is called a “gateway” and when two modems connect with each other to establish a ‘protocol’, we call it hardware “handshaking”. These terms seem to reflect a longing by the inhabitants of the Infosphere to clothe this new and somewhat alien space in comfortable Bachelardian terms, ie. by giving it a familiar name we familiarise the space itself -nomen est omen.

The Internet as a Public Space

The fact that you can find information on any topic in the world shows just how eager we are to ‘inhabit’ this virtual world. Anyone can inhabit cyberspace, express any view, post any information. There are no controls, it is largely self-regulating -perhaps cyberspace is the only truly democratic (or anarchistic?) realm on the planet, a “global village of electronic participatory democracy”.

Most of the information on the Internet is accessible to anyone with a computer and a modem. Even those without the hardware can go to a ‘Netcafe’ or even a public library to access the Net. But just how public is it? With public spaces one normally associates public places -places where people congregate, such as city squares, streets, shopping malls, galleries etc. While one can find such ‘places’ on the Internet, accessing them won’t entail meeting any other visitors and remains an anonymous activity. Newsgroups and ‘Chat rooms’ where people exchange ideas have a slightly different status. Here news and views are exchanged by typing messages into the keyboard. One still can remain unrecognised by other participants, and even take on different identities, as is often the case in MUDs, which are type based collective games.

As in the physical world there are restricted areas. One could use the analogy of the hierarchal pyramid to describe the structure of public accessibility: a broad base of publicly accessible information with tapering sides representing levels of increasing restriction on who may access them. Still, the base is very broad indeed. Not that this is true for the third world where net access is restricted to a privileged few or may even be non-existent. In this regard, the injustices of colonialism are reflected in cyberspace. The global distribution of information mirrors the global distribution of wealth.

The World Wide Web

The World Wide Web, which has become one of the most popular features of the Net, is of particular interest when discussing cyberspace and how we traverse it. The peculiarity of the Web lies in its building blocks, the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). This simple computer code allows a text on a ‘web page’ to contain ‘links’. A link will simply be the name of another web site, wherever that may physically reside (as bits on someone’s computer). By clicking on a link with the ‘mouse’, that ‘page’ will be retrieved by the browser and displayed on the screen. That new page will again have links to other pages. Because these links are made use of freely and there are so many of them criss-crossing the Internet, this part of the Net has been called the World Wide Web. One could go a step further and view these connections as a multi-dimensional grid on an x,y,z axis, a bit like the structure of a crystal. This affects how we experience cyberspace and in some cases develop signs of ‘addiction’.

While there are so-called ‘search engines’ where one can use keywords to search the Web, any starting point could lead through links to a site quite remote from the original, both physically and in content. Thus, surfing Webspace can be perceived as a form of ‘site hopping’, in a quasi random fashion, a ‘Gruen Transfer’ (a technique to entice impulsive shopping) of the Net. Similar to the “plaque tournante” of the Internationale Situationniste, hyperlinks can lead to “spontaneous turns of direction taken by a subject moving through these surroundings in disregard of the useful connections that ordinarily govern his conduct”.2This can constitute a danger particularly for ‘newbies’, who can spend hours daily, hopping from one site to another without really gaining much knowledge or even entertainment value, as sites can often be disappointing or contain quite different content from what the URL (address) seemed to indicate. Furthermore downloading times can be quite long, depending on congestion on the Net, so even more time is wasted, leading to an intensified experience of Cyberspace. One solution to this problem is to be selective of the vectors along which one travels the Infobahn, by accessing the Net in a more targeted way, using ‘search engines’, ‘yellow pages’ or ‘Net directories’ to find information one is actually interested in. Yet, some people get ‘hooked’.

Web Addiction

Anyone who has spent a couple of hours a day ‘surfing the Net’ can understand how that particular activity can become addictive. There are worlds to discover ‘out there’. But after the initial euphoria most people would find a ‘modus operandi’ for accessing the Net. Those who don’t might spend hours every day accessing useless information and getting quite frustrated in the process. The Web site ‘Webaholics Anonymous’ is testament to this. “Addicted? Hah! Not Me!!! I just live here…” is a typical comment that may sound humorous, but probably contains a grain of truth. Other examples of contributions to the ‘Webaholics’ page are “staying up till 2am has become a common occurrence since I’ve connected to the net!” or “I am terribly addicted to the internet, so much so that I spend more time on the internet than I do studying. Somebody please help me!!!”

While some of this may sound incredulous, on May 21st the Computer Age, in an article devoted to the topic, stated that “we are in danger of creating a generation of Internet introverts, (…) that use a cloak of computer-based anonymity” and “replace the day-to-day obligations created by social mores with the world they find inside a personal computer”. Internet Australasia Magazine took the matter seriously enough to publish an article entitled: “Is the Net Addictive?”(Jan 1996). Here cases of people spending up to 10 hours a day on-line are documented. The most addictive Net applications are recognised as MUDs and IRC. “A MUD or IRC channel is an escape from the normal world that allows people to masquerade under new identities or act in ways that would otherwise be impossible.” There are also those who check their e-mail obsessively. A qualified MD has even labelled these problems “Internet Addiction Disorder or IAD”. The general consensus is that Net addiction is setting in when being on-line begins to interfere with one’s normal everyday social life.

Transient Public Life on the Net

It’s a sign of post-modern times that we want everything fast: fast food, fast cars, fast shopping -life in the fast lane. This also applies to computers and the Internet. Consumers want faster computers, faster modems and greater bandwidth. In Wired magazine of May ’96 Paul Virilio refers to this growing speed of information transfer, as “speed pollution.” The faster processing of information is not a bad thing in itself, it is rather necessary to cope with the increasing amounts of the ‘commodity’ information. But the general phenomenon of ‘life in the fast lane’ does affect the way we navigate Webspace.

The sheer volume of information, even after selective measures, constitutes information overload. After subscribing to a newsgroup, I received more than 120 messages all at once. It took about an hour to wade through them to find the ones that were really of interest to me (there were few!). Similarly when searching for a topic on the Net, one may be confronted with seemingly endless sites that are of little or no use -information management on the Net can be a problem, although proper use of search engines (with the right keywords!) helps alleviate the problem. This can lead to a quick ‘scanning’ of sites to see if they contain useful information -a type of Internet speed reading. ‘Scanning’, or ‘info-grazing’ (and its TV equivalent ‘channel surfing’), as Negroponte calls it, is a technique most people who deal with large amounts of otherwise unmanageable information will know.

The problem of uninteresting sites is compounded through connection fees, which are typically measured by the time spent on-line and/or kilobytes downloaded. For those subscribers, experiencing the Internet can be quite frustrating and stressful, leading to a distorted perception of Information Space.

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