A Cyberspace Odyssey

I’m sure that last October 14, most of you were sitting in the eight-million-strong audience watching Felix Baum­gartner’s record-breaking jump live on YouTube. The 43-year-old Austrian skydiver float­ed for two hours in a pur­pose-built capsule towed by a helium balloon before taking a giant leap from 128,000 feet.

I watched him for an hour before the jump, on a 15-inch laptop screen, while sitting with three of my housemates in our kitchen while nibbling freshly baked apple cake.

“It’s just like a movie,” exclaimed Tobi. And it’s true, because the idea of watching a 21st-century daredevil fall through the clouds seemed more like science-fiction than reality.

My adrenals were pumping as though I was there, perched on his shoulder. Physically, I was in one place, but at the same time, I was totally immersed in another.

This dichotomy is experienced even more vividly when we’re online. So if we’re increasingly experiencing our world through various media, does it mean that life is becoming more virtual?

The history of media and technology has been driven by our quest for immediacy. The internet has refashioned and extended upon earlier media – mail became e-mail, telephone conversations turned into Skype calls, television and radio became YouTube and Spotify, and our printed photos became albums stored in the cloud.

Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells states that we are moving from virtual realities to real virtualities. He writes how, “we are not just on the screen through which experience is communicated, but we become the experience”.

The advent of new media has brought about a convergence of different dimensions of communication spanning the globe, which are blurring the boundaries between the real and the virtual realm. As a result of this, we Instagram our food to make our friends’ mouths water at lunch.

And we no longer have to wait for the evening news – social media and live blogs posted by citizen journalists take us directly on location, when and where the news is happening, in real time.

We also call our friends and relatives abroad for free and watch them as they speak to us. As a result, our experience of reality – the here and now – is affected on a sensory as well as on an experiential level. If we spend whole days on Skype with relatives abroad, this can alienate us from living the full reality of our physical surroundings, in turn making the physical world more virtual and the digital more real.

While watching Baumgartner hovering through the air, the conversation with my housemates turned to the concept of the internet. I asked my housemates whether they consider the internet to be real or virtual, to which I was met with quizzical looks as they pondered on answers which none of us had.

For most of us, any notion of how all this information arrives in our homes and workplaces is weirdly immaterial. The world behind the technology of the internet is something many of us fail to think about. It is taken for granted – we just don’t think about the why and the how. It just is.

Normally, we think about things when something goes wrong, like realising that your car runs on four wheels when you get a puncture.

In fact, journalist Andrew Blum started wondering what the internet was really made of when a squirrel chewed through a cable and knocked him offline. His recent publication, Tubes: A Journey to the Centre of the Internet (Ecco) is an account of his two-year quest to uncover the physical world on which our digital lives are built.

During a TED Conference in Edinburgh last June, Blum recounted how over the past decade, his relationship with the physical world and his surroundings has changed. He started realising how he is spending less time out in the world and more time sitting in front of his computer screen. He also observed how our attention is constantly divided between real and virtual, both from looking inside our screens and outside the world around us. What was striking to Blum was that the world inside the screen seemed to have no physical reality of its own – it was cyberspace.

Cyberspace is a transcendent idea that has changed everything from shopping to dating. We cannot spatially locate cyberspace or perceive it as a tangible object, yet it is still real in its effects. The word was first used in the mid-1980s by American-Canadian science fiction writer William Gibson and it is nowadays used as a metaphor for the internet to give ourselves a sense of space and orientation.

Our brains are driven by meaning, and when something is too abstract to comprehend, we need to ground it in concrete terms. Cyberspace has a strange physicality, a place where people, albeit disembodied, meet and exchange information. Thus, we can say that cyberspace is an electronic landscape incorporating two worlds – the sensorial world of organically human and the digitised immaterial world.

Blum further explains how to him, the world beyond the screen is a kind of Milky Way – we are so small when compared to the galaxy that we cannot grasp it in its totality. Moreover, by spending hours online, we are easily immersed in this parallel universe we call cyberspace and more often than not ignore our physical presence.

Blum uncovered much of the mystery behind cyberspace by visiting the physical places that make the internet a living reality, such as 60, Hudson Street, New York where, he says, the giant networks of the internet are housed. Blum also travelled to Portugal where he saw the undersea cables connecting Europe and America being fixed. “My search for the internet has therefore been a search for reality,” he writes in his book.

After Baumgartner landed safely, my housemates and I started to wrap up our discussion. Sybil’s initial reaction had been that, no, the internet is obviously not real. But then, her ideas became more nuanced once Ján suggested it is real because he could touch the servers.

It’s true that we have grown into such a hyper-mediated world that we do not even realise the inherent paradox between real and virtual. By the end of it, we decided that the world beyond our screens seems to be both real and virtual because the exchanges of information and experiences made online happen between humans.

As Blum puts it, “A journey is really understood upon arriving home. What I understood (is that) the internet wasn’t a physical world or a virtual world, but a human world.”

This article was originally published by The Sunday Times of Malta, Sunday January 13, 2013. The featured image belongs to The Internet Mapping Project.

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