The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace                            Michael Heim

This is a chapter from Michael Heim's book The Metaphysics of Virtual
Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993: 82-108).


Cyberspace is more than a breakthrough in electronic media or in computer
interface design. With its virtual environments and simulated worlds,
cyberspace is a metaphysical laboratory, a tool for examining our very sense
of reality.

When designing virtual worlds, we face a series of reality questions. How,
for instance, should users appear to themselves in a virtual world? Should
they appear to themselves in cyberspace as one set of objects among others,
as third-person bodies that users can inspect with detachment? Or should
users feel themselves to be headless fields of awareness, similar to our
phenomenological experience? Should causality underpin the cyberworld so
that an injury inflicted on the user's cyberbody likewise somehow damages
the user's physical body? And who should make the ongoing design decisions?
If the people who make simulations inevitably incorporate their own
perceptions and beliefs, loading cyberspace with their prejudices as well as
their insights, who should build the cyberworld? Should multiple users at
any point be free to shape the qualities and dimensions of cyber entities?
Should artistic users roam freely, programming and directing their own
unique cyber cinemas that provide escape from the mundane world? Or does
fantasy cease where the economics of the virtual workplace begins? But why
be satisfied with a single virtual world? Why not several? Must we pledge
allegiance to a single reality? Perhaps worlds should be layered like onion
skins, realities within realities, or be loosely linked like neighborhoods,
permitting free aesthetic pleasure to coexist with the task-oriented
business world. Does the meaning of "reality"--and the keen existential edge
of experience--weaken as it stretches over many virtual worlds?

Important as these questions are, they do not address the ontology of
cyberspace itself, the question of what it means to be in a virtual world,
whether one's own or another's world. They do not probe the reality status
of our metaphysical tools or tell us why we invent virtual worlds. They are
silent about the essence or soul of cyberspace. How does the metaphysical
laboratory fit into human inquiry as a whole? What status do electronic
worlds have within the entire range of human experience? What perils haunt
the metaphysical origins of cyberspace?

In what follows, I explore the philosophical significance of cyberspace. I
want to show the ontological origin from which cyber entities arise and then
indicate the trajectory they seem to be on. The ontological question, as I
see it, requires a two-pronged answer. We need to give an account of (1) the
way entities exist within cyberspace and (2) the ontological status of
cyberspace--the construct, the phenomenon--itself. The way in which we
understand the ontological structure of cyberspace will determine how
realities can exist within it. But the structure of cyberspace becomes clear
only once we appreciate the distinctive way in which things appear within
it. So we must begin with the entities we experience within the computerized
environment.

My approach to cyberspace passes first through the ancient idealism of Plato
and moves onward through the modern metaphysics of Leibniz. By connecting
with intellectual precedents and prototypes, we can enrich our
self-understanding and make cyberspace function as a more useful
metaphysical laboratory.

Our Marriage to Technology

The phenomenal reality of cyber entities exists within a more general
fascination with technology, and the fascination with technology is akin to
aesthetic fascination. We love the simple, clear-cut linear surfaces that
computers generate. We love the way that computers reduce complexity and
ambiguity, capturing things in a digital network, clothing them in beaming
colors, and girding them with precise geometrical structures. We are
enamored of the possibility of controlling all human knowledge. The appeal
of seeing society's data structures in cyberspace--if we begin with William
Gibson's vision--is like the appeal of seeing the Los Angeles metropolis in
the dark at five thousand feet: a great warmth of powerful, incandescent
blue and green embers with red stripes that beckons the traveler to come
down from the cool darkness. We are the moths attracted to flames, and
frightened by them too, for there may be no home behind the lights, no
secure abode behind the vast glowing structures. There are only the fiery
objects of dream and longing.

Our love affair with computers, computer graphics, and computer networks
runs deeper than aesthetic fascination and deeper than the play of the
senses. We are searching for a home for the mind and heart. Our fascination
with computers is more erotic than sensuous, more spiritual than
utilitarian. Eros, as the ancient Greeks understood, springs from a feeling
of insufficiency or inadequacy. Whereas the aesthete feels drawn to casual
play and dalliance, the erotic lover reaches out to a fulfillment far beyond
aesthetic detachment.

The computer's allure is more than utilitarian or aesthetic; it is erotic.
Instead of a refreshing play with surfaces, as with toys or amusements, our
affair with information machines announces a symbiotic relationship and
ultimately a mental marriage to technology. Rightly perceived, the
atmosphere of cyberspace carries the scent that once surrounded Wisdom. The
world rendered as pure information not only fascinates our eyes and minds,
but also captures our hearts. We feel augmented and empowered. Our hearts
beat in the machines. This is Eros.

Cyberspace entities belong to a broad cultural phenomenon of the last third
of the twentieth century: the phenomenon of computerization. Something
becomes a phenomenon when it arrests and holds the attention of a
civilization. Only then does our shared language articulate the presence of
the thing so that it can appear in its steady identity as the moving stream
of history.

Because we are immersed in everyday phenomena, however, we usually miss
their overall momentum and cannot see where they are going or even what they
truly are. A writer like William Gibson helps us grasp what is phenomenal in
current culture because he captures the forward movement of our attention
and shows us the future as it projects its claim back into our present. Of
all writers, Gibson most clearly reveals the intrinsic allure of
computerized entities, and his books--Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa
Overdrive--point to the near-future, phenomenal reality of cyberspace.
Indeed, Gibson coined the word cyberspace.

The Romance of Neuromancer

For Gibson, cyber entities appear under the sign of Eros. The fictional
characters of Neuromancer experience the computer matrix--cyberspace--as a
place of rapture and erotic intensity, of powerful desire and even
self-submission. In the matrix, things attain a supervivid hyper-reality.
Ordinary experience seems dull and unreal by comparison. Case, the data
wizard of Neuromancer, awakens to an obsessive Eros that drives him back
again and again to the information network:

 A year [in Japan] and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly.... [S]till he'd see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void.... [H]e was no [longer] console man, no cyberspace cowboy.... But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he'd cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab, . . . trying to reach the console that wasn't there.[1]

The sixteenth-century Spanish mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila
used a similar point of reference. Seeking words to connote the taste of
spiritual divinity, they reached for the language of sexual ecstasy. They
wrote of the breathless union of meditation in terms of the ecstatic
blackout of consciousness, the llama de amor viva piercing the interior
center of the soul like a white-hot arrow, the cauterio suave searing
through the dreams of the dark night of the soul. Similarly, the intensity
of Gibson's cyberspace inevitably conjures up the reference to orgasm, and
vice versa:

 Now she straddled him again, took his hand, and closed it over her, his thumb along the cleft of her buttocks, his fingers spread across the labia. As she began to lower herself, the images came pulsing back, the faces, fragments of neon arriving and receding. She slid down around him and his back arched convulsively. She rode him that way, impaling herself, slipping down on him again and again, until they both had come, his orgasm flaring blue in a timeless space, a vastness like the matrix, where the faces were shredded and blown away down hurricane corridors, and her inner thighs were strong and wet against his hips.[2]

But the orgasmic connection does not mean that Eros's going toward
cyberspace entities terminates in a merely physiological or psychological
reflex. Eros goes beyond private, subjective fantasies. Cyber Eros stems
ultimately from the ontological drive highlighted long ago by Plato.
Platonic metaphysics helps clarify the link between Eros and computerized
entities.

In her speech in Plato's Symposium, Diotima, the priestess of love, teaches
a doctrine of the escalating spirituality of the erotic drive. She tracks
the intensity of Eros continuously from bodily attraction all the way to the
mental attention of mathematics and beyond. The outer reaches of the
biological sex drive, she explains to Socrates, extend to the mental realm
where we continually seek to expand our knowledge.

On the primal level, Eros is a drive to extend our finite being, to prolong
something of our physical selves beyond our mortal existence. But Eros does
not stop with the drive for physical extension. We seek to extend ourselves
and to heighten the intensity of our lives in general through Eros. The
psyche longs to perpetuate itself and to conceive offspring, and this it can
do, in a transposed sense, by conceiving ideas and nurturing awareness in
the minds of others as well as our own. The psyche develops consciousness by
formalizing perceptions and stabilizing experiences through clearly defined
entities. But Eros motivates humans to see more and to know more deeply. So,
according to Plato, the fully explicit formalized identities of which we are
conscious help us maintain life in a "solid state," thereby keeping
perishability and impermanence at bay.

Only a short philosophical step separates this Platonic notion of knowledge
from the matrix of cyberspace entities. (The word matrix, of course, stems
from the Latin for "mother," the generative-erotic origin). A short step in
fundamental assumptions, however, can take centuries, especially if the step
needs hardware support. The hardware for implementing Platonically
formalized knowledge took centuries. Underneath, though, runs an ontological
continuity, connecting the Platonic knowledge of ideal forms to the
information systems of the matrix. Both approaches to cognition first extend
and then renounce the physical embodiment of knowledge. In both, Eros
inspires humans to outrun the drag of the "meat"--the flesh--by attaching
human attention to what formally attracts the mind. As Platonists and
Gnostics down through the ages have insisted, Eros guides us to Logos.

The erotic drive, however, as Plato saw it, needs education to attain its
fulfillment. Left on its own, Eros naturally goes astray on any number of
tangents, most of which come from sensory stimuli. In the Republic, Plato
tells the well-known story of the Cave in which people caught in the prison
of everyday life learn to love the fleeting, shadowy illusions projected on
the walls of the dungeon of the flesh. With their attention forcibly fixed
on the shadowy moving images cast by a flickering physical fire, the
prisoners passively take sensory objects to be the highest and most
interesting realities. Only later, when the prisoners manage to get free of
their corporeal shackles, do they ascend to the realm of active thought,
where they enjoy the shockingly clear vision of real things, things present
not to the physical eyes but to the mind's eye. Only by actively processing
things through mental logic, according to Plato, do we move into the upper
air of reliable truth, which is also a lofty realm of intellectual beauty
stripped of the imprecise impressions of the senses. Thus the liberation
from the Cave requires a reeducation of human desires and interests. It
entails a realization that what attracts us in the sensory world is no more
than an outer projection of ideas we can find within us. Education must
redirect desire toward the formally defined, logical aspects of things.
Properly trained, love guides the mind to the well-formed, mental aspects of
things.

Cyberspace is Platonism as a working product. The cybernaut seated before
us, strapped into sensory-input devices, appears to be, and is indeed, lost
to this world. Suspended in computer space, the cybernaut leaves the prison
of the body and emerges in a world of digital sensation.

This Platonism is thoroughly modern, however. Instead of emerging in a
sensationless world of pure concepts, the cybernaut moves among entities
that are well formed in a special sense. The spatial objects of cyberspace
proceed from the constructs of Platonic imagination not in the same sense
that perfect solids or ideal numbers are Platonic constructs, but in the
sense that inFORMation in cyberspace inherits the beauty of Platonic FORMS.
The computer recycles ancient Platonism by injecting the ideal content of
cognition with empirical specifics. Computerized representation of
knowledge, then, is not the direct mental insight fostered by Platonism. The
computer clothes the details of empirical experience so that they seem to
share the ideality of the stable knowledge of the Forms. The mathematical
machine uses a digital mold to reconstitute the mass of empirical material
so that human consciousness can enjoy an integrity in the empirical data
that would never have been possible before computers. The notion of ideal
Forms in early Platonism has the allure of a perfect dream. But the ancient
dream remained airy, a landscape of genera and generalities, until the
hardware of information retrieval came to support the mind's quest for
knowledge. Now, with the support of the electronic matrix, the dream can
incorporate the smallest details of here-and-now existence. With an
electronic infrastructure, the dream of perfect FORMS becomes the dream of
inFORMation.

Filtered through the computer matrix, all reality becomes patterns of
information. When reality becomes indistinguishable from information, then
even Eros fits the schemes of binary communication. Bodily sex appears to be
no more than an exchange of signal blips on the genetic corporeal network.
Further, the erotic-generative source of formal idealism becomes subject to
the laws of information management. Just as the later Taoists of ancient
China created a yin-yang cosmology that encompassed sex, cooking, weather,
painting, architecture, martial arts, and the like, so too the computer
culture interprets all knowable reality as transmissible information. The
conclusion of Neuromancer shows us the transformation of sex and personality
into the language of information:

 There was a strength that ran in her, . . . [s]omething he'd found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew--he remembered--as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read. . . . [H]e broke [the zipper], some tiny metal part shooting off against the wall as salt-rotten cloth gave, and then he was in her, effecting the transmission of the old message. Here, even here, in a place he knew for what it was, a coded model of some stranger's memory, the drive held. She shuddered against him as the stick caught fire, a leaping flare that threw their locked shadows across the bunker wall.[3]

The dumb meat once kept sex private, an inner sanctum, an opaque, silent,
unknowable mystery. The sexual body held its genetic information with the
strength of a blind, unwavering impulse. What is translucent you can
manipulate, you can see. What stays opaque you cannot scrutinize and
manipulate. It is an alien presence. The meat we either dismiss or come up
against; we cannot ignore it. It remains something to encounter. Yet here,
in Neuromancer, the protagonist, Case, makes love to a sexual body named
Linda. Who is this Linda?

Gibson raises the deepest ontological question of cyberspace by suggesting
that the Neuromancer master-computer simulates the body and personality of
Case's beloved. A simulated, embodied personality provokes the sexual
encounter. Why? Perhaps because the cyberspace system, which depends on the
physical space of bodies for its initial impetus, now seeks to undermine the
separate existence of human bodies that make it dependent and secondary. The
ultimate revenge of the information system comes when the system absorbs the
very identity of the human personality, absorbing the opacity of the body,
grinding the meat into information, and deriding erotic life by reducing it
to a transparent play of puppets. In an ontological turnabout, the computer
counterfeits the silent and private body from which mental life originated.
The machinate mind disdainfully mocks the meat. Information digests even the
secret recesses of the caress. In its computerized version, Platonic Eros
becomes a master of artificial intelligence, CYBEROS, the controller, the
Neuromancer.

The Inner Structure of Cyberspace

Aware of the phenomenal reality of cyber entities, we can now appreciate the
backdrop that is cyberspace itself. We can sense a distant source radiating
an all-embracing power. For the creation of computerized entities taps into
the most powerful of our psychobiological urges. Yet so far, this account of
the distant source as Eros tells only half the story. For although Platonism
provides the psychic makeup for cyberspace entities, only modern philosophy
shows us the structure of cyberspace itself.

In its early phases--from roughly 400 B.C. to A.D. 1600-- Platonism
exclusively addressed the speculative intellect, advancing a verbal-mental
intellectuality over physical actuality. Later, Renaissance and modern
Platonists gradually injected new features into the model of intelligence.
The modern Platonists opened up the gates of verbal-spiritual understanding
to concrete experiments set in empirical space and time. The new model of
intelligence included the evidence of repeatable experience and the gritty
details of experiment. For the first time, Platonism would have to absorb
real space and real time into the objects of its contemplation.

The early Platonic model of intelligence considered space to be a mere
receptacle for the purely intelligible entities subsisting as ideal forms.
Time and space were refractive errors that rippled and distorted the mental
scene of perfect unchanging realities. The bouncing rubber ball was in
reality a round object, which was in reality a sphere, which was in reality
a set of concentric circles, which could be analyzed with the precision of
Euclidian geometry. Such a view of intelligence passed to modern Platonists,
and they had to revise the classical assumptions. Thinkers and
mathematicians would no longer stare at the sky of unchanging ideals. By
applying mathematics to empirical experiment, science would absorb physical
movement in space/time through the calculus. Mathematics transformed the
intelligent observer from a contemplator to a calculator. But as long as the
calculator depended on feeble human memory and scattered printed materials,
a gap would still stretch between the longing and the satisfaction of
knowledge. To close the gap, a computational engine was needed.

Before engineering an appropriate machine, the cyberspace project needed a
new logic and a new metaphysics. The new logic and metaphysics of modernity
came largely from the work of Gottfried Leibniz. In many ways, the later
philosophies of Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger took their
bearings from Leibniz.

As Leibniz worked out the modern Idealist epistemology, he was also
experimenting with protocomputers. Pascal's calculator had been no more than
an adding machine; Leibniz went further and produced a mechanical calculator
that could also, by using stepped wheels, multiply and divide. The basic
Leibnizian design became the blueprint for all commercial calculators until
the electronics revolution of the 1970s. Leibniz, therefore, is one of the
essential philosophical guides to the inner structure of cyberspace. His
logic, metaphysics, and notion of representational symbols show us the
hidden underpinnings of cyberspace. At the same time, his monadological
metaphysics alerts us to the paradoxes that are likely to engulf
cyberspace's future inhabitants.

Leibniz's Electric Language

Leibniz was the first to conceive of an "electric language," a set of
symbols engineered for manipulation at the speed of thought. His De arte
combinatoria (1666) outlines a language that became the historical
foundation of contemporary symbolic logic. Leibniz's general outlook on
language also became the ideological basis for computer-mediated
telecommunications. A modern Platonist, Leibniz dreamed of the matrix.

The language that Leibniz outlined is an ideographic system of signs that
can be manipulated to produce logical deductions without recourse to natural
language. The signs represent primitive ideas gleaned from prior analysis.
Once broken down into primitives and represented by stipulated signs, the
component ideas can be paired and recombined to fashion novel
configurations. In this way, Leibniz sought to mechanize the production of
new ideas. As he described it, the encyclopedic collection and definition of
primitive ideas would require the coordinated efforts of learned scholars
from all parts of the civilized world. The royal academies that Leibniz
promoted were the group nodes for an international republic of letters, a
universal network for problem solving.

Leibniz believed all problems to be, in principle, soluble. The first step
was to create a universal medium in which conflicting ideas could coexist
and interrelate. A universal language would make it possible to translate
all human notions and disagreements into the same set of symbols. His
universal character set, characteristica universalis, rests on a binary
logic, one quite unlike natural discourse in that it is neither restricted
by material content nor embodied in vocalized sound. Contentless and silent,
the binary language can transform every significant statement into the terms
of a logical calculus, a system for proving argumentative patterns valid or
invalid, or at least for connecting them in a homogeneous matrix. Through
the common binary language, discordant ways of thinking can exist under a
single roof. Disagreements in attitude or belief, once translated into
matching symbols, can later yield to operations for ensuring logical
consistency. To the partisans of dispute, Leibniz would say, "Let us upload
this into our common system, then let us sit down and calculate." A single
system would encompass all the combinations and permutations of human
thought. Leibniz longed for his symbols to foster unified scientific
research throughout the civilized world. The universal calculus would
compile all human culture, bringing every natural language into a single
shared database.

Leibniz's binary logic, disembodied and devoid of material content, depends
on an artificial language remote from the words, letters, and utterances of
everyday discourse. This logic treats reasoning as nothing more than a
combining of signs, as a calculus. Like mathematics, the Leibnizian symbols
erase the distance between the signifiers and the signified, between the
thought seeking to express and the expression. No gap remains between symbol
and meaning. Given the right motor, the Leibnizian symbolic logic--as
developed later by George Boole, Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North
Whitehead and then applied to electronic switching circuitry by Shannon--can
function at the speed of thought. At such high speed, the felt semantic
space closes between thought, language, and the thing expressed. Centuries
later, John von Neumann applied a version of Leibniz's binary logic when
building the first computers at Princeton.

In his search for a universal language of the matrix, Leibniz to some extent
continued a premodern, medieval tradition. For behind his ideal language
stands a premodern model of human intelligence. The medieval Scholastics
held that human thinking, in its pure or ideal form, is more or less
identical with logical reasoning. Reasoning functions along the lines of a
superhuman model who remains unaffected by the vagaries of feelings and
spatiotemporal experience. Human knowledge imitates a Being who knows things
perfectly and knows them in their deductive connections. The omniscient
Being transcends finite beings. Finite beings go slowly, one step at a time,
seeing only moment by moment what is happening. On the path of life, a
finite being cannot see clearly the things that remain behind on the path or
the things that are going to happen after the next step. A divine mind, on
the contrary, oversees the whole path. God sees all the trails below,
inspecting at a single glance every step traveled, what has happened, and
even what will happen on all possible paths below. God views things from the
perspective of the mountaintop of eternity.

Human knowledge, thought Leibniz, should emulate this visio dei, this
omniscient intuitive cognition of the deity. Human knowledge strives to know
the way that a divine or an infinite Being knows things. No temporal
unfolding, no linear steps, no delays limit God's knowledge of things. The
temporal simultaneity, the all-at-once-ness of God's knowledge serves as a
model for human knowledge in the modern world as projected by the work of
Leibniz. What better way, then, to emulate God's knowledge than to generate
a virtual world constituted by bits of information? To such a cyberworld
human beings could enjoy a God-like instant access. But if knowledge is
power, who would handle the controls that govern every single particle of
existence?

The power of Leibniz's modern logic made traditional logic seem puny and
inefficient by comparison. For centuries, Aristotle's logic had been taught
in the schools. Logic traditionally evaluated the steps of finite human
thought, valid or invalid, as they occur in arguments in natural language.
Traditional logic stayed close to spoken natural language. When modern logic
absorbed the steps of Aristotle's logic into its system of symbols, modern
logic became a network of symbols that could apply equally to electronic
switching circuits as to arguments in natural language. Just as
non-Euclidian geometry can set up axioms that defy the domain of real
circles (physical figures), so too modern logic freed itself of any
naturally given syntax. The universal logical calculus could govern computer
circuits.

Leibniz's "electric language" operates by emulating the divine intelligence.
God's knowledge has the simultaneity of all-at-onceness, and so in order to
achieve a divine access to things, the global matrix functions like a net to
trap all language in an eternal present. Because access need not be linear,
cyberspace does not, in principle, require a jump from one location to
another. Science fiction writers have often imagined what it would be like
to experience traveling at the speed of light, and one writer, Isaac Asimov,
described such travel as a "jump through hyperspace." When his fictional
space ship hits the speed of light, Asimov says that the ship makes a
special kind of leap. At that speed, it is impossible to trace the discrete
points of the distance traversed. In the novel The Naked Sun, Asimov depicts
movement in hyperspace:

 There was a queer momentary sensation of being turned inside out. It lasted an instant and Baley knew it was a Jump, that oddly incomprehensible, almost mystical, momentary transition through hyperspace that transferred a ship and all it contained from one point in space to another, light years away. Another lapse of time and another Jump, still another lapse, still another Jump.[4]

Like the fictional hyperspace, cyberspace unsettles the felt logical
tracking of the human mind. Cyberspace is the perfect computer environment
for accessing hypertext if we include all human perceptions as the "letters"
of the "text." In both hyperspace and hypertext, linear perception loses
track of the series of discernible movements. With hypertext, we connect
things at the speed of a flash of intuition. The interaction with hypertext
resembles movement beyond the speed of light. Hypertext reading and writing
supports the intuitive leap over the traditional step-by-step logical chain.
The jump, not the step, is the characteristic movement in hypertext. As the
environment for sensory hypertext, cyberspace feels like transportation
through a frictionless, timeless medium. There is no jump because everything
exists, implicitly if not actually, all at once. To understand this
lightning speed and its perils for finite beings, we must look again at the
metaphysics of Leibniz.

Monads Do Have Terminals

Leibniz called his metaphysics a monadology, a theory of reality describing
a system of "monads." From our perspective, the monadology conceptually
describes the nature of beings who are capable of supporting a computer
matrix. The monadology can suggest how cyberspace fits into the larger world
of networked, computerized beings.

The term monadology comes from the Greek monas, as in "monastic," "monk,"
and "monopoly." It refers to a certain kind of aloneness, a solitude in
which each being pursues its appetites in isolation from all other beings,
which also are solitary. The monad exists as an independent point of vital
willpower, a surging drive to achieve its own goals according to its own
internal dictates. Because they are a sheer, vital thrust, the monads do not
have inert spatial dimensions but produce space as a by-product of their
activity. Monads are nonphysical, psychical substances whose forceful life
is an immanent activity. For monads, there is no outer world to access, no
larger, broader vision. What the monads see are the projections of their own
appetites and their own ideas. In Leibniz's succinct phrase: "Monads have no
windows."

Monads may have no windows, but they do have terminals. The mental life of
the monad--and the monad has no other life--is a procession of internal
representations. Leibniz's German calls these representations Vorstellungen,
from vor (in front of) and stellen (to place). Realities are representations
continually placed in front of the viewing apparatus of the monad, but
placed in such a way that the system interprets or represents what is being
pictured. The monad sees the pictures of things and knows only what can be
pictured. The monad knows through the interface. The interface represents
things, simulates them, and preserves them in a format that the monad can
manipulate in any number of ways. The monad keeps the presence of things on
tap, as it were, making them instantly available and disposable, so that the
presence of things is represented or "canned." From the vantage point of
physical phenomenal beings, the monad undergoes a surrogate experience. Yet
the monad does more than think about or imagine things at the interface. The
monad senses things, sees them and hears them as perceptions. But the
perceptions of phenomenal entities do not occur in real physical space
because no substances other than monads really exist. Whereas the interface
with things vastly expands the monad's perceptual and cognitive powers, the
things at the interface are simulations and representations.

Yet Leibniz's monadology speaks of monads in the plural. For a network to
exist, more than one being must exist; otherwise, nothing is there to be
networked. But how can monads coordinate or agree on anything at all, given
their isolated nature? Do they even care if other monads exist? Leibniz
tells us that each monad represents within itself the entire universe. Like
Indra's Net, each monad mirrors the whole world. Each monad represents the
universe in concentrated form, making within itself a mundus concentratus.
Each microcosm contains the macrocosm. As such, the monad reflects the
universe in a living mirror, making it a miroir actif indivisible, whose
appetites drive it to represent everything to itself--everything, that is,
mediated by its mental activity. Since each unit represents everything, each
unit contains all the other units, containing them as represented. No direct
physical contact passes between the willful mental units. Monads never meet
face-to-face.

Although the monads represent the same universe, each one sees it
differently. The differences in perception come from differences in
perspective. These different perspectives arise not from different physical
positions in space--the monads are not physical, and physical space is a
by-product of mental perception--but from the varying degrees of clarity and
intensity in each monad's mental landscape. The appetitive impulses in each
monad highlight different things in the sequence of representational
experience. Their different impulses constantly shift the scenes they see.
Monads run different software.

Still, there exists, according to the monadology, one actual universe.
Despite their ultimately solitary character, the monads belong to a single
world. The harmony of all the entities in the world comes from the one
underlying operating system. Although no unit directly contacts other units,
each unit exists in synchronous time in the same reality. All their
representations are coordinated through the supervisory role of the Central
Infinite Monad, traditionally known as God. The Central Infinite Monad, we
could say, is the Central System Operator (sysop), who harmonizes all the
finite monadic units. The Central System Monad is the only being that exists
with absolute necessity. Without a sysop, no one could get on line to
reality. Thanks to the Central System Monad, each individual monad lives out
its separate life according to the dictates of its own willful nature while
still harmonizing with all the other monads on line.

Paradoxes in the Cultural Terrain of Cyberspace

Leibniz's monadological metaphysics brings out certain aspects of the erotic
ontology of cyberspace. Although the monadology does not actually describe
computerized space, of course, it does suggest some of the inner tendencies
of computerized space. These tendencies are inherent in the structure of
cyberspace and therefore affect the broader realities in which the matrix
exists. Some paradoxes crop up. The monadological metaphysics shows us a
cultural topography riddled with deep inconsistencies.

Cyberspace supplants physical space. We see this happening already in the
familiar cyberspace of on-line communication-- telephone, e-mail,
newsgroups, and so forth. When on line, we break free, like the monads, from
bodily existence. Telecommunication offers an unrestricted freedom of
expression and personal contact, with far less hierarchy and formality than
are found in the primary social world. Isolation persists as a major problem
of contemporary urban society, and I mean spiritual isolation, the kind that
plagues individuals even on crowded city streets. With the telephone and
television, the computer network can function as a countermeasure. The
computer network appears as a godsend in providing forums for people to
gather in surprisingly personal proximity--especially considering today's
limited band widths--without the physical limitations of geography, time
zones, or conspicuous social status. For many, networks and bulletin boards
act as computer antidotes to the atomism of society. They assemble the
monads. They function as social nodes for fostering those fluid and multiple
elective affinities that everyday urban life seldom, in fact, supports.

Unfortunately, what technology gives with one hand, it often takes away with
the other. Technology increasingly eliminates direct human interdependence.
While our devices give us greater personal autonomy, at the same time they
disrupt the familiar networks of direct association. Because our machines
automate much of our labor, we have less to do with one another. Association
becomes a conscious act of will. Voluntary associations operate with less
spontaneity than do those having sprouted serendipitously. Because machines
provide us with the power to flit about the universe, our communities grow
more fragile, airy, and ephemeral even as our connections multiply.

Being a body constitutes the principle behind our separateness from one
another and behind our personal presence. Our bodily existence stands at the
forefront of our personal identity and individuality. Both law and morality
recognize the physical body as something of a fence, an absolute boundary,
establishing and protecting our privacy. Now the computer network simply
brackets the physical presence of the participants, by either omitting or
simulating corporeal immediacy. In one sense, this frees us from the
restrictions imposed by our physical identity. We are more equal on the net
because we can either ignore or create the body that appears in cyberspace.
But in another sense, the quality of the human encounter narrows. The
secondary or stand-in body reveals only as much of ourselves as we mentally
wish to reveal. Bodily contact becomes optional; you need never stand
face-to-face with other members of the virtual community. You can live your
own separate existence without ever physically meeting another person.
Computers may at first liberate societies through increased communication
and may even foment revolutions (I am thinking of the computer printouts in
Tiananmen Square during the 1989 prodemocracy uprisings in China). They
have, however, another side, a dark side.

The darker side hides a sinister melding of human and machine. The cyborg,
or cybernetic organism, implies that the conscious mind steers--the meaning
of the Greek kybernetes--our organic life. Organic life energy ceases to
initiate our mental gestures. Can we ever be fully present when we live
through a surrogate body standing in for us? The stand-in self lacks the
vulnerability and fragility of our primary identity. The stand-in self can
never fully represent us. The more we mistake the cyberbodies for ourselves,
the more the machine twists ourselves into the prostheses we are wearing.

Gibson's fiction inspired the creation of role-playing games for young
people. One of these games in the cybertech genre, The View from the Edge:
The Cyberpunk Handbook, portrays the visage of humanity twisted to fit the
shapes of the computer prosthesis. The body becomes literally "meat" for the
implantation of information devices. The computer plugs directly into the
bones of the wrist or skull and taps into major nerve trunks so that the
chips can send and receive neural signals. As the game book wryly states:

 Some will put an interface plug at the temples (a "plug head"), just behind the ears (called a Frankenstein") or in the back of the head (a "puppethead"). Some cover them with inlaid silver or gold caps, others with wristwarmers. Once again, a matter of style. Each time you add a cybernetic enhancement, there's a corresponding loss of humanity. But it s not nice, simple and linear. Different people react differently to the cyborging process. Therefore, your humanity loss is based on the throw of random dice value for each enhancement. This is important, because it means that sheer luck could put you over the line before you know it. Walk carefully. Guard your mind.[5]

At the computer interface, the spirit migrates from the body to a world of
total representation. Information and images float through the Platonic mind
without a grounding in bodily experience. You can lose your humanity at the
throw of the dice.

Gibson highlights this essentially Gnostic aspect of cybertech culture when
he describes the computer addict who despairs at no longer being able to
enter the computer matrix: "For Case, who'd lived for the bodiless
exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he'd frequented as a
cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the
flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh."[6]
The surrogate life in cyberspace makes flesh feel like a prison, a fall from
grace, a descent into a dark confusing reality. From the pit of life in the
body, the virtual life looks like the virtuous life. Gibson evokes the
Gnostic-Platonic-Manichean contempt for earthy, earthly existence.

Today's computer communication cuts the physical face out of the
communication process. Computers stick the windows of the soul behind
monitors, headsets, and datasuits. Even video conferencing adds only a
simulation of face-to-face meeting, only a representation or an appearance
of real meeting. The living, nonrepresentable face is the primal source of
responsibility, the direct, warm link between private bodies. Without
directly meeting others physically, our ethics languishes. Face-to-face
communication, the fleshly bond between people, supports a longterm warmth
and loyalty, a sense of obligation for which the computer-mediated
communities have not yet been tested. Computer networks offer a certain
sense of belonging, to be sure, but the sense of belonging circulates
primarily among a special group of pioneers. How long and how deep are the
personal relationships that develop outside embodied presence? The face is
the primal interface, more basic than any machine mediation. The physical
eyes are the windows that establish the neighborhood of trust. Without the
direct experience of the human face, ethical awareness shrinks and rudeness
enters. Examples abound. John Coates, spokesperson for the WELL in northern
California says: "Some people just lose good manners on line. You can really
feel insulated and protected from people if you're not looking at them--
nobody can take a swing at you. On occasion, we've stepped in to request
more diplomacy. One time we had to ask someone to go away."[7]

At the far end of distrust lies computer crime. The machine interface may
amplify an amoral indifference to human relationships. Computers often
eliminate the need to respond directly to what takes place between humans.
People do not just observe one another, but become "lurkers." Without direct
human presence, participation becomes optional. Electronic life converts
primary bodily presence into telepresence, introducing a remove between
represented presences. True, in bodily life we often play at altering our
identity with different clothing, masks, and nicknames, but electronics
installs the illusion that we are "having it both ways," keeping our
distance while "putting ourselves on the line." On-line existence is
intrinsically ambiguous, like the purchased passion of the customers in the
House of Blue Lights in Gibson's Burning Chrome: "The customers are torn
between needing someone and wanting to be alone at the same time, which has
probably always been the name of that particular game, even before we had
the neuroelectronics to enable them to have it both ways."[8] As the
expanding global network permits the passage of bodily representations,
"having it both ways" may reduce trust and spread cynical anomie.

A loss of innocence therefore accompanies an expanding network. As the
on-line culture grows geographically, the sense of community diminishes.
Shareware worked well in the early days of computers, and so did open
bulletin boards. When the size of the user base increased, however, the
spirit of community diminished, and the villains began appearing, some
introducing viruses. Hackers invisibly reformatted hard disks, and shareware
software writers moved to the commercial world. When we speak of a global
village, we should keep in mind that every village makes villains, and when
civilization reaches a certain degree of density, the barbaric tribes
return, from within. Tribes shun their independent thinkers and punish
individuality. A global international village, fed by accelerated
competition and driven by information, may be host to an unprecedented
barbarism. Gibson's vision of cyberspace works like a mental aphrodisiac,
but it turns the living environment--electronic and real--into a harsh,
nightmarish jungle. This jungle is more than a mere cyberpunk affectation, a
matter of aestheticizing grit or conflict or rejection. It may also be an
accurate vision of the intrinsic energies released in a cyberized society.

An artificial information jungle already spreads out over the world,
duplicating with its virtual vastness the scattered geography of the actual
world. The matrix already multiplies confusion, and future cyberspace may
not simply reproduce a more efficient version of traditional information.
The new information networks resemble the modern megalopolis, often
described as a concrete jungle (New York) or a sprawl (Los Angeles). A maze
of activities and hidden byways snakes around with no apparent center.
Architecturally, the network sprawl suggests the absence of a philosophical
or religious absolute. Traditional publishing resembles a medieval European
city, with the center of all activity, the cathedral or church spire,
guiding and gathering all the communal directions and pathways. The steeple
visibly radiates like a hub, drawing the inhabitants into a unity and
measuring the other buildings on a central model. Traditionally, the
long-involved process of choosing which texts to print or which movies or
television shows to produce serves a similar function. The book industry,
for instance, provides readers with various cues for evaluating information.
The publishers legitimize printed information by giving clues that affect
the reader's willingness to engage in reading the book. Editorial attention,
packaging endorsements by professionals or colleagues, book design, and
materials all add to the value of the publisher's imprint. Communication in
contemporary cyberspace lacks the formal clues. In their place are private
recommendations or just blind luck. The electronic world, unlike the
traditional book industry, does not protect its readers or travelers by
following rules that set up certain expectations. Already, in the electric
element, the need for stable channels of content and reliable processes of
choice grows urgent.

If cyberspace unfolds like existing large-scale media, we might expect a
debasement of discriminating attention. If the economics of marketing forces
the matrix to hold the attention of a critical mass of the population, we
might expect a flashy liveliness and a flimsy currency to replace depth of
content. Sustained attention will give way to fast-paced cuts. One British
humanist spoke of the HISTORY forum on Bitnet in the following terms: "The
HISTORY network has no view of what it exists for, and of late has become a
sort of bar-room courthouse for pseudo-historical discussion on a range of
currently topical events. It really is, as Glasgow soccer players are often
called, a waste of space." Cyberspace without carefully laid channels of
choice may become a waste of space.

The Underlying Fault

Finally, on-line freedom seems paradoxical. If the drive to construct cyber
entities comes from Eros in the Platonic sense, and if the structure of
cyberspace follows the model of Leibniz's computer God, then cyberspace
rests dangerously on an underlying fault of paradox. Remove the hidden
recesses, the lure of the unknown, and you also destroy the erotic urge to
uncover and reach further; you destroy the source of yearning. Set up a
synthetic reality, place yourself in a computer-simulated environment, and
you undermine the human craving to penetrate what radically eludes you, what
is novel and unpredictable. The computer God's-eye view robs you of your
freedom to be fully human. Knowing that the computer God already knows every
nook and cranny deprives you of your freedom to search and discover.

Even though the computer God's eye view remains closed to the human agents
in cyberspace, they will know that such a view exists. Computerized reality
synthesizes everything through calculation, and nothing exists in the
synthetic world that is not literally numbered and counted. Here Gibson's
protagonist gets a brief glimpse of this superhuman, or inhuman,
omniscience:

 Case's consciousness divided like beads of mercury, arcing above an endless beach the color of the dark silver clouds. His vision was spherical, as though a single retina lined the inner surface of a globe that contained all things, if all things could be counted. And here things could be counted, each one. He knew the number of grains of sand in the construct of the beach (a number coded in a mathematical system that existed nowhere outside the mind that was Neuromancer). He knew the number of yellow food packets in the canisters in the bunker (four hundred and seven). He knew the number of brass teeth in the left half of the open zipper of the saltcrusted leather jacket that Linda Lee wore as she trudged along the sunset beach, swinging a stick of driftwood in her hand (two hundred and two).[9]

The erotic lover reels under the burden of omniscience: "If all things could
be counted . . ." Can the beloved remain the beloved when she is fully
known, when she is fully exposed to the analysis and synthesis of binary
construction? Can we be touched or surprised--deeply astonished--by a
synthetic reality, or will it always remain a magic trick, an illusory
prestidigitation?

With the thrill of free access to unlimited corridors of information comes
the complementary threat of total organization. Beneath the artificial
harmony lies the possibility of surveillance by the all-knowing Central
System Monad. The absolute sysop wields invisible power over all members of
the network. The infinite CSM holds the key for monitoring, censoring, or
rerouting any piece of information or any phenomenal presence on the
network. The integrative nature of the computer shows up today in the
ability of the CSM to read, delete, or alter private e-mail on any
computer-mediated system. Those who hold the keys to the system, technically
and economically, have access to anything on the system. The CSM will most
likely place a top priority on maintaining and securing its power. While
matrix users feel geographical and intellectual distances melt away, the
price they pay is their ability to initiate uncontrolled and unsupervised
activity.

According to Leibniz's monadology, the physical space perceived by the
monads comes as an inessential by-product of experience. Spatiotemporal
experience goes back to the limitations of the fuzzy finite monad minds,
their inability to grasp the true roots of their existence. From the
perspective of eternity, the monads exist by rational law and make no
unprescribed movements. Whatever movement or change they make disappears in
the lightning speed of God's absolute cognition. The flesh, Leibniz
maintained, introduces a cognitive fuzziness. For the Platonic imagination,
this fuzzy incarnate world dims the light of intelligence.

Yet the erotic ontology of cyberspace contradicts this preference for
disembodied intelligibility. If I am right about the erotic basis of
cyberspace, then the surrogate body undoes its genesis, contradicts its
nature. The ideal of the simultaneous all-at-once-ness of computerized
information access undermines any world that is worth knowing. The fleshly
world is worth knowing for its distances and its hidden horizons.
Thankfully, the Central System Monad never gets beyond the terminals into
the physical richness of this world. Fortunately, here in the broader world,
we still need eyes, fingers, mice, modems, and phone lines.

Gibson leaves us the image of a human group that instinctively keeps its
distance from the computer matrix. These are the Zionites, the religiously
tribal folk who prefer music to computers and intuitive loyalties to
calculation. The Zionites constitute a human remnant in the environmental
desolation of Neuromancer:

 Case didn't understand the Zionites. . . . The Zionites always touched you when they were talking, hands on your shoulder. He [Case] didn't like that.... "Try it, " Case said [holding out the electrodes of the cyberspace deck]. [The Zionite Aerol] took the band, put it on, and Case adjusted the trodes. He closed his eyes. Case hit the power stud. Aerol shuddered. Case jacked him back out. "What did you see, man?" "Babylon," Aerol said, sadly, handing him the trodes and kicking off down the corridors.[10]

As we suit up for the exciting future in cyberspace, we must not lose touch
with the Zionites, the body people who remain rooted in the energies of the
earth. They will nudge us out of our heady reverie in this new layer of
reality. They will remind us of the living genesis of cyberspace, of the
heartbeat behind the laboratory, of the love that still sprouts amid the
broken slag and the rusty shells of oil refineries "under the poisoned
silver sky."