A Utopia Realized: Cyber For All

Thierry Bardini

I like to think (it has to be) of a cybernetic ecology where we are free of our labors and joined back to nature, returned to our mammal brothers and sisters, and all watched over by machines of loving grace.

-- Richard Brautigan

Here, ONE will perhaps read that Kublaï Khan dreamed of the Internet, or that the computer was at first a calculationes machine and therefore found its origins in the scholastics! Indeed, why not the radical anachronism? ONE also says, and from authorized sources it would seem, that the Internet was invented for/by the American military to protect against the possibility of nuclear attack on their territory. It is a subtle anachronism, because packet switching, ARPANET's operating principle -- the Internet's precursor -- was invented in 1962 by Paul Baran at RAND, the Pentagon's think tank. It was invented for reasons such as: a sputnik in orbit, a pylon or two exploding in Utah, the threat of a glacial war and the first terrorist attack on US soil. But the Internet came ten years later; ARPANET, seven years later... A small anachronism becomes History, subtlety grounds interpretation, compromising the chronology, oh just a little, just an extrapolation.

And yet, that is exactly the point. What if this extrapolation was the foundation, what if the anachronism was the most fundamental source of this historic discourse? Michel de Certeau is not so radical, but just the same he says that the "relation of the present to the past is the specialty of historiography." [1] De Certeau recalls Raymond Aron's theses and concludes that "a first critique of 'scientism' revealed in 'objective' history its relation to one place, that of the subject." [2] So I will jump into this first inversion, from time to place:

Political in its essence, historic discourse supposes a reason of place. It legitimizes a place, that of its production, by "understanding" others through a rapport of filiation or exteriority. It takes its own authorization from the place that allows it to explain what is different as "foreign" and what is interior as "unique." [3]

By resolutely following the method of the absolute structure [4], I suggest even inversing this inversion by intensifying it, by passing from place to utopia, and by strangely locating utopia in cyberspace, this place of all places. Hence, I propose to you a fiction, a short wander through the land of communication's utopia. To speak of a current utopia, I chose the cybernetic utopia in its current form, cyberspace. For this, I indulge in a double journey to the land of utopia. Why not spin out the metaphor and realize all these non-places in one journey?

Cyberspace is (also) a political and demiurgic project, a projection space of n dimensions, one that comes closer and closer to the ephemeral sphere of infinite range centred on each of its points (Pascal, following Alain de Lille). Here, everyone will project their anguish and dreams, according to their own private ambitions and nightmares. I don't want to speak of utopia with a capital U (or capital with a K, as in Kultur or Kapital). Allow me to speak to you only of utopia realized and of its inversed image in the looking glass, the dream's resistance.

Hence, I have chosen to situate utopia in two places, following the lead of two certified guides. For utopia realized, who other than Jean Baudrillard, the extreme occidental, the master of simulacra, to point me to Salt Lake City? For the dream's resistance, who other than Jorge Luis Borges, the blind librarian, another extreme occidental, to show me the emptiness of Patagonia?

Erewhyna, U.S.A. [5]

In 1986, Jean Baudrillard told us that America is the homeland of utopia realized, and Salt Lake City is its vanishing point in hyperspace: voilà;, the concept of Salt Lake City, this vortex in the Desert of Salt. Erik Davis has since confirmed for me, in an article for the excellent magazine, 21C [6]: the Mormon arches describe the vanishing point of the American realization of cyberspace. The Mormons populate these arches, which are at the same time concrete and virtual, with dead souls often freshly baptized, and also with avatars (such as Joan of Arc, who might have fourteen of them). And all this under the desert of salt's intense light that said to Jean Baudrillard, "The whole city has the superhuman, extraterrestrial transparence and cleanliness of an object from elsewhere." [7]

The space to conquer at the beginning of this agitated millennium could not be other than symbolic space, anchored in the political economy of the sign. From the Alpha of the Centaur to the Omega of the Noosphere, by way of the talmudic aleph. In the shadow of the arms race to the first steps towards the heavens, stumbling for a while on a desolate satellite and measuring the possible by the rhythm of the planets, hot or cold, in a glacial war climate that, all things considered, released only sterilizing atomic rains, we were given to dreaming of a pure construct of our consciousnesses, which was also quickly transformed into a war machine. Let's be more clear. Let's quickly attempt the autopsy.

Cyberspace is born at the beginning of the 1980s. In 1984, which hardly resembles the Orwellian 1984, William Gibson invents the word Cyberspace, "a collective and consensual hallucination." [8]

© All reproduction rights prohibited.

Reaction: cyber takes on an attitude of the era, PUNK. Yes, Punk. The resistance to the resistance breaks down, it is chaos at last. AIDS rears its horrendous head, the vomit on My Way -- Sex Pistols style -- has dried solid, we have all heard the calls from London, the first City to fall into in the post-second oil trauma riots. The cobblestones that ought to have hidden the beach lay silent at the end of their parabolic trajectories, it's crisis, once and for all. There is no one left to find them another meaning that would not be a simulacra, can ONE throw a cobblestone out of boredom? And still no beach. Everyone lives in the suburbs, refrigerators incessantly humming OOOOm, Japanese VCRs stopped at Poitiers, microwaves have just landed, just like the TGV in France, inaugurated with media pomp and circumstance, and the compact disc sells like hotcakes. It's the era of the void, and nobody gives a damn.

The spectacular machine materialized cyberspace before it even existed, oversaturated it with images, leaving to the founding utopia only scraps of the consciousnesses that created it. It is the question of this triumphant materialism that ironically drives me to placeTM alongside every once-respectable concept, even that which indifferently translates its fascination for the next level in the same blissful spectre of catastrophe, everywhere present in advertising slogans for video games, messianic/suicidal messages, or cyber-democratic projects: SegaTM and Heaven's Gate, same combat! Welcome to the next level!

"Because the materiality of things, of course, is their cinematography" [9]

Hollywood productions of cyberspace: Total Recall (1990), Until the End of the World (1991), Lawnmower Man (1992), Wild Palms (1993), Disclosure (1994), Hackers (1995), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Lawnmower Man II (1995), Strange Days (1995) and Virtuosity (1995).

Will the cybernetic utopia definitively die (without hope of resurrection) from this spectacular materialization? [10]

EreNowH: The First Prohibition

From 1948, in his first edition of Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Norbert Wiener already rebelled against the vain hopes held by some of his friends who thought they could derive some sort of social efficacy from the theses of his work. According to Wiener, their reasoning was based on the observation of a growing differential between human control of material and social environments: where natural science allowed the former, social science ought to allow the latter. "From believing this necessary, they come to believe it possible." "In this," retorted Wiener, "they show an excessive optimism, and a misunderstanding of the nature of all scientific achievement." [11] In short, Wiener accused his sociologist, anthropologist and economist friends of utopianism.

With these few words, Weiner invoked the very spirit of utopian thought, which implies that because something is deemed necessary, it must be possible: optimism plus ignorance, to summarize his equation. It is this fundamental cybernetic utopia, which added "human" to Wiener's "animal and machine," that I would like to discuss. But I would also like to oppose this utopia to the now widespread idea of another cybernetic utopia, a non-place where super-humanity in its dawn would have stored fantasies of its machinistic evolution to come (the famous cyborgTM). In my opinion, this cyborg utopia is quite secondary, historically derived [12]. I would like to take up here, despite Wiener's condemnation, the original bet of his anthropologist friends, and reinstitute the founding cybernetic non-place.

Gregory Bateson, the most eminent of the "friends of Norbert Wiener," was perhaps the last great priest of this heresy. In his view, the very idea of an evolving telos, of a "conscious plan" has no meaning outside of the realm of ideas: the only salvation of Darwinism, "this climax of the modern obsession for design," is outside of materialism [13].

To all vendors and door-to-door salesmen of Cyberspace in a kit, it is time, I think, to recall the only founding cybernetic utopia, the one which Norbert Wiener rejected at its inception, the one which Gregory Bateson put back in its place: an idea that would not be practical (and hence not political either), that would be rather immaterial and without future, in short, an idea plain and simple, not an ideology. What does this tell us, this idea, this initial dream of founding a synthesis, a Sacred Unity that rests on an empirical science of knowledge, an epistemology that would become a Natural and Normative History? Cybernetic utopia, if such a thing still exists, ought to remind us that if we are now in a position to become the engineers of our own evolving destiny, it is above all a function of the rapport that we concretely develop with the world to which we belong -- be it ethereal or not. On this subject, my second guide had a surprise in store for me...

Erewhon, Patagonia: The Place of the Dream

Patagonia will here serve as a non-place par excellence, the place of emptiness or of nothing; another surface of projection. Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux, two of my travel mates, devoted a superb book to Patagonia under the prophetic title, Nowhere is a Place: "So Patagonia was the promise of an unknown landscape, the experience of freedom, the most Southerly part of my own country, the perfect destination... I thought: Nowhere is a place." [14] In the same book, Bruce Chatwin took up the words of my second guide, Jorge Luis Borges, on the subject: "You will find nothing there. There is nothing in Patagonia." [15] This could be (also) expressed by "nothing is in Patagonia," in the sense that the "absence of things [no-thing] exists in Patagonia." Or maybe even "the absence of things materializes in Patagonia," in the sense of Baudrillard's filmographic materiality. Because, you see, Patagonia, this other desert, also leaves its mark on visitors by the richness of the images it encrypts in them. Witness the words of Charles Darwin, one of the first visitors to Patagonia, and certainly among the most illustrious (in the last chapter of Voyage of the Beagle):

In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by all wretched and useless. They can be described only by negative characters; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they only support a few dwarf plants. Why then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm a hold of my memory? [...] I can scarcely analyze these feelings; but it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination [16].

Paul Theroux seems to concur with my hazardous translation when he opposes Darwin's vision with the vision of one of his successors, William Hudson, in Idle Days in Patagonia (1893). In Theroux's view, for Hudson, "the experience of Patagonia is a journey to a higher plane of existence, to a kind of harmony with nature which is the absence of thought [...] Darwin's mistake was that he was looking for something in Patagonia [...] it is better, Hudson says, to look for nothing at all. Feel it and let yourself be moved by it." [17]

"It = nothing"

Let's accept, if you will, this translation (Treason? Betrayal?) as our premise, and starting from this premise, let's construct a paradoxical scenery, Erehwon reviewed and corrected. [18] Patagonia as the site of suspended thought, as the desolate door to a sacred unity, empirically felt rather than thought, this harmony to which Gregory Bateson (may have) alluded. Hudson confirms it: "my mind was suddenly transformed from a thinking machine into a machine for some unknown goal. Thinking was like starting a noisy motor in my head." It's in the silence of this paradoxical scenery that I intend to place my second guide, trusting in his scholarly blindness to raise this evocation of the famous superior plane of existence. [19]

At the heart of this evocative silence, Jorge Luis Borges will provide the key, I think, to the resistance to realization, this slow death of cybernetic utopia as it is put into place, as it is spatialized - and, who knows, the slow death of every utopia as it is realized? This filmed and photographed cyberspace, object of all the images I strive to critique. For you see, I do indeed need the non-place of Patagonia so that what Borges tells us will be apparent in its full strength, in the strength of the eternity of suspended thought...

But thought suspended, what remains for us to know, poor Cartesian animals that we are, poor thinking machines? I could certainly refer, as is so much the fashion these days, to certain more or less esoteric practices from faraway civilizations: whirling dervishes, Buddhist monks, Japanese gardeners...But that would be asking you, my Cartesian readers, to suspend your way of relating with the world to imagine the practice of someone else, someone who is foreign to you. It seems absurd, doesn't it? Rather than ask the help of these more or less extreme-orientals, I suggest instead to portray my guide as a hermit in his desert: this image will speak more to us, I believe. So there we have the backdrop.

Now for the text, where the question will focus on the dream's resistance... For if cyberspace is the creation of a cybernetic utopia, the paradoxical spatialization of the original prohibition, the fact remains that the initial dream can make utopia endure. If up until now I have played with the question of space (going so far as to locate the utopia realized), I must now attack its temporality: from u-topic to u-chronic. From the archeology of Salt Lake City, let's now turn to the Patagonian genealogy. For this, I propose to come back to the antecedents of William Gibson's vision, this "consensual and collective hallucination." As a good science fiction novelist, Gibson obviously didn't start from scratch, but rather from the layers of practice and representation that are already more or less fossilized.

At least in this sense, cyberspace existed before it was given a name. When Gibson published Neuromancer in 1984, networked computer information had already been in existence for at least 15 years. Even before the Internet, with its ancestor ARPANET, computer scientists had been communicating online for ages... But, you might retort, real cyberspace is the Web, which didn't arrive on the scene until 1989. To which I would reply: Exactly! That is precisely what our question is here: if the Web is the consensual and collective hallucination which Gibson speaks of, we must insist above all else on its qualifiers, because this hallucination wasn't invented yesterday...

This hallucination has already been treated by Theodore Holm Nelson, an expert in "vaporware" (as the Americans say), who, in the mid-1960s, invented another word that is now widespread: "hypertext." The Web is first and foremost a hypermedium: hypertext embellished with graphics, images, videos, etc. It was precisely this dream, this hallucination that agitated Ted Nelson, the d®eam of the e-encyclopedia, of a computerized literary system where everyone's contributions could be stored and catalogued, connected to and visited over and over again, in short, a sort of ideal library... Not unrelated to the Borges' Library of Babel! But rather than focusing on this conceptual coincidence, I would like to use my second guide to ponder names. Ted Nelson chose a very curious name for his system, a name that resonates with wordsmiths and that evokes a thousand exotic delights: Xanadu. Better yet, Xanadu qualifies Nelson's dream itself since the system has not yet seen the light of day...Xanadu, the name of all of Ted Nelson's projects:

For 25 years, I've worked on different projects, all based on the principle of hypertext and all called Xanadu. It was the name of one of the palaces of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, near Peking. English poet Samuel Coleridge used the name Xanadu in one of his works as the symbol of creativity and romantic inspiration. But Coleridge also said that he forgot that part of the history. So Xanadu becomes the symbol of conflict between the artist's mind and the problems brought in from the world outside, which makes him forget his work. For me, Xanadu is the place par excellence of artistic creation and the magic palace of memory, where nothing is ever forgotten. [20]

Hence, Xanadu is clearly a place for Nelson, the place of infallible memory and thus necessarily a palace, as the art of memory goes. Xanadu is thus the name of Ted Nelson's dream, of Coleridge's poem and of Kublaï Khan's palace. And it's at this point that Borge's clarifications come into play: to spin these coincidences into one single thread -- a rainbow, according to Keats -- and thus concretize the dream's resistance.

In a short text entitled "Le rêve de Coleridge" (Coleridge's Dream), published in his collection Autres inquisitions (1952), Borges reminds us that indeed Coleridge first "dreamed" his poem, but also, and this is his most remarkable contribution, that Kublaï Khan had also dreamed his palace... According to Borges indeed, we can find in a book from the XIII century entitled History of Persia and the Mongols, the following lines penned by Rashid-ed-Din, vizier to Ghazan Mahmoud and descendent of Kublaï Khan: "To the East of Shang Tu, Kublaï Khan built a palace, according to a plan he had seen in a dream and which he kept in his memory." Borges concludes:

If the diagram was verified during one night from which we are separated by centuries, someone will dream the same dream, without suspecting that others have already dreamed it, and he will shape it from marble or from music. Perhaps the series of dreams has no end, perhaps the key is in the last.

After having written the preceding, I glimpse or I believe I glimpsed another explanation. Who knows if an archetype not yet revealed to man, an eternal object (to use Whitehead's nomenclature) does not slowly penetrate the world. Its first manifestation was the palace; its second, the poem. Whoever compares them will see that they are essentially identical. [21]

The dream's third manifestation was Nelson's system, and the last version (to date), Gibson's cyberspace. Borges was right: Nelson didn't remember Coleridge's dream (he simply said that he must have "forgotten a part of history") and ignored the dream of Kublaï Khan. Thus the dream resists, it remains in the oversights and the omissions, and an eternal object [22] takes on multiple forms in the world following these dreams: palace, poem, unrealized yet influential proposition, cyberpunk novel, communication space. But the final point has not yet been made...

Coda: The Space-time of Suspended Thought

There is but one detail that Borges omitted and that makes complete sense to me. In his story, Coleridge, suffering from an "illness," had to take a "sleeping aid" that gave him respite from the sleep in which he dreamt his poem. When he awoke, he remembered this with a "singular clarity" that allowed him to write down for the richness of "one page of undisputed splendor." Borges' euphemism is revealed to us in this singular clarity which we now know corresponds to the awakening from a particular sleep, a "holiday rest" where "the majestic antagonism of equal and powerful forces [are expressed]; infinite activities, infinite rest!" (Baudelaire, "translating" De Quincey). A "sleep," if we can use such a word, where, in his "slow speed" the dreamer becomes the "place of phenomena that art brings to us from outside." (Cocteau) To put it plainly, perhaps an awakened dream would suspend thought...

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-burning tree;
And where forests ancient as the hills
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery...

Let's stop crying for the utopia lost in its realization and instead let's rejoice in its infinite indulgence in giving everafter into our dreams and fantasies... And if at times an eternal object comes to fertilize them, let's reflect on it and, unflinching, daring, let's continue to be dreamed! Because, after all, as Coleridge said in another of "his" dreams,

If while dreaming a man traverses paradise,
that he receive a flower as proof of passage,
And upon wakening, he find this flower in his hands...
What is one to say?

After a visit to Prague and Rabbi Loew's tombstone, I would dare to add a few words, a cryptic answer from the apocryphal legends surrounding the father of the golem: "death in a rose, alas, death in a rose."


[1] De Certeau, M., L'écriture de l'histoire, Paris: Gallimard, 1975, p. 353.

[2] Ibid. p. 65.

[3] Ibid. p. 354.

[4] See Abéllio, R., La structure absolue, Esssai de phenomenology, Paris: Guillard, 1965.

[5] I thank Samuel Butler for having invented this pig-latin-like form of slang and for having thus provided my titles (see . Butler, S., Erewhon, London: Penguin Books, 1985 [1872]).

[6] Davis, Erik, "Neuromancer Database of the Dead," 21C, No. 1 (1997), p. 44-49.

[7] Baudrillard, Jean, Amérique, Paris: Grasset et Fasquelle (Biblio "essais"), 1986, p. 8.

[8] Gibson, William, Neuromancer, New York: Berkley, 1984.

[9] Baudrilard, Amérique, op. cit. n. 7, p. 83.

[10] Guy Debord said "spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion." in La société du spectacle, Paris: Gallimard (Folio), 1992.

[11] Wiener, Norbert, Cybernetics or Control and Communications in the Animal and the Machine, 2nd edition, Cambridge (MA): MIT Press, 1965 [1948], p. 162.

[12] I can even date this second utopia with some precision to the appearance and development of the first generation of computer scientists in the 1960s in the United States. I consider the famous article by JCR Licklider, first head of ARPA's Information Processing Technology Office of the American Department of Defense, as the first manifestation of this second utopia; the article entitled "Man-Computer Symbiosis" was published in 1960 (IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics (March 1960), p. 4-11): here the cyborg took over for the golem.

[13] Bateson, Gregory., A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, under the direction of Rodney E. Donaldson, New York: Cornelia and Michael Bessie, 1991.

[14] Chatwin, B. and P. Theroux, Nowhere is a Place: Travels in Patagonia, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 199, p. 29.

[15] Ibid. p. 36.

[16] Darwin, Charles, Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of Countries Visited during the Voyage round the World of H.M.S. Beagle, London, 1902, quoted in Théroux and Chatwin, Nowhere Is a Place, op. cit. n. 14, p. 39.

[17] Ibid. p. 36-39.

[18] But perhaps scarcely corrected, after all. Because Butler's "wastelands," this fictionalization of the Canterbury Settlement (New Zealand) where he stayed between 1860 and 1864, seems to have been mistaken, through their effect on the solitary soul, for the Patagonia that Darwin evoked.

[19] Chatwin, B. and P. Theroux, Nowhere is a Place: Travels in Patagonia, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 199, p. 41.

[20] Ted Nelson, remark noted by Yves Eudes (Multimedia section of Monde, week of April 1, 1996).

[21] Borges, J. L., Oeuvres completes, Paris: Gallimard (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade), 1993, .p. 685, my translation.

[22] "The two conspicuous examples of the truth-relation in human experience are afforded by propositions and by sense-perception. A proposition is the abstract possibility of some specified nexus of actualities realizing some eternal object, which may either be simple, or may be a complex pattern of simpler objects." Whitehead, Alfred North, Adventures of Ideas, New York: Free Press, 1967 [1933], p. 243.

* This is the English version of a text that appeared previously in French at http://post-scriptum.org issue 2003, 2 : "Anachronisme et intempestivité". I thank Stéphanie Fox for her help with the translation.

* in memoriam, Ev Rogers.

Thierry Bardini is associate professor in the department of communication at the Université de Montréal. He holds a masters in agronomy and a Ph.D. in sociology (and often feels about letting them drop). He dreamed for a long time about "writing in a different way" and now feels that he has started doing it. He is currently working on his second book, entitled Junk_Log.