Outer Space or Virtual Space?

Space Utopias of the Digital Age

The feeling of being on the threshold of something materialises with the return of space, although at the same time we dream of societies in which we can live in peace. Even those who fight against technology, wanting to lead us back into the wilderness and its immense spaces, dream of this. For example, the recently caught Unabomber shares with all net enthusiasts the hope of creating new, comprehensible communities in which the individual still has value. The Unabomber's attacks were directed against the anonymous structures of mass societies of the industrial age in order to return the possibility of autonomy to the individual on the margins of big cities and their big organizations. Even if his utopia consisted of "untamed nature" and flesh, whose importance gets recuperated in it, he also tried to revive the idea of the "frontier" and with it, the omnipresent obsession for individual freedom in an open space, an idea also widespread in cyberculture.

Doomsday fears are growing at the brink of the new millennium. We imagine ourselves crossing the threshold of a new age while the old one with its symptoms of crisis collapses behind us. People are fascinated by the symbolical dates of an instrument called calendar which, although spread worldwide through colonisation, is nonetheless arbitrary in its setting of the Year Nil. Even without taking into consideration these magical dates -which have become a permanent source of worry and of hope since the Modern Age which called itself thus - we believe ourselves to be in a time of fundamental change. If up until now we have been caught in a postmodern climate of nuclear threat with limits to our growth, stuck inside a sealed horizon with only a backward-looking perspective -one which at most has allowed for farewell ceremonies, incited our intellectuals to preach post-history and condemn rationalism, provoked the boom in esoteric and other doctrines of salvation and otherwise did not promise anything new- now little by little the techno-imaginary seems to be taking hold of people's minds and creating new utopias. Locked inside the wreck of spaceship Earth, we long for an empty, untouched space to hold our utopian energies, a vacuum waiting to be filled with all our expectations. Contrary to what may have been predicted, space is again becoming an obsession in the age of virtuality.

Civil wars and wars about power over certain geographical areas are still raging - wars which seem perhaps more conspicuous and paradoxical than ever given growing globalisation and virtualisation - although they are no longer waged primarily for control of local resources nor for the economic power embedded in infrastructures. The more uniform the world culture becomes, the more differences between us we desire to have, whatever that may mean. While regional wars over territories are being waged to create homogeneous communities -whether ethnic, religious or class-based- in people's minds there is much more at stake. Population growth allows for the resurfacing of an old fear: becoming a people without space. At the same time however we continue to destroy the biosphere at an even greater speed than after the end of the cold war as many countries are using the tools of capitalism and new technologies to try to reach the living and development standards of the Western world; thus international ecological standards established by nations of globalising economies are easily overlooked if they cannot be translated directly into money. Civilization leaves behind itself scorched earth and destroyed cities. Fantasy, especially the type shown in science fiction films such as Strange Days or Twelve Monkeys, indulges in descriptions of these kinds of uninhabitable, usually urban, areas.

Strangely enough the problems of position and location, undermined by cyberspace and its resulting globalisation, lead us back into the geopolitically embedded identity of the loser. Securing position means self-assertion within a limited area: it is about a sense of "Here", an island, which has to be defended against the outside. Furthermore, capitalism has been freed from its restraints and alternatives with the collapse of the communist states and at the same time both camps have lost their common enemy. The enemy, Evil, is now dispersed and has settled inside the systems, penetrating them and becoming intangible though its omnipresence. A clearly visible enemy, dwelling in the realm of Evil, unites people in spite of all their differences and makes each system's basis unassailable. However if the visible, identifiable enemy disappears, he turns up on the inside spreading fear, insecurity and paralysis. Governmental rules and institutions which maintain social stability through balancing acts are considered means of suppressing individuality: the common good disappears with individualism.

The feeling of being on the threshold of something materialises with the return of space, although at the same time we dream of societies in which we can live in peace. Even those who fight against technology, wanting to lead us back into the wilderness and its immense spaces, dream of this. For example, the recently caught Unabomber shares with all net enthusiasts the hope of creating new, comprehensible communities in which the individual still has value. The Unabomber's attacks were directed against the anonymous structures of mass societies of the industrial age in order to return the possibility of autonomy to the individual on the margins of big cities and their big organizations. Even if his utopia consisted of "untamed nature" and flesh, whose importance gets recuperated in it, he also tried to revive the idea of the "frontier" and with it, the omnipresent obsession for individual freedom in an open space, an idea also widespread in cyberculture.

Just like on the Internet, the huge, global playground of cyberspace where intranets are creeping in more and more with their firewalls impeding free movement but at the same time using its infrastructure, the absolute freedom of the individual continues to be propagated while the commercialisation of all areas of life, and with it increased privatisation and surveillance, is creating new borders. The existential coordinates of space are inclusion and exclusion, inside and outside, your own and the strange, the foreign. If you don't want to be run over or only want to maintain and secure your borders reactively, then it seems you have to change direction: you have to set off into new spaces which you can colonise, upon which you can impose your own laws, where freedom, wealth and adventure are promised, that allow you to look towards the future with hope, that provide you with a new orientation which, at least traditionally, is linked to a trajectory in space, to progress and to leaving the "cocoon".

Although European nations have performed this trajectory in the past during their periods of colonisation and industrialisation, they not only have had to retreat back step by step but are now facing the danger of losing their supremacy and of being outstripped by the countries they once dominated and exploited. We can already observe a maelstrom that is pulling capital, knowledge and jobs out of the old countries. Only the ruling class in the USA seems to be able to refer back to an image of themselves at the time of colonisation in an ungloomy way. This is why especially amongst this class dreams of the good old world of the frontier that must be tamed are flourishing. Unlike in Central or South America, in the USA colonisation produced a new, untouched world, a "God's Country", which, through the almost complete extermination of its indigenous population and by living by the maxim that guarantees the right to the pursuit of happiness, even included in the Constitution, liberated the immigrants from their ties to their countries of origin. To many, the subjugation of the American continent, the independence from Europe and the conquest of the wild West still stands as a model. The taming of the frontier, the exodus of individuals and groups and the escape from the state structures all belong to the identity of the Frontiersman and constitutes, in spite of its victims, part of a national success story reinforced by the media dream world whose stories always put the individual or small group into the limelight. A great many people continue to see in these narratives a historical duty of the American nation.

However, the wild West no longer exists and the globe has become rather small. Unrestrained expansion has come up against the limits set by nature which is no longer an enemy but a subtle system upon which survival depends. It is now only possible for individuals and not entire nations to set off for new frontiers or simulate discoveries in limited geographical spaces on Earth, in the style of adventure holidays. Thus the search for a new frontier is blending more than ever into technological developments, lead by America, which have not only created new possibilities here on Earth but have also permitted mankind to enter outer space and virtual space for the first time. However America, the supposed land of opportunity, shall serve here only as an example to outline the contours of the techno-imaginary on a social level.

The science fiction novel "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson (Munich 1994) gives us a first look into future life in the net and its repercussions on the urban environment. If you read "Snow Crash" together with Mike Davis' descriptions about Los Angeles (City of Quartz, Berlin / Goettingen 1994, as well as: Urbane Kontrolle - die Oekologie der Angst, in S. Iglhaut, A. Medosch, F. Roetzer (ed.): Stadt am Netz. Ansichten von Telepolis, Mannheim 1996) you get an impression of the future of urban space that is rampant with hopes and fears. Sociology of the future has long since emigrated to science fiction. Cities and their communities are disintegrating more and more into suburban, sealed-off zones, ghettos and defensive settlements which lock themselves up.

This tendency to seal off areas and homogenise inhabitants also has its examples in history, especially in the history of utopias. Utopian towns were always small and understandable and their inhabitants were not torn apart by social conflicts. They were not towns of anonymity, of desire, of challenging social and moral conventions or of fighting between different levels and classes of society; but rather they were places of peaceful coexistence between communities. Big city utopias, hardly ever developed, came about when the industrial age exploded: people started dreaming of garden towns, smaller, more closely connected units were set up to contrast against the large agglomerations and the popular image of a community was that of a village rather than an urban society, even when this only found expression in satellite towns or accommodation units. This reaction to mass society and its urban life continues in the utopias of the Sixties and can be found in Marshall McLuhan's metaphor of society constituted by electronic means of communication as a "global village".

Now that modern utopias based upon the individual's fulfillment within society and its transformation have failed, or rather have been abandoned, it seems possible to satisfy the desire for communal structures in cyberspace, redeemed at the same time in real space by the construction of new walls inside the dual city.

Neal Stephenson has subtly integrated into his novel as a self-evident fact of life the sociological analyses of the dual city by Saskia Sassen, Mike Davis and Manuell Castells. Nation states and their governments only exist as powerless authorities while territories are divided up into ghettos. Everybody who wants to enter will be searched. The world is divided up into city states, a "pluralistic" patchwork of ghettos. In "Snow Crash", one of these ghettos is Mr. Lee's Great-Hongkong. It is not an interconnected city area but rather a random conglomerate of protected enclaves: "Mr. Lee's Great-Hongkong is a private, fully extraterritorial, independent, quasi national structure which is not recognized by other nationalities." The decay of cities causes fears that force surveillance and control, isolating social classes from each other. The struggle between rich and poor, old and young and between different ethnic groups is a daily occurrence. Political power, linked to territorial possession, is being crushed as much by local fragmentation as by internationally operating companies who base themselves in and run the global network. "Snow Crash" is set in Los Angeles, the city of the future, where growth only happens in the valleys and canyons out of which people flee, thus making it vacant for refugees who immigrate into the city: "The only ones that have stayed in the cities are the street people who feed on garbage and immigrants who have been scattered like grenade splinters by the collapse of the Asiatic empires and the techno-media priesthood of Mr. Lee's Great-Hongkong. Clever young people like David and Hiro take the risk of living in the city because they like the stimulation and know how to handle it" -and because they can at any time immerse themselves into the virtual world, far more attractive than reality.

Only in the "Metaverse", the virtual city, does there still exist a limited, communal living environment of millions of people. But the social cracks of the real world are also mirrored in the virtual city. Only those who have money or possess programming competence can move freely in this parallel universe, buy private estates and have themselves represented in tailor-made avatars. If you own a computer in Stephenson's Metaverse and have the money to acquire land and build your house on it, you can materialise in it. Visitors who log in from public terminals, for example, reach the endless main street of this Metaverse by passing through certain floodgates, comparable to airports. You can recognise them because their avatars are in black and white and low in resolution - in short, they are cheap looking.

In efforts to colonise cyberspace we find few or no such scenarios. Dominated by the "Californian Ideology", the belief on the right as well as on the left side of the political spectrum is that with the entry into cyberspace all problems will be solved automatically; or people simply "forget" that cyberspace is grounded in and influences reality. The paper that probably best expresses the search for a new "frontier" in cyberspace is the manifesto A Magna Carta for the Infomartion Age drawn up in 1994 by American conservatives (Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth, Alvin Toffler) of Newt Gingrich's circle. Although cyberspace has no real geographical ground to claim, its colonisation is strongly linked to hopes of securing both position and predominance for the American nation. For us, the historical Europeans, it is doubtlessly strange to see what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have worked out as the characteristic feature of the "Californian Ideology", namely that here liberal, individualistic and sometimes anarchistic thoughts combine unproblematically with a glorification of capitalism and its darwinistic principles to form an amalgam which seems to unite the new virtual class above and beyond all other differences:

"The far-reaching appeal of these West Coast ideologists doesn't only result from their contagious optimism. Above all, they are passionate representatives of an attitude that appears in an innocently liberal political form: they want the implementation of information technologies in order to create a new democracy in the spirit of Jefferson where all individuals can express themselves freely in cyberspace. While celebrating this apparently admirable ideal at the same time these sponsors of technology reproduce some of the most diabolical characteristics of American society, especially those that are rooted in the legacy of slavery. Their utopian vision of California is based upon deliberately turning a blind eye towards the other, far less positive characteristics of life on the West Coast: racism, poverty and environmental destruction."

Cyberspace is considered to be the solution to all problems in the real world, which one supposedly leaves behind by stepping over the technological threshold, and at the same time it is the continuation of the American Dream where the individual and his freedom stand above everything else - if he is successful. Therefore sometimes cyberspace enthusiasts, probably without much reflection, regard free access to the web and freedom of expression as the redemption of democracy while at the same time neglect, or simply ignore, the living conditions of real life.

The success of cyberspace as a new utopia is not only due to technological innovations and the promises of profit that go along with it. The entry into cyberspace is interconnected, above all, with the urban reality of cities, decay of public areas, increasing suburbanisation and the setting up of the dual city. Cities are no longer geographical condensations of capital, power, culture and knowledge. They have become places where you are locked up in or try to escape from, where you erect sealed-off areas, apartheid zones, secure high-tech bunkers and closed spaces which are monitored by the same technologies that cyberspace is constructed of. In the same way that we are penetrating the inner world of cyberspace, flats, houses, entire city areas and new defensive settlements are cutting themselves off from the outside, and as substitutes we construct cities in cyberspace or build parallel cities in the form of theme parks. Instead of strolling around and working in public spaces in cities, the members of the virtual class are doing so in cyberspace, permitting them to overlook the black holes and to form homogeneous communities which are eventually aimed at becoming autonomous islands with surveillance. These kinds of islands exist on Earth and are for the moment still, like Biosphere II, imperfect projects; but the fantasy of being able to leave the Earth behind and to develop new territories in cyberspace or in outer space is gaining force.

The authors of the manifesto admit however that even in the USA the Third Wave in the development of humankind after the agricultural and industrial ages has yet to arrive and that we are trespassing a new territory where no rules exist. However they know what the definitive conditions are for entering cyberspace in the fulfillment of the American Dream and the American economy: deregulation, competition, privatisation, decentralisation and demassification of all institutions and culture at any cost, something which can only mean commercialisation of everything for all those who can afford it and indifference towards those who have been left out of the information society. According to the authors, nobody knows in which direction the de-massified individuals and communities will float off to, but isolated individuals will come together in "different communities" of "electronic neighbourhoods" and will be bound together only by common interests and no longer by geographical closeness and common duties, except perhaps those which base themselves on the concept of the "American Way of Life", praised in an unconditional and uncritical way by the authors.

The reduction and homogenisation of "communities" is the great ideal behind the ideology of cyberspace. They believe that if only deregulation were pursued consistently the power of computers would be entirely in the "hands of the people", a situation which would automatically guarantee freedom from tyranny on the information highways, improvement in air quality and, here American reality shines through for a moment, make it unnecessary for people to live in "overpopulated and dangerous urban areas" as a safe and private family home life would be possible. Cyberspace, in the authors' opinion, is progressively turning into a marketplace where "knowledge" materializes as "product" in the form of hardware, software, competition and information and is anchored in the renewed redemption of the "American Way of Life" and the "American Dream" as if the social conditions of the USA could be used as an example for the whole world. The danger exists that public areas and public life itself will disintegrate even more than it has already.

The authors of the "Magna Carta" are marked as much by an unconditional euphoria of individualism as by the glorification, without looking at alternatives, of competition, freed from all forms of intervention by the welfare state. Cyberspace, according to these authors, belongs to the people, not to the state; but the people in all its celebrated diversity and where social and / or ethnic conflicts have been eradicated is reduced to the users of those technologies offered by multinational companies and amongst which they can now finally choose as if these technologies were dozens of TV programs. The "Third Wave" in the history of mankind which the authors of this liberal and individualistic manifesto want to emphasize include computer companies, bio-technological enterprises, information-based production centres and those banks and software producers who trade with information; all in all, the members of the entertainment, media, communication, education and information services sectors.

In the authors' opinion these sectors will determine the society of the future. Everything else will be relegated to black holes, to third world-like places socially and geographically left behind -also increasingly found in highly-developed countries- or to reactionary representatives of outdated mass society. Today the ones to act are no longer large social groups oppressed by representation or laws but, instead, highly differentiated communities, "formed by individuals who celebrate their differences". These individuals (here we can't help but be reminded of Stirner) are difficult to unite and don't subordinate themselves to the "rules, taxes and laws" which served the "industrial magnates and bureaucrats of the past". The question is whether or not individuals are now "represented" by multinationals, such as Microsoft, which dominate worldwide in their sectors even if they are not as gigantic as the companies that defined the industrial age.

Although it is true that the need to change the conditions of property is propagated in the manifesto, only the end of copyright for intellectual property is discussed; and yet they are in favor of quicker amortisation rates for taxes on hardware and software. Furthermore, the new monopolies of the consortiums with their increasing concentration, fueled by the fusion of giants in the electronics sector, are not taken seriously and treated as a "quantite negligeable". On the one hand, all governmental measures that belong to the period of mass society have to disappear, but on the other hand the ideology of liberalism, pumped up once again by interactive, multimedia, big band-width computer networks, is not concerned with built-in standardisations and constraints of hardware and software.

The manifesto effusively states that computer technology has created more than a simple machine. Rather, cyberspace is said to be a "bioelectronic environment, literally universal". But it is not an environment that you enter peacefully nor one inside which you learn to live: it invites you to conquer and is to be considered a "bioelectronic frontier zone". Finally, after the Cold War and programmes like Star Wars are long over, a "new frontier" is born, the dream and trauma of the American people who have substituted the old "Go West" for "Go Cyberspace". Cyberspace is the latest American frontier. Hackers are celebrated in the same way as conquerors of new territories or outlaws were in the past, at least when they are finally integrated into the economic system after having sowed their wild oats in the new "wild West". They become "technicians" or "inventors" and later "creators of a new wealth in the form of baby companies" which, despite all the talk of universality, turn cyberspace into the economic property of the Americans. The conquest of cyberspace follows the example set by the settlers, cowboys, heroes of the wild West and soldiers who subjugated a continent that, in their eyes, didn't belong to anyone -pure colonialism. Forget about the Indians, the blood that has been shed, the slaves who worked away in the name of "individual freedom". "The bioelectronic frontier is an appropriate metaphor for what is happening in cyberspace if we remember the spirit of invention and discovery which motivated the seafarers of old to set out on voyages of discovery, which moved the generations of pioneers to tame the American continent and which, in recent times, resulted in the exploration of space".

Deregulation and the retreat of the state as a controlling organization have always been the magical words of economic liberalism - naturally with the exception that state interventions are desirable when it comes to securing your possessions, contracts and profits. So currently, enthusiasm is centered on a stateless and bureaucracy-free cyberspace which on the one hand is supposed to belong to the people, and on the other hand should secure the position of the USA and its companies. Europeans should ask themselves whether, in spite of the fears of no longer being attractive as a location, they really want to follow this strange mixture of an individualistic and liberal sense of mission together with nationalistic emotionalism and the desire for economic dominance: this would probably entail sealing off social and territorial islands of high-tech culture from the rest of society and celebrating a diversity of something which we no longer have the political means to secure. Computer networks bring with them the danger of establishing levels of political influence and possibly suggest the dream of a direct, anarchical democracy which had been defined up to now in territorial terms - in the form of communities, countries and states. We are surely experiencing the slow decay of a representative and nation state-based democracy from which people, the globalised economy and the net-integrated media are all withdrawing. Europeans have learned from their own history that utopias that are blindly embraced only produce new horrors.

Cyberspace, or Telepolis, opens up a new living environment, but it will all depend upon which common good, which public life and which culture of difference will be used in the creation of an environment where everybody can coexist and where the biological survival of this planet is not endangered. Cyberspace, or Telepolis, seems to offer the chance to do everything over again, to leave the past and all the social problems of the present behind by offering a new living environment. Investments of time, capital and passion into cyberspace will probably reduce those that could be employed in the construction of the "real" world. Securing jobs and positions in a global economy as well as the fascination created by the new, virtual world and its new forms of action and communication could lead us to abandon reality to the point where life inside the space of places and life inside the space of data transmissions drift increasingly apart.

But Telepolis, or cyberspace, is not an innocent place outside our world. Just as anchored in reality as humans are to their bodies, the order of the new world has repercussions on the old one. This "liberal" manifesto is but one more in a variety of fundamentalisms which are awakening everywhere and which base themselves in places, be it in slums or in secured neighbourhoods. Telepolis doesn't eliminate the space of places and of positions where the fights that take place during the colonisation of the cyberspace will be manifested. The discourse about spacelessness and the destruction of space serves only to hide the fact that new spaces, new properties and new forms of power will not only surface in cyberspace but will be mirrored in real space as well.

The ultimate model of a closed, high-tech living environment that could be located in any place has so far been a failure. Biosphere II, constructed in the Arizona desert, is the latest project of a space capsule which, separated from Earth, would be connected to other capsules only through telecommunication links. Furthermore, Biosphere II is an experiment to measure how a small social community would behave when cut off from the outside world and which structures would have to exist in order to allow the new high-tech farmers to live together and survive. This is what differentiates the people locked up in this terrestrial station from space travellers. Like in all projects of the information society in the background what we find is the hope of, in spite of the globalisation of the living environment, offering small, homogeneous communities a space to inhabit that protects them from the conflicts of the rest of society. Cyberspace is this kind of protected space which through surveillance can be controlled and secured. Biosphere II would be its representation in the real world but with all the advantages of televirtuality, a characteristic of cyberspace. Biosphere II is not an interface between the real world and cyberspace -it is the establishment and mirror image of cyberspace in reality. The relationship between simulation and reality is beginning to reverse itself. What cannot be dissolved into virtuality is locked into capsules and connected to networks. Biosphere II is the model for the realisation of Telepolis, a sealed-off interior which is self-sufficient and which in fact represents the kind of bioelectronic system that is being praised by the authors of the manifesto.

The real Biosphere II project has been moving away for quite some time now from its goal of constructing a self-sufficient survival capsule with closed cycles where only data can enter and leave and which would be fit for colonising in space. For example, during the two-year test phase a part of the team had to leave the artificial world for medical assistance and on their return they brought back equipment like computer parts and manuals. Oxygen had to be pumped into the system as it was creating too much carbon dioxide and the amount of food produced was insufficient. The labour to keep the system going, which meant planting and harvesting food, looking after the animals and controlling plagues of cockroaches and ants didn't give the inhabitants much time for research. Now Biosphere II will be turned into the world's largest laboratory for the investigation of ecological interactions whose conditions can be controlled with accuracy.

Nonetheless, Biosphere II is the redemption of urban visions of isolated and self-sufficient environments in gigantic man-machine systems and a model for the living environment of tomorrow: run like a machine, its principle is the perfect surveillance and control of all components. Following Buckminster Fuller's superstructures, Biosphere II is a dome made of glass and non-corrosive steel grids in which the water, air and food cycles are absolutely closed and recycled back into the system. 1600 sensors control the climate and the composition of the air, water and ground, sending this data to a central control system. The computer network permits a continuous representation of environmental data. Inside the system we find, apart from some humans, around 4000 different species of plants and animals, not counting the microorganisms. Biosphere II is divided into five "wild" ecosystems: tropical rain forest, savanna, coastal area, swamp and a maritime area containing a coral reef. Beyond that there are farming zones and living quarters for the inhabitants. Next to the main dome there are two other areas which function as the "lungs" of the system by balancing atmospheric fluctuations. The temperature is regulated from the outside by a water system and electricity also comes from the exterior.

In a society of digital networks, the material and biological environment of humans will not lose its importance as can be seen with the present high regard for the body and for nature; but it will be set up and organised around some rigid functional criteria. Following the example of Biosphere II and its parallel cities -shopping centres, malls, theme parks and the construction of Telepolis as a virtual world- more and more functions of the exterior world will be transferred into the interior worlds of enclosed spaces. The computerisation of ecosystems -the permanent surveillance by means of all kinds of sensors- primarily serves to set up warning and security systems to protect the bases of human life. Nevertheless, the knowledge gained from this would eventually be aimed at controlling this complex ecological machinery and, this not being possible, to construct autonomous microcosms which, closed off from the environment and under total surveillance, are run like any other technological macrosystems. The exterior serves the purpose of transporting goods and people, and nature of producing food and satisfying particular needs of relaxation which include the need for the aesthetic perception of nature that is manifested in man-made parks, nature reserves and biotopes. The environment continues to be a resource that has to be protected in certain respects in order to maintain life in the enclosed spaces. But these spaces, due to their "intelligence", will tend towards becoming increasingly independent and autonomous, becoming "bachelor apartments" linked to networks of a geographically dispersed Telepolis whose "black holes" will be bridged through cable and satellite connections for those who can save themselves in capsules, the Noah's Ark of the information age.