Damien Broderick (damien@ariel.ucs.unimelb.edu.au)
Sun, 07 Feb 1999 15:11:58 +0000

This review is forthcoming in an Australian newspaper - please don't quote it outside of this list:

The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace
By Margaret Wertheim, Doubleday, 322pp, $A29.95

Reviewed by Damien Broderick

Remember the Space Age? Thirty years ago, humans stepped onto the airless shores of the Moon's Sea of Tranquillity. By then the adventure had already moved elsewhere. J. G. Ballard's cool, ironic gaze was fixed on inner space. Now the action has shifted again, to cyberspace, the current final frontier.

Space is a versatile metaphor. New Agers daily voyage amid shifting psychic spaces: `I'm in a really bad space, man'. Naturalists like Stephen Gould track evolving species across abstract mathematical landscapes. We lose ourselves in the imaginary and symbolic spaces of film and television, borne by the powerful vehicle of a gaze. So `space' loses its value, appropriated on every side. Are the computer-mediated realms of cyberspace safe from erosion? Or were they always bogus to begin with?

Australian Margaret Wertheim, trained in physics and computing, is a well-known interpreter of science to a public baffled by its mysteries and eager for palatable explanations. By a kind of public relations paradox, being an attractive woman competent in areas regarded as Boys' Town gives her a special allure.

Her angle is, indeed, a quizzical glance at the ways science grew up lop-sided, bent by its gender bias. In *Pythagoras' Trousers* (a title *nobody* can pronounce), she got stuck into `Mathematical Man' and his warped way with cold equations. Now she has her doubts about the Internet. As with physics, she spies a secret religious yearning within the bits and gigabytes. Cyberspace, for Wertheim, is a return to medieval Christianity's dualistic space, spirit above, us below - but mostly without its redemptive, community-steeped values.

In two strikingly successful 14th century images, she walks us through Dante's medieval hell, purgatory and paradise, and around Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua. Giotto's Annunciation is an early triumph of perspectival rendering, complete with *trompe-l'oeil* effects lending a third dimension, the depth of scientific space. Yet facing the chapel's altar is a Giotto masterpiece in the older style, enlarged Christ at centre, angels against blue spiritual space, damned and saved humans crowding below. Wertheim wishes to reclaim that power of sacred representation which one-note science, or so she asserts, has abolished.

She speaks for `those who wish to see reality as more than a purely physical phenomena [sic]'. Between Dante's world and our own, what changed? Her clever allegory explains how we use, construct, travel through and transcend space itself. The medieval world was doubled, its earthly landscape a projection of timeless sacred space. The Renaissance shifted from spirit to flesh, the Enlightenment from divine authority to space and time as Absolutes. Our own century dethrones both with relativity, placing each observer within an idiosyncratic but valid frame of reference.

As a parable, this catches the post-industrial disintegration of community. Will cyberspace, with its instant connectivity across the globe, reinstate links between atomised, lonely people> Or will it make matters worse by splitting mind from body in a malign perversion of sacred dualities? Aloft in cyberspace's window onto endless imaginary worlds, will we forget the real pain and joys of fleshy life? Revolted, Wertheim cites `Mike Kelly, a PhD in computer science and founder of the Extropian movement', who argues for uploading our minds into machines while we await physical immortality from the labs.

This is a small slip, but a typical and telling one. As it happens, the Extropians were founded by a PhD philosopher, Max More, who (via the Net) tells me he's never heard of Mike Kelly. Despite the instantaneous world-bridging power of the Net, Wertheim's research is often sloppy or unsound. She has a gift for just the wrong word: repeatedly, she calls space or mathematics `ephemeral' (transitory) where plainly she means `ethereal' (immaterial). Robotics expert Dr Hans Moravec - whose important new book *Robot* she ignores, although it's been available via the Net for several years - is alleged to `write breathlessly', a good trick. (In fact he writes very calmly indeed on topics that can leave you breathless).

Her arguments aren't much better. Science simply doesn't make the simple, stupid errors she deplores. Far from `denying' the reality of mental spaces, cognitive science multiplies them. Hilbert space, crucial to quantum theory, is a mathematic realm of literally infinite dimensions. Nor does any sane physicist think everything is `just atoms' (or warped space in 10 dimensions) and *nothing more*: evolution has generated a vast array of complex higher levels, from stars to beating hearts to brains stocked with information. Nor is information `immaterial' - it is perfectly real, can be copied, and physical errors (mutations, say) can turn it into nonsense. For all her good motives, that is what has happened, alas, in Ms Wertheim's tut-tutting thesis.

Damien Broderick's new book about science is The Last Mortal Generation (New Holland)