From: Damien Broderick <damien@ariel.ucs.unimelb.edu.au>
Date: Sun Feb 07 1999 - 07:11:58 PST

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)
Received on Sat Feb 6 20:20:37 1999

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