Defining space

I’m currently working on a book with Iryna Kuksa at NTU – it’s called Making Sense of Space and will be published by Chandos. We always collaborate well — she kind of organises me to go off and do something and I go off and do it. There’s usually a bit of to and fro, and when we collaborate directly on something by merging our stuff into a combined chapter (like the intro to this book) even we can’t really tell who wrote which bit.

Anyway, my instruction for the introduction was “define space”. Good point. My response was to find an excuse to defer the task … the rationale being that it would go better in the conclusion since we needed to explore the concepts underpinning it in the rest of the book first. Now I’m on the conclusion I couldn’t put it off any longer, so this is my go at it — by comparing the idea of virtual space with physical space, and when the digital feels like space and when it doesn’t.

Anyway this is my first attempt, it may go through editing and improvement before it makes it into the book, however.

Digital to virtual: is cyberspace a space?

Cyberspace is a common metaphor, and yet its usefulness has been challenged, for example by Katherine Olson, an expert in mass communication law at Lehigh University (2000). While acknowledging that employing metaphors in accommodating new technologies is natural, and noting that early ones drew on parallels to communications networks (2000, p 10) she argues that the tendency to employ the spatial metaphors that were noted in the introductory chapter to this book (websites, for example) has led the way to adopting the metaphor more widely and less usefully than is appropriate. On a legal level too, the idea of the Internet as a space has led to the concept of cybertrespass, that unwanted communication violates one’s space rather than one’s things (p 14). In addition it has led to the idea that the information that exists on one’s display is a separate place from the location in which that display sits, and so subject to different laws than those that apply to the actual physical location.

However, when we move from considering cyberspace to the three-dimensional worlds of virtual reality, then the idea that this is a purely metaphorical use of the word space is not so obvious. Unlike the separate webpages of a website, the space in a virtual world has three dimensions which can these be navigated and moved through with changing perspectives in a manner very similar to physical spaces. Not only is this done in a disembodied way, as in a three-dimensional model, but we have a reality in that space through the presence of our avatars. Interactions with objects and other people become available when our avatars move into spaces giving a strong sense of it us being in that location. In fact, it is that self-presence in a virtual world that can make a MUD (which is purely text-based) feel more like a space than a 3D model, which though more perceptually immersive, still does not bestow us a reality within it.

Olson calls virtual reality an oxymoron, (p 14) which it is, Michele Ryan, then a doctoral student at Lancaster University, explored the etymology of the phrase and concluded it is a fake reality, one which is not real, make believe (Ryan and Childs, 2011, p 256). An opposing viewpoint is that we can invest whatever importance we choose to alternative realities, that a space in which we move, interact, have friendships and communities may not be completely solid and independently real, but it is virtually reality (p 257). It is the significance we give to the objects, people and societies in our surroundings, and the very fact that these feel like surroundings because they are encountered serendipitously within their environment, that we have emotional agency within those spaces, and because they require our intention to engage belief in them to make them real to us, that makes virtual worlds space-like. Thus the space that we inhabit in a virtual world is not habitable because it is a space; it is a space because we inhabit it.

Olson, K.K. (2000) Cyberspace as Place and the Limits of Metaphor, Convergence, 11 (1), 10-18

Ryan, M. and Childs, M. (2011) Chapter 13: Synthetic Societies or Pseudo Realities? Debating the Ethical Dilemmas of Second Life in D. Weir and N. Sultan (eds) From Critique to Action: The practical ethics of the organizational world, UK: Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 254 – 272