By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
THE DISCOVERY OF A FOURTH, AND LATER A FIFTH, sixth and seventh dimension (at last count, higher physics claimed to know of 11) has done nothing to alleviate the theological drought of the 20th century, nor has the understanding that the universe has an architecture and a form. In fact, by exposing space as an egalitarian place of comparable galaxies expanding outward into nothingness, modern physics has exacerbated the problem. "With no place more special than any other," Wertheim laments, "there is no place ultimately to aim for -- no goal, no destination, no end."
And so it is that, on the eve of the millennium, we turn to another space, cyberspace, in search of redemption. Or, at least, Wertheim suggests that we do. Unfortunately, after some 200 pages of startling lessons in art and physics, The Pearly Gatessuddenly becomes confused and unoriginal. In her last three chapters, "Cyberspace," "Cyber Soul-Space" and "Cyber-Utopia," Wertheim, like so many well-meaning philosophers of the Internet Age, wants to determine the relative goodness of the big computer network, and in doing so she makes the mistake of cordoning it off, like Giotto's realm of angels or Dante's Hell, as something separate and sovereign, removed from life itself. "There is every potential, if we are not careful, for cyberspace to be less like Heaven and more like Hell," she warns. What she misses, as do utopians and dystopians alike, is that cyberspace incorporates both. From supportive communities to sexual harassment, what arises on the Internet is merely a heightened extension of what arises in the world. None of this is new.
But stubbornly spiritual Wertheim has wiser thoughts to offer on the matter of the immortality-seeking Extropians, who plan to download their brains into robots that can house them in perpetuity. "We are back in the realm of medieval Christian dualism," she writes, a claim that has frightening implications, given that all that's required to achieve eternal life is a viable machine. "Like the ancient Pythagoreans, today's mind-download champions see the 'essence' of man as something that is numerically reducible," Wertheim complains; "like the Pythagorean soul their 'cyber-soul' is ultimately mathematical." But in the same way that Raphael's Disputa, however exquisite, represents only a fraction of the truth, so are math and science only maps of reality: "Love, hate, fear, jealousy, delight and rage -- none of these can be accounted for by hyperspace equations," Wertheim insists. To an extent, then, we remain mysterious creatures, in magical physical form. If there is still room for God anywhere, it may be within our very human selves.
THE PEARLY GATES OF CYBERSPACE: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet
By MARGARET WERTHEIM | W.W. Norton & Company | 336 pages | $25 hardcover