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The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace

[The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace] The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A history of Space from Dante to the Internet
by Margaret Wertheim
Published by W.W. Norton, 1999
Amazon.com: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.ca: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover
Recommended by: Greg Slade

When I was in school, I used to pester my roommate by reading him exceptionally interesting or funny bits out of my textbooks. (You may consider me a bit weird for finding my textbooks interesting or funny. You would not be alone.) As I sit down to write this review, I have scraps of paper stuck in a dozen places from which I'd like to quote you the especially good bits. There are, of course, far too many to fit into the space of this review, so I'll have to content myself with just a couple.

I would be misleading you if I told you that this book was about "Christianity and the Internet" (it has almost nothing to say about how Christians are using the Internet), yet it is an important work for Christians to wrestle with. The subtitle is especially apt: this work is primarily about space, not in terms of how humanity has explored outer space, but in terms of how we think about space, and especially how the concept of space has changed since the Late Middle Ages, and how it is changing again with the development of "cyberspace."

According to Wertheim, the mediaeval concept of space divided space into two kinds: the sort of physical space we are used to, and a heavenly space beyond it, where heaven was physically located. In the mediaeval worldview, hell was located in a cleft in the Earth, and the farther one got from Hell, the closer one got to the presence of God. Thus, there were celestial spheres surrounding the Earth, containing the sun, moon, the known planets, and the stars. Beyond the sphere containing the stars was heaven itself. However, as our understanding of the physical nature of the sun, moon, planets, and stars improved, astronomers began to speculate that physical space might be infinite.

Once astronomers abandoned the idea of celestial spheres, there was ultimately no reason to suppose that the physical universe had any limit whatsoever. By the mid-eighteenth century that view had become scientific orthodoxy, and physical space was now seen to extend forever in all directions. But with physical space stretched to infinity, it was no longer possible to imagine (even metaphorically), that there was any room left "beyond" for any other kind of reality. In this new world picture there was in fact no place left for any kind of spiritual space to be. (p. 37.)

This book is full of insights which would never occur to most users unless somebody else brought them up. (In that, I find it somewhat similar to David Lochhead's work.) It covers a wide range of topics, from art to astronomy to theology to computers to science fiction. It also covers some of the problems found in cyberspace: hate-mongering, pornography, elitism, sexism, and cultural imperialism, but it's not a "how-to" work, nor does it attempt to predict the future of the Internet or to prescribe how cyberspace should develop in the future. Rather, it describes some of the unexamined assumptions we bring to cyberspace, and the background to the hopes (and fears) which cyberspace evokes.

In our time of social and environmental disintegration... today's proselytizers of cyberspace proffer their domain as an idealized realm "above" and "beyond" the problems of a troubled material world. Just like the early Christians, they too promise a "transcendent" haven of radiance and light, a utopian arena of equality, friendship, and virtue. Cyberspace is not a religious construct per se, but as I argue in this book, one way of understanding this new digital domain is as an attempt to realize a technological substitute for the Christian space of heaven. (pp. 18-19.)

I should also say that this book is an extremely good "read." Despite the weighty subject matter, this book is not dry or boring in the slightest. In fact, I was fascinated by dozens of little glimpses in the lives of thinkers who had, up to now, simply been names, dates, and formulae.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the religious aspects of the Internet. In paying attention to the "space" in "cyberspace", Wertheim has brought some extremely valuable insights to the subject. (August, 1999)


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