Skip to Content
Uncategorized

Dogs and Gods Both Welcome

The Perly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet
July 1, 1999

In 1993, when a now-famous New Yorker cartoon appeared with the caption “On the Internet, no one knows you ‘re a dog,” it was already a clich that cyber-space is a magical place where the bodily limits and petty prejudices of the real world no longer hold. But the number of people who log on every day in search of like minds, novel experiences or safe sex continues to grow exponentially, proving that this is a clich with staying power.

Margaret Wertheim offers an explanation for the Internet’s appeal, and it goes way beyond the ideas of previous analysts such as MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, whose 1997 book Life on the Screen interpreted the Net as a playground for our multiple selves. Cyberspace, Wertheim suggests, fills the spiritual vacuum Western science created when it demoted Heaven from a real celestial place-immaterial, yet inhabiting the same universe as ours-to a mere metaphor for the mystery of death.

That may sound like quite a feat for an artifact that is nothing more, after all, than a tangle of telephone wires, transistors, TV screens and transfer protocols. But Wertheim makes a remarkably convincing case for her thesis, by showing just how closely Western theology and cosmology have been tied to changing conceptions of space. Her tour starts with the Hell and Heaven of The Divine Comedy. When Dante placed these realms deep within the Earth and above the stars, respectively, he wasn’t being entirely fanciful, Wertheim asserts. God and sin, as the organizing principles of the medieval Christian cosmos, gave space an inherent “up” and “down,” making the sky above the stars the logical place for virtuous souls to reside.

But when Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo smashed the crystal spheres of Ptolemaic space and showed that the “heavenly bodies” are mere matter-subject to the same physical laws that apply on Earth-it signaled hard times ahead for the Christian idea of the soul. In the modern scientific worldview, Wertheim observes, “the whole of reality is taken up by physical space, and there is literally no place within this scheme for anything like a spirit or a soul to be.”

Clearly, however, billions still long to believe in an aspect of the self that exists apart from the body. Wertheim’s notion, argued with style and intelligence, is that the shared worlds created by the denizens of chat rooms, Usenet newsgroups, graphical virtual realities, or text-based multi-user domains (MUDs) provide the closest thing this world has to offer to genuine out-of-body experiences. On the Internet, in other words, the spirit-self can finally spread its figurative wings. Both dogs and gods are allowed.

Deep Dive

Uncategorized

Embracing CX in the metaverse

More than just meeting customers where they are, the metaverse offers opportunities to transform customer experience.

Identity protection is key to metaverse innovation

As immersive experiences in the metaverse become more sophisticated, so does the threat landscape.

The modern enterprise imaging and data value chain

For both patients and providers, intelligent, interoperable, and open workflow solutions will make all the difference.

Scientists have created synthetic mouse embryos with developed brains

The stem-cell-derived embryos could shed new light on the earliest stages of human pregnancy.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.