Originally appeared in the Voice Literary Supplement, March 1993

Information wants to be space. From flowcharts to data maps to those yahoo
graphs in USA Today, spatial imagery incarnates abstraction into three
dimensions. But however rigorous this mapping is, an imaginative residue
always remainspopulation charts using human figures become a cop line-up of
dwarfs and giants, while nonrepresentational scientific charts take us into
Mondrian. There is a peculiar pleasure to art that we know is also information,
a pleasure at once visual and abstract. Think about the first time the teacher
sketched a pie chart on the blackboard. For a moment, math suddenly seemed

When computers enter the picture, information space gets out of hand. With
their processing power and graphic muscle, computers not only conjure up juicy
pictures but blast the amount of data that can be represented into overdrive.
This gives rise to scientific visualization, which the PhDs use to grok complex
systems like weather patterns, molecular binding, and the bizarre topologies of
math. And, as anyone who has seen the swirling rainbows of a tornado unfold
onscreen can attest, even the most functional graphs glitter with dream.

But as the computer visionary Ivan Sutherland recognized in the ’60s,
computers remain glass bottom boats unless folks can navigate their data. So
Sutherland plugged a joystick into the machine. In the ’70s, Alan Kay’s Xerox
PARC research group developed a visual computer interface of windows and icons,
whose most famous descendent is the decidedly mixed “desktop metaphor” of the
Macintosh, with its environment of folders, menus, mice, and trash cans.
Later, the Architecture Machine Group at MIT’s Media Lab created “Dataland,”
which allowed MIT dweebs to fly through a 3D representation of their personal
files and programs using touchpads and small joysticks.

Virtual reality sent these 3D desires into the astral plane. By using goggles
inlaid with screens, special data-gloves, and powerful image processing, VR may
ultimately project the user into the midst of a digital space as concrete,
chimerical, and manipulatable as a lucid dream. While VR’s applications range
from architectural design to theme-park rides, financial wizzes began looking
for ways to visualize the abstract flow of financial data. In 1990, a Columbia
research project partly funded by Citicorp began developing a system that
allowed users to manipulate 3D representations of options portfolios with a
special glove, enabling traders to chart changes of value against shifting
factors like interest rates. And the VR flagship company VPL was working with
an actuary company which wanted to represent discrete collections of
information as trees within a vast forest tied to its database.

Though VR materializes from the hyper-hyped mists of the techno avant-garde,
there is something decidedly premodern in the image of some suit entering into
a leafy forest to retrieve annuity premiums. The notion of Nature concealing an
abstract design takes us back to the Middle Ages, when the visionary Christian
genius Ramón Lull created the Arbor Scientia, visual charts that
attempted to schematize the total encyclopedia of all knowledge into a forest
of trees organized under the abstract qualities of God so loved by the
scholastics (Bonitas, Virtus, Gloria, etc). There were trees for Heaven and
Hell, and all the various actions that would lodge you in one or the other.
Insurance data would probably be a hell tree. And what would Lull think of the
rainbow apple logo emblazoned on the Macan allegory of the first fruit?

As Adolf Katzellenbogen wrote in Allegories of the Virtues and Vices in
Medieval Art
, trees work because “the highly articulated structure of the
growths of nature could lodge complicated systems of abstraction and their
upward development could be interpreted step by stepor rather, branch by
branch.” They were great interactive knowledge maps, and when such trees
became allegorical forests, that interactivity became narrative. It’s only a
few steps from Lull’s overdetermined grove to the Bower of Bliss in Spenser’s
The Faerie Queene, a poem which Coleridge described as occurring “truly
in land of Faery, that is, of mental space.” For all its sexy shade, the Bower
is not a sensual place but a rebus expressing a certain equation of sin. As
our hero Guyon discovers, the bower is even artificial, for the apparently
leafy green disguises a metalwork of “rare device.”

In the actuary forest, digital code has replaced moral code, and cash has
replaced the rewards and punishments meted out by The Faery Queene‘s
fantastic Christianity (though Spenser did also feature the Cave of Mammon).
The sacred imagination used to navigate life’s labyrinth of ethical choices has
been reduced to a profane harvesting of profit. But the magic of mental space
remains, and its promise of transformation. As computers grow in simulating
power, our own rare devices are exfoliating into worlds. Perhaps the Mac’s
desktop “metaphor” is only the gateway into a huge allegorical realm of
technological representation, a realm that is uncharted but already named:


When William Gibson defined cyberspace in his gritty SF novel
Neuromancer, it was nothing less than a throw-down before the age:
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination…A graphic representation of data
abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable
complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and
constellations of data” In Gibson’s novels, data mercenaries called cowboys
enter this candy-colored universe of grids, icons, and architectures through
Nintendo-like “decks.” Whipping through “the infinite reaches of that space
that wasn’t space,” these data pirates penetrate the iced green cubes of
Mitsubishi Bank of America or soar beneath “corporate galaxies” and the “cold
spiral arms” of military systems. Both ordered and overwhelming, cyberspace
glittered with what Fredric Jameson called the “technological sublime,” a
flickering mirage of the awesome totality of today’s global information

By connecting the libidinal pleasures of video-game joysticks with dry data
banks, Gibson not only captured the unnerving giddiness of our galloping
information society, but showed you how you could ride it. “People jacked in so
they could hustle. Put the trodes on and they were out there, all the data in
the world stacked up like one big neon city, so that you could cruise around
and have a kind of grip on it, visually anyway, because if you didn’t, it was
too complicated, trying to find your way to a particular piece of data you
needed.” Some have criticized Gibson’s cowboys for being generic throwbacks to
antisocial tough guys. (As the immortal Clint put it in A Fistful of
: “In these parts, a man’s life can depend on a mere scrap of
information.”) But such critics never felt the rush of opening up a vast
database all by your lonesome, and then extracting what you want in seconds.

Cyberspace gave folks a gift, organizing the desires of everyone from hackers
to interface designers to network architects. Gibson satisfied their intuition
that information was spatial, and their desire to cruise these digital realms
without being swallowed (though this remains a dire possibility in both
Gibson’s and our world). Gibson’s essentially fantastic creation actually
pioneered a social space, as his word and concept leaked out of science fiction
and into the disparate fields of journalism, law, Hollywood, druggy bohemia,
and mainstream computer science. With Neuromancer, SF’s blend of social
allegory, dream, and rigorous pseudoscientific extrapolation penetrated our
experience the way phone lines, TVs, and modems penetrate the walls of our

But Neuromancer‘s phenomenal success also showed that cyberspace tapped
into desires far older than digital computers: mystical urges for total
awareness, magical urges for total information control. With its infinite
boundaries and its vast hierarchy of galaxies and constellations, roads and
cities, cyberspace is more than a mapit’s a cosmos. In one passage of the
Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of esoteric texts from late antiquity
that formed the basis for European magic, alchemy, and other gnostic flights,
the revealed Mind says to Hermes Trismegistus: “If you embrace in your thought
all things at once, times, places, substances, qualities, quantities, you may
understand God.”

But beneath this Faustian rush, the dream of cyberspace promises to resolve an
anxiety much closer to home. Most of us feel like fleeting, transient beings in
a world of endless flux because we remain moderns. Modernity does not think in
spaces, it thinks in timesthe past is consumed in forgetting, not contained
in memory. The medievals wanted to remember the virtues and vices partly to
dodge hell, but also because memory itself is the image of heavenunchanging
space, without decay or the agony of ceaseless renewal. As Walter Benjamin
wrote, “An appreciation for the transience of things, and the concern to rescue
them for eternity, is one of the strongest impulses in allegory.”

Unlike Benjamin, most modernists loathe allegory, perhaps because it’s mode of
spatializing time seems a musty remnant of the theological mind. Yet allegory
continued to inhabit the speakeasies, deserts, and moonscapes of popular
culture genres, and it’s all too appropriate that an SF paperback delivered
cyberspace, postmodernity’s image of eternal information. For while computers
have jacked up the pace of global change, intensifying the rush of passing
time, they nonetheless offer the paradox of total retention, absolute memory.
Just as it all spirals hopelessly out of control, it all comes back.


In his Confessions, Saint Augustine invokes “the plains, and caves, and
caverns of my memory, innumerable and innumerably full off innumerable kinds of
things.” Augustine calls this an “inner place, which is as yet no place,” and
catalogues the images, knowledges, emotions, experiences that exist there. Then
he becomes a cowboy. “Over all these do I run, I fly; I dive on this side and
that, as far as I can, and there is no end.”

To moderns this all sounds a bit out of hand. Since we’ve given up our memory
to the dry ossuaries of library books or the megabytes of hard drives, our
experience of inner recall has been reduced to a fog. But as Frances Yates
points out in her remarkable Art of Memory, Augustine is not just waxing
poetic, but spinning a technique for him already centuries old: the classic
mnemonic art. As described by Cicero and others, the art consists of mentally
creating series of imaginative spaces, usually vast buildings, their size and
even the lighting rigorously defined. Within these units are placed images of
the things or words to be remembered, ranging from striking and fantastic
figures of bloody gods to simple emblems like anchors or swords. By walking
through the virtual palace, one is able to find the appropriate data-dense
icon, and recover its store of words and information.

Sounds as implausible and cumbersome as some comic-book ad for amazing powers,
but it evidently worked: the rhetorician Seneca could hear a list of two
thousand names and spit them back in order, and Simplicius, a buddy of
Augustine, could recite Virgil backwards. The art died out in the early Middle
Ages, but was revamped by the stolid Schoolmen, who used it to store the
innumerable vices and virtues, their respective punishments and rewards. And
what better location to replace the palaces of the classical world than the
hierarchic sandwich of the cosmos itself, with its heaven, hell, and purgatory.
Yates even argues that the most famous and systematic of imaginative medieval
spacesthe cosmos of Dante’s Divine Comedywas in many ways a product
of the art of memory, as it followed the classical rule of “striking images on
orders of places.”

The medieval memory techniques of Ramón Lull took a different tact,
replacing palaces and cosmic maps with an incredibly complex systems of wheels
within wheels. The rims of these wheels were crammed with letters which stood
for the nine qualities of God that Lull had seen in a vision, qualities which
reflected and organized the summa of all knowledge. Looking at these diagrams,
choked with sigils and dense interconnections, one beholds information art as
fractals or diagrams of the global computer matrix. But Lull added a
fascinating twist: by shifting the wheels, you could create endless
combinations of concepts. As Yates notices, Lull introduced movement into his
abstract machinery of knowledge. In his fascinating book Magical
, Nigel Pennick points out that Lull’s combinatorial wheels could
be seen as the forerunner of Charles Babbage’s nineteenth-century difference
engine which used a system of gears to perform polynomial equationsand
“hence can be considered the occult origin of modern computers.”

A bit of a stretch perhaps, even for a practicing geomancer like Pennick, but
the sober Yates makes a similar suggestion when she describes the highly
systematized and flagrantly magical memory-charts of the Renaissance wild man
Giordano Bruno, who ended his heretical days as Vatican kindling. These systems
were of “appalling complexity,” combining Lull’s interlocking wheels with a
dense astrological iconography. The hermetic fuel Bruno’s charts were running
on was the faith that “the astral forces which govern the outer world also
operate within, and can be reproduced or captured there to operate a
magico-mechanical memory.” By mentally organizing all phenomena of the lower
world according to the categories of stellar demons, one could achieve “the
memory of a divine man” (and a plethora of powers as well). As Yates points
out “the Renaissance conception of an animistic universe, operated by magic,
prepared the way for the conception of a mechanical universe, operated by

Yates saw a “curiously close” spiritual link Bruno’s magico-mechanical memory
system and the “mind machines” discussed in the press of the 1960s. What would
Dame Yates see today, peering into a hopped-up 486 IBM clone? Better yet, what
Bruno would see?


While cyberspace could be said to be born the second Alexander Graham Bell
called Watson into the room, it remains a ghost terrain linking fragmented
technologies. The closest we’ve come is the Internet, a sprawling octopus of
millions of computers jabbering at each other across the world, swapping
documents, providing data services, and drawing together on-line users into a
variety of shared spaces like bulletin boards and the World Wide Web. Though
network communication essentially consists of series of flat screens, the
Internet is conceived of as a space, most notably in its MUDs. A “multi-user
dimension” greets online explorers with the specific descriptions of that
dimension (a conference room, an s&m dungeon), inviting them to create
fictional handles and even to extend the MUD by creating new rooms.

Some MUDs are open-ended spaces of chat, but many are role-playing games
similar to Dungeons & Dragons. D&D is a virtual game: players created
magical characters out of numbers and imagination, collectively navigating an
unseen dungeon (described to them by the dungeon master) where they collect
magic spells and treasure while battling trolls with dice rolls. The first
digital expression of D&D-style games was Adventure, a text-based fantasy
game created by programmers on the mainframes of Stanford’s AI Lab in the ’70s.
By typing simple commands, you would probe Adventure’s underworld cartography,
get stuff, kill things. Adventure began with this now-famous description:


This image is schematic but strangely potent, and it may remind us of another
traveller, at the end of another road, about to begin a grand adventure:

When I had journeyed half our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed
forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.

So does Dante begins his descent into the allegorical underworld of the

In his landmark Allegory, Angus Fletcher defined his titular subject as
“a fundamental process of encoding our speech.” If Adventure’s virtual spaces
feel allegorical, it is partly because they emerge from the computer’s strict
hierarchies of of codes, which descend from the quasi-English of programming
languages like BASIC or C to the babbling “machine language” of ones and zeros
coursing through silicon relays. “In a sense,” Steven Levy writes in
Hackers, “Adventure was a metaphor for computer programing itselfthe
deep recesses you explored in the Adventure world were akin to the basic, most
obscure levels of the machine that you’d be travelling in when you hacked in
assembly code.”

Similarly, Dante’s forests and caves emerge from the imagination’s attempt to
spatialize a coded hierarchy of meaning. Dante forces us beneath the surface,
not just to relish the poetry but to unpack the goods: historical personages,
medieval theology, moral philosophy, politics. These didactic codes are not
added to the work, but are woven into the images, like the metalwork laced into
the leaves of Spenser’s Bower of Bliss. Even more essentially, they are as
ordered as the Periodic Table. “For the suggestiveness and intensity of
ambiguous metaphorical language,” Fletcher writes, “allegory substitutes a sort
of figurative geometry. It enables the poet, as Francis Bacon observed, to
‘measure countries in the mind’.” This recalls the blinking geometries of
cyberspace as much as the circles of Dante’s Hell, and suggests that computers
offer some potent alliance of previously estranged aspects of mind. Fletcher
points out that modern science depends on a disjunction between the synthetic
fantasies of the imagination and the rigor of analytic systemization. Allegory
fuses them.

In its blending of nonsensual images with abstractions, its tendencies towards
baroque complexity, and the almost necessarily spatial nature of its
protoscientific orderings, allegory hints at cyberspace. Both computer
interfaces and allegories blend mimetic symbols (trash cans and folders on the
Mac, a stake in the heart in the Inferno) with magical symbols (a phoenix in an
allegorical engraving isn’t just a bird; like a hyperlink, it “opens” onto a
particular operation or realm of information). Earlier literary critics refer
to “allegorical machines” to indicate the inexorable overcoding of allegorical
schemes in works like Pilgrim’s Progress. When computers represent the
world to us, they cannot help but becoming allegorical machines.

Bunyon’s allegorical machines not only structured his doctrinal narrative,
they determined the aura of fate that hung about his characters. There is no
way out for pilgrims, who must always process the destined dreams of their
world. Like Parsifal, they strive to unpack the signs, to ask the right
questions, even to destroy the simulated traps, just as Guyon tears down the
artificial Bower. Movement is decoding, but it is movement too, an errant
reading that always leads to another curious space, another confrontation with
daemonic agents. As with The Faerie Queene, Borges’s Chinese
encyclopedia, and so many allegories, the work remains unfinished.

For the medievals, the fantastic spaces of allegory provided a definite map, a
mode of charting thought and experience. Cyberspace too is more than a good
storyit is an imaginal map enlivened by the actual forces it represents:
computers, infonets, telecommunications, media, global finance. These combined
forces are forging what is strangest and most surreal about our moment, and
recovering the meaty, comic-book outlines of allegorical vision may give us a
(magic) trick or two. Our allegories are darkfor all its psychedelic fun, the
world of Neuromancer is decidedly dystopian. And the twentieth century’s
most famous allegory, Kafka’s The Trial, refigures the cosmic system
that so calmed the scholastics into bureaucratic hell, a labyrinth of
mechanical procedures and tangled hierarchies that computers have only
encouraged to flourish. The pop image of cyberspace as a “frontier” alerts us
that the allegorical mode may arise most forcefully in lawless, anxious realms.
How does one move through the ruins of modernity, this complex forest of
simulacra, underground economies, subcultures, violent cabals, secret
languages, magic machines? Perhaps we could use some of the allegorist’s
hieroglyphic ethics. For we are not reading cyberspace from some high and holy
hill. We are lost in its thickets.