The recent history of humanity has demonstrated how all centralizing political movements are gradually failing to maintain a cohesion between heterogeneous groups of individuals. Federal governments around the planet are forced to give up more power in favor of local authorities; countries secede to form a mosaic of smaller entities that reflect more efficiently on local needs and to which individuals feel closer than to those large conglomerates ruling them fromr far away.
"It is no longer possible to think about these little fragments of society with concepts of institution or structure as vehiculated by three centuries of homogeneizing modernity"1
All the elements of culture, ranging from science to any form of artful expression seem to reflect upon this state of things. The multiplication of sects re-arranges the landscape of belief. It also seems like the development of the Information Society, as conveyed by the accelerating speed of dissemination plays an important role in this major mutation of the world's organization.
"Geography: (from the greek geo-graphia = the description of the earth) The science dealing with the areal differentiation of the earth's surface, as shown in the character, arrangements and interrelations over the world of such elements as climate, soil, vegetation, population, land use, industries, or states, and the unit areas formed by the complex of these individual elements" 2
Not much of the world remains to be discovered, and/or explored. All existing territories have gained recognition, and specifically so in terms of their representation in the world's atlases. Territories and populations have been described extensively, migration fluxes of all kinds and magnitude have profoundly modified the way we relate to those territories and cultures.
The whole myth of the frontier has to be re-assessed in the light of an absence of new places to discover. Geography no longer documents a phenomenon of expansion. Rather, it can only reflect the instability of the world, acknowledge the changes that result from it. This state of things most likely has an effect on the way in which we relate to evolution and progress: from a vertical model wherein progress is understood chronologically, it seems like we have shifted to a horizontal model, a one that considers all past accomplishments as an un-hierarchical set of elements to choose from and associate freely. Cultural mixes and exchanges result in new filters to comprehend our intellectual, emotional, and geographical surroundings. This in turn brings up a reflection on the prevalence of movement and exploration, as opposed to the one of discovery: hence the importance of the road movie and other forms of glorification of travel in a supposedly known environment.
The development of digital communication, and its being increasingly understood as an environment poses a whole new set of questions: are we to relate to that mental space as a physical one, and call it such name as "virtual" reality? consequently, is this a new territory to explore, and to map? or is it a map in itself? have we consequently entered a new dimension, a one of "virtual" geography?!
In its very essence, digital communication and the subsequent environment it has generated can be regarded as a mirror site, a surface of fantasy:
Its organization very much derives from structural conventions used in real space: names, addresses all evoke geographical locations. An email box, or a server is labeled by country, and one refers to someone at some place. Furthermore, given the ongoing discussion about the imperialistic domination of culture by the United States, it is interesting to point out that this is the only country that does not refer to its territorial integrity in the definition of location. Rather, the US has elected to categorize servers by nature: COMmercial, MILitary, GOVernment, non-profit ORGanization, ... very much a "we vs. them" type of vision of the world!
The open-ness of this environment is also a subject of preoccupation for a lot of - potential - users. Issues of copyright, security, or fears that this realm will all of a sudden absorb "real" experience shows how the advent of digital communication as an increasingly mainstream tool of exchange cristallizes so many ambient fears, and can therefore be stigmatized as the ultimate form of evil.
The regulation of flowing information becomes increasingly difficult, as it circulates and implements itself onto "friendly" servers that eliminate the chance for a centralized structure to enact any form of censorship over content. Anyone may "emit" in cyberspace; broadcasting in its essence is gradually and pressingly being challenged by the emergence of cybercasting, which implies a decentralized mode of communication.
In that light, digital communication can somehow understood as a mapping instrument, not unlike television, in that it relocates the experience of the world. However, it does not mean to equate real space experience: whereas television claims to be a faithful presentation of reality, digital communication is a system of representation, with a multitude of possible truths; whereas television may be understood as a form of geography, digital communication is an interzone3 .
The notion of webbing, understood as the establishement of a set of hypermedia link, is virtual geography. It creates a multitude of ways to comprehend information, as it proposes endless manners to associate fragments of information. The map is no longer a fixed collage of elements. Rather, it becomes an undefined web within which elements get to be re-assembled in endless different manners.
1 : Michel Maffesoli: "La Transfiguration du Politique", Faquelle & Grasset publishers, Paris 1992.
2 : Random House Dictionary of the English Language.
3 : as per the definition given by Anders Michelsen and Octavio Zaya's in the statement of intent for the exhibition "Interzones", to be presented at the Kunstforeningen Gl. Grand, Copenhagen, in June 1996.