Maps of Cyberspace

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphical 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. Like city lights, receding..."

(William Gibson, "Neuromancer", 1984, page 51)

At first sight, it appears to be a static, cluttered diagram with multicoloured, overlapping squares. Really, it is an extremely powerfulway of presenting the dynamics of the emerging e-publishing industry. R2 Consulting has constructed these eBook Industry Maps to "reflect the evolving business models among publishers, conversion houses, digital distribution companies, eBook vendors, online retailers, libraries, library vendors, authors, and many others.  These maps are 3-dimensionaloffering viewers both a high-level orientation to the eBook landscape and an in-depth look at multiple eBook models and the partnerships thathave formed within each one." Pass your mouse over any of the squares and a virtual floodgate opens - a universe of interconnected and hyperlinked names, a detailed atlas of who does what to whom. is one example of a relatively novel approach to databases and web indexing. The metaphor of cyber-space comes alive in spatial, two and three dimensional map-like representations of the world of knowledge in Cybergeography's online "Atlas". Instead of endless, static and bi-chromatic lists of links - Cybergeography catalogues visual, recombinant vistas with a stunning palette, internal dynamics and an intuitively conveyed sense of inter-relatedness. Hyperlinks are incorporated in the topography and topology of these almost-neural maps.

"These maps of Cyberspaces - cybermaps - help us visualise and comprehend the new digital landscapes beyond our computer screen, in the wires of the global communications networks and vast online information resources. The cybermaps, like maps of the real-world, help us navigate the new information landscapes, as well being objects of aesthetic interest. They have been created by 'cyber-explorers' of many different disciplines, and from all corners of the world. Some of the maps ... in the Atlas of Cyberspaces ... appear familiar, using the cartographic conventions of real-world maps, however, many of the maps are much more abstract representations of electronic spaces, using new metrics and grids."

Navigating these maps is like navigating an inner, familiar, territory.

They come in all shapes and modes: flow charts, quasi-geographical maps, 3-d simulator-like terrains and many others. The "web Stalker" is an experimental web browser which is equipped with mapping functions. The range of applicability is mind boggling.

A (very) partial list:

WebBrain and provide a graphic rendition of the Open Directory Project. The thematic structure of the ODP is instantly discernible.

The WebMap is a visual, multi-category directory which contains 2,000,000 web sites. The user can zoom in and out of sub-categories and "unlock" their contents.

Maps help write fiction, trace a user's clickpath (replete with clickable web sites), capture Usenet and chat interactions (threads), plot search results (though Alta Vista discontinued its mapping service and Yahoo!3D is no more), bookmark web destinations, and navigate through complex sites.

Different metaphors are used as interface. Web sites are represented as plots of land, stars (whose brightness corresponds to the web site's popularity ranking), amino-acids in DNA-like constellations, topographical maps of the ocean depths, buildings in an urban landscape, or other objects in a pastoral setting. Virtual Reality (VR) maps allow information to be simultaneously browsed by teams of collaborators, sometimes represented as avatars in a fully immersive environment. In many applications, the user is expected to fly amongst the data items in virtual landscapes. With the advent of sophisticated GUI's (Graphic User Interfaces) and VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language) - these maps may well show us the way to a more colourful and user-friendly future.

The Map as the New Media Metaphor

Moving images used to be hostages to screens, both large (cinema) and small (television). But, the advent of broadband and the Internet has rendered visuals independent of specific hardware and, therefore, portable. One can watch video on a bewildering array of devices, wired and wireless, and then e-mail the images, embed them in blogs, upload and download them, store them online ("cloud computing") or offline, and, in general, use them as raw material in mashups or other creative endeavours.

With the aid of set-top boxes such as TiVo's, consumers are no longer dependent on schedules imposed by media companies (broadcasters and cable operators). Time shifting devices - starting with the humble VCR (Video Cassette Recorder) - have altered the equation: one can tape and watch programming later or simply download it from online repositories of content such as YouTube or Hulu when convenient and desirable.

Inevitably, these technological transitions have altered the media experience by fragmenting the market for content. Every viewer now abides by his or her own idiosyncratic program schedule and narrowcasts to "friends" on massive social networks. Everyone is both a market for media and a distribution channel with the added value of his or her commentary, self-generated content, and hyperlinked references.

Mutability cum portability inevitably lead to anarchy. To sort our way through this chaotic mayhem, we have hitherto resorted to search engines, directories, trusted guides, and the like. But, often these Web 1.0 tools fall far short of our needs and expectations. Built to data mine and sift through hierarchical databases, they fail miserably when confronted with multilayered, ever-shifting, chimerical networks of content-spewing multi-user interactions.

The future is in mapping. Maps are the perfect metaphor for our technological age. It is time to discard previous metaphors: the filing cabinet or library (the WIMP GUI - Graphic User Interface - of the personal computer, which included windows, icons, menus, and a pointer) and the screen (the Internet browser).

Cell (mobile) phones will be instrumental in the ascendance of the map. By offering GPS and geolocation services, cellphones are fostering in their users geographical awareness. The leap from maps that refer to the user's location in the real world to maps that relate to the user's coordinates in cyberspace is small and unavoidable. Ultimately, the two will intermesh and overlap: users will derive data from the Internet and superimpose them on their physical environment in order to enhance their experience, or to obtain more and better information regarding objects and people in their surroundings.

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