Книга: Code 2.0

The Values of a Space

The Values of a Space

Spaces have values.[6] They manifest these values through the practices or lives that they enable or disable. As Mark Stefik puts it:

Barriers within cyberspace — separate chat rooms, intranet gateways, digital envelopes, and other systems to limit access — resemble the effects of national borders, physical boundaries, and distance. Programming determines which people can access which digital objects and which digital objects can interact with other digital objects. How such programming regulates human interactions — and thus modulates change — depends on the choices made.[7]

Choices mean that differently constituted spaces enable and disable differently. This is the first idea to make plain. Here is an example.

At the start of the Internet, communication was through text. Media such as USENET newsgroups, Internet Relay Chat, and e-mail all confined exchange to text — to words on a screen, typed by a person (or so one thought).

The reason for this limitation is fairly obvious: The bandwidth of early Net life was very thin. In an environment where most users connected at 1,200 baud, if they were lucky, graphics and streaming video would have taken an unbearably long time to download, if they downloaded at all. What was needed was an efficient mode of communication — and text is one of the most efficient.[8]

Most think of this fact about the early Net as a limitation. Technically, it was. But this technical description does not exhaust its normative description as an architecture that made possible a certain kind of life. From this perspective, limitations can be features; they can enable as well as disable. And this particular limitation enabled classes of people who were disabled in real-space life.

Think about three such classes — the blind, the deaf, and the “ugly.” In real space these people face an extraordinary array of constraints on their ability to communicate. The blind person in real space is constantly confronted with architectures that presume he can see; he bears an extraordinary cost in retrofitting real-space architectures so that this presumption is not totally exclusionary. The deaf person in real space confronts architectures that presume she can hear; she too bears an extraordinary cost in retrofitting these architectures. The “ugly” person in real space (think of a bar or a social club) confronts architectures of social norms that make his appearance a barrier to a certain sort of intimacy. He endures extraordinary suffering in conforming to these architectures.

In real space these three groups are confronted with architectures that disable them relative to “the rest of us.” But in cyberspace, in its first iteration, they did not.

The blind could easily implement speech programs that read the (by definition machine-readable) text and could respond by typing. Other people on the Net would have no way of knowing that the person typing the message was blind, unless he claimed to be. The blind were equal to the seeing.

The same with the deaf. There was no need to hear anything in this early Internet. For the first time many of the deaf could have conversations, or exchanges, in which the most salient feature was not that the person was deaf. The deaf were equal to the hearing.

And the same with the “ugly.” Because your appearance was not transmitted with every exchange, the unattractive could have an intimate conversation with others that was not automatically defined by what they looked like. They could flirt or play or be sexual without their bodies (in an extremely underappreciated sense) getting in the way. This first version of the Net made these people equal to “the beautiful.” In a virtual chat room, stunning eyes, a captivating smile, or impressive biceps don’t do it. Wit, engagement, and articulateness do.

The architecture of this original cyberspace gave these groups something that they did not have in real space. More generally, it changed the mix of benefits and burdens that people faced — the literate were enabled and the attractive disabled relative to real space. Architectures produced these enablings and disablings.

I’ve told this story as if it matters only to those who in real space are “disabled.” But of course, “disabled” is a relative term.[9] It is more accurate to say that the space changes the meaning of the enabled. A friend — a strikingly beautiful and powerful woman, married, and successful — described for me why she spends hours in political chat spaces, arguing with others about all sorts of political topics:

You don’t understand what it’s like to be me. You have lived your whole life in a world where your words are taken for their meaning; where what you say is heard for what it says. I’ve never had a space, before this space, where my words were taken for what they meant. Always, before, they were words of “this babe”, or “wife”, or “mother”. I could never speak as I. But here, I am as I speak.

Clearly, the space is enabling her, even though one would not have said that in real space she was “disabled.”[10]

Over time, as bandwidth has expanded, this architecture has changed, and so has the mix of benefits and burdens. When graphics entered the Net through the World Wide Web, the blind became “blind” again. As sound files or speech in virtual spaces have been created, the deaf have become “deaf” again. And as chat rooms have started segregating into spaces where videocams capture real images of the people chatting and spaces where there is just text, the video-unappealing are again unappealing.[11] As the architectures change, definitions of who is “disabled” change as well.

My point is not to argue that the Net should not change — though of course, if it can change in ways that minimize the disabling effect of sound and graphics, then it no doubt should.[12] However important, my point is not really about the “disabled” at all. I use this example simply to highlight a link — between these structures of code and the world this code enables. Codes constitute cyberspaces; spaces enable and disable individuals and groups. The selections about code are therefore in part a selection about who, what, and, most important, what ways of life will be enabled and disabled.

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