Digital Space

In the digital milieu, there is no space, but only relations (Yuk Hui)

Dehaene and De Cauter (2008), in their meticulous examination of Foucault’s talk on heterotopia, note that its introduction contains some prescient remarks about our contemporary era:

‘We are in the epoch of simultaneity; we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and the far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a great life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein’ (Foucault, 1967)


Dehaene and De Cauter suggest that this might be an early formulation of what would be described as the network society(Castells, 2002). Foucault did not develop his theme of an era of ‘emplacement‘ and, of course,  did not live to see the expansion of digital networks over the last few decades.

This section of the website will become an on-going attempt to set the concept of heterotopia within the contemporary context of the digital age as well as providing a critique of how digital domains, like the Internet, are presented to us.

The open, on-going investigation will involve five overlapping perspectives:

• metaphorical
• geographical
• socio-political
• ontological
• heterotopian

Castells, M. (2002) The Internet Galaxy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hui, Y. (2016) On the Existence of Digital Objects, Minneapolis: Uiversity of Minnesota Press.

(1) Articles linking heterotopia with digital domain

Bury, R. (2005) ‘Cyberspace as Virtual Heterotopia’ in Cyberspaces of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online. New York: Peter Lang, 166-203

Frances, S. (2010) ‘Borges and New Media: Connections Via Heterotopic spaces’, The University of Texas at Arlington (Thesis) .1488243. PDF AVAILABLE

Galin, J. R., and Latchaw, J. (1998) ‘Heterotopic Spaces Online: A New Paradigm for Academic Scholarship and Publication’, Kairos 3.

Handlykken, A. K.  (2011) ‘Digital Cities in the making: exploring perceptions of space, agency of actors and heterotopia’ Ciberlegenda 2 (25) 22-37.

Haider, J. and  Sundin, O. (2010) ‘Beyond the legacy of the enlightenment? Online encyclopaedias as digital heterotopias’ First Monday 15: 1 COPY AVAILABLE

Henthorne, T. (2010) ‘String theory, French horns and the infrastructure of cyberspace’ Technology in Society. 32:3 204-208

Liff, S. (2003) ‘Shaping e-Access in the Cybercafé: Networks, Boundaries and Heterotopian Innovation’, New Media and Society, 5: (3): 313-334.

Maggini, G. (2017) ‘Digital Virtual Places: Utopias, Atopias, Heterotopias’ in: Janz B. (eds) Place, Space and Hermeneutics. Contributions to Hermeneutics, vol 5. Springer, Cham

Piñuelas, E. (2008) ‘Cyber-Heterotopia: Figurations of Space and Subjectivity in the Virtual Domain, Watermark (California State University) 2: 152-169.

Rymarczuk, R. and Derksen, M. (2014) ‘Different spaces: Exploring Facebook as heterotopia’, First Monday 19 (6) COPY AVAILABLE

Young, S. (1998) “Of cyber spaces: The Internet & heterotopias,” M/C Journal, 1 (4) SHORT TEXT

(2) The digital domain: a quick summary of academic summaries (!):

 Entangled Relationships

Graham (1998) identifies three broad, leading perspectives on emerging relationships between information technology systems, space and place. The first is dominated by ‘technological utopianists where digital technology replaces and transcends the old non-digital world; the second draws from political economy and cultural studies, envisaging a more modest `co-evolution’ perspective; whilst the third, derived from actor-network theory offers a ‘recombination perspective’. This final approach to the digital is perhaps the most productive, offering a fully relational view of the links between technology, time, space and social life. Such a perspective reveals how new technologies become entangled in ‘complex, contingent and subtle blendings of human actors and ‘technical artefacts’ which for Graham are impossible to generalise.

Graham, S. (1998) ‘The End of Geography or the Explosion of Place? Conceptualizing Space, Place and Information Technology’, Progress in Human Geography, 22, (2) 165–185 pdf S Graham


Strate (1999) provides a tripartite set of levels of ‘cyberspace’ (a metaphor to be unpicked later).  The first level concerns ontological issues or the primary questions of cyberspace’s reality’, for example as a ‘non-place’.  The second level is composed of the ‘basic building blocks of cyberspace’, including the ‘physical space’ of the computer, its processes and architecture’; the users ‘conceptual space’ or ‘the sense of space generated within the mind as we interact with computers’; and ‘perceptual space’, which mediates between the first two (390-396). The third level cyberspace represents a ‘synthesis’ of the basic building blocks including media space, aesthetic space, dataspace, and personal and social space. Strate importantly stresses a plurality of meanings and approaches to the digital whilst also noting discussion of new technologies often privilege space over place, underestimating subtle interactions of the two.

Strate, L. (1999) ‘The varieties of cyberspace: Problems in definition and delimitation’, Western Journal of Communication 63(3) 382-412.

Geographies (1)

Countering earlier utopianist notions of an anti-spatial, ethereal realm (or even ‘consensual hallucination’), Wilson and Corey (2000) identify several geographies associated with ‘cyberspace’. First, there are the geographies of the physical and electronic infrastructure and the information exchange and economic activities that stem from new technologies.  Secondly, they highlight the spatial variation and disparity of access and the boundaries between `have’ and `have not’ areas in both ‘virtual’ space and ‘real’ space. Finally, there is the geography concerned with the actual demarcation of places and interaction.

Wilson, M. I.  and Corey, K. (Eds.) (2000) Information Tectonics: Space, Place, and Technology in an Electronic Age Chichester: John Wiley.

Geographies (2)

Ash et al (2016) put forward a threefold overlapping categorisation of the relationship between geography and the digital: geographies produced through the digital (EG using different tools for quantitative analysis or critique of tools like GIS), geographies produced by the digital (EG digital divide, transformation of cities, new forms of governmentality) and geographies of the digital (EG relationship between technologies and users).

Ash, J. Kitchin, R. and Leszczynski,  A. (2016) ‘Digital Turn, Digital Geographies?’ Progress in Human Geography 42 (1) 25-43 eprint

Geographies 3

Castells (2002:222) proposes four geographical aspects of the ‘Internet’: the technical’, involving the spatial configuration of the telecommunications infrastructure – its ‘backbone’; the distribution and concentration of ‘users’; the patterns of ‘economic production’ (EG manufacturers, software companies, Internet portals); and the sites of ‘content’ providers. All these geographical features for Castells and others (he draws particularly from Mitchell) have an important impact on the development of cities.

Castells, M. (2002) The Internet Galaxy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Complementary outlooks

Kellerman (2016) reviews four complementary perspectives of ‘cyberspace’. It can be perceived as some form of computer generated multidimensional, artificial or ‘virtual reality’; a space of ‘interactivity’ or communication platform between remote computers; a conceptual space within information and communication technologies; and finally as a metaphorical space, an inherently geographic metaphor.

Kellerman, A. (2016) Geographic Interpretations of the Internet, New York: Springer International Publishing.

Reviewing above and related literature, the following themes emerge for further exploration:

  • Physical, technical machinery
  • Patterns of distribution of telecommunications infrastructure, related economic activity and providers of services and content
  • Patterns of users and digital divide
  • Transformation of cities
  • Generation of new forms of social, aesthetic and media space
  • Entanglement of users and ‘technical artefacts’
  • Impact on social life
  • Governmentality, control, power
  • Different conceptualisations of the digital – closely linked to:
  • Metaphorical questions
  • Ontological questions


Ash, J. Kitchin, R. and Leszczynski,  A. (2016) ‘Digital Turn, Digital Geographies?’ Progress in Human Geography 42 (1) 25-43 eprint

Castells, M. (2002) The Internet Galaxy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Graham, S. (1998) ‘The End of Geography or the Explosion of Place? Conceptualizing Space, Place and Information Technology’, Progress in Human Geography, 22, (2) 165–185 pdf S Graham

Kellerman, A. (2016) Geographic Interpretations of the Internet, New York: Springer International Publishing.

Strate, L. (1999) ‘The varieties of cyberspace: Problems in definition and delimitation’, Western Journal of Communication 63(3) 382-412.

Wilson, M. I.  and Corey, K. (Eds.) (2000) Information Tectonics: Space, Place, and Technology in an Electronic Age Chichester: John Wiley.

see also

Wilson, M. I. (2001)  ‘Location, location, location: The geography of the problem’ Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design (28): 59–71 pdf M Wilson


(3) The ontology of the digital: some initial thoughts stemming from Lev Manovich, Yuk Hui and Alexander Galloway.

Manovich is often cited in attempts to come to grips with the ontology of digital objects. Using a ‘digital materialism’ approach, Manovich (2001: 14) attempts to describe what he calls ‘new media objects’ or ontological objects produced by digital computation. Such objects are of different scales extending from the Internet as a whole, to a website, a file, image or even a pixel. All these objects are marked by five defining principles involving: numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability and transcoding (the ability to translate into a different format, for example how cinema and video games interact). These formal principles describe the basic ways in which information is created, stored, and rendered intelligible. For Manovich new media is basically old media (like cinema) digitised, yet with something distinct with no historical precedent added: programmability. The perspective is in terms of layers:

the visual culture of a computer age is cinematographic in its appearance, digital on the level of its material, and computational (i.e., software driven) in its logic (180)

But as van den Boomen (2014) argues, Manovich concentrates on how the digital influences the cultural (IE cinema, books). He does not recognise how the cultural affects the digital in the first place. The latter is always already filtered through, for example, metaphors and analogies.

Yuk Hui (2016: 219) takes this further by arguing that the digital domain is impossible to grasp distinctly. There is no separate ‘digital world’, no strict digital/analog divide or digital/human divide. In his investigation into the ‘existence of digital objects’, Hui opens up a dialogue between Heidegger and Simondon. The impossibility of distinguishing the digital from the human is something that Simondon (2017 [1958]) would recognise.  The latter explores the ‘mode of existence of technical objects’ and argues that traditional culture tends to ignore ‘a human reality within technical reality’ (15). You cannot separate the technical from the human. For Simondon, we are ‘among the machines’ (original emphasis) that operate with us:

What resides in the machines is human reality, human gesture fixed and crystallised into working structures. (18)

I will be returning to Hui’s complex philosophical thought in an essay, but briefly, he explores the network of relations that form between and around digital objects and humans. He looks at the consequences both logically and politically of considering the digital domain isolated from everyday life, use and sensation (Hui, 2016: 23). For Hui, ‘objects exist in different orders of reality’ or through different ‘orders of granulation or magnitude’. For example, we can observe an object from its shape and colour, to atoms to sub-particles. In particular, Hui focuses on what bridges different orders of magnitude, different realities of the digital object, how they relate from one system to another across the spectrum of data, from ‘calculation to human experience’, from the atomic to the phenomenal (32). Put very simply, it is easy to forget the origin of the formal logic of the digital. Logic, number and calculation are one set of relations but they can be looked at from different perspectives, or modes of observation (38). Taking a Heideggerian position, he argues that each technical product is always already a human product, expressing something more than what is directly given. Put another way, digital objects are ‘interobjective relations’ but open to’ inter-subjective involvement’ that is not passive but contributes to a form of ‘we’, a collective beyond the formal that raises ethic0-political questions.

Galloway’s thought (2012: 12) takes up a different position but tends to lead to similar questions. Critiquing Manovich, he argues that the ‘computer’ is distinctly different from painting, photography and cinema as it does not aim at humans as its object; it does not have the ‘same obsession’. As he says, we do not feel emotions in front of a website as we do a film at the cinema. For Galloway (20) the reason why the computer does not have humans as its object is ‘because the computer is this object in and of itself’.  The computer does not encapsulate a world; it is ‘on a world and rises in separation from any referent’ (original emphasis). The computer does something quite different from previous media; it remediates or ‘simulates the metaphysical arrangement’ itself. Moreover, Galloway questions whether we should move from thinking about digital objects as ‘technical’ devices and think instead of ‘techniques’, of their practices such as  storing, transmitting and processing: ‘a practice not a presence’. The computer is a set of executions or actions in relation to a world (23). Galloway’s main issue with Manovich concerns his formalism or his attempt to define new media through a set of qualities or principles. If instead we conceive the digital domain in terms of techniques and practice, important ‘ethical’ demands emerge.

As Hui confirms, there are multiple perspectives and to take one in isolation is dangerous and misleading. In thinking about the digital, we should perhaps consider Bachelard’s maxim cited by Hui: ‘in the beginning is only relation’. Certainly we should note Veel’s (2003) point that as soon as we start to think about the digital world, we move to a specific position, often away from say the general user of the Internet, although we often assume the general user. Veel puts this in terms of being a ‘walker’ or ‘viewer’, someone actually involved and doing stuff, or someone stepping back to observe. Here there are some links with Bourdieu’s notion of ‘scholastic fallacies’ or as Bachelard puts it: ‘the world in which one thinks is not the world in which one lives’ (cited in Bourdieu, 2000: 51).


Bourdieu, P. (2000) Pascalian Meditations. Oxford: Polity Press.

Galloway, A. (2012) The Interface Effect. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hui, Y. (2016) On the Existence of Digital Objects. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media. New York: MIT.

Simondon, G. (2017 [1957]) On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Van den Boomen, M. (2014) Transcoding the digital: How metaphors matter in new media. Theory on Demand (14) Amsterdam:  Institute of Network Cultures.BOOMEN pdf

Veel, K. (2003) ‘The Irreducibility of Space: Labyrinths, Cities, Cyberspacediacritics 33 (3/4) 151-172.

(4)  Metaphors and things of the Internet

This is a brief critical review essay in which I question a common argument that metaphors tend to hide the material infrastructure of digital technology and the Internet. The essay is available as a standard page from my blog and as a pdf document: PDF


 Much has been written about the use of metaphors, particularly spatial metaphors, in relation to digital technology and the Internet. Arguments range from their necessity, usefulness and convenience to their limitations, deceptions and dangers. A common argument  is that general metaphors like ‘cyberspace’ and the ‘cloud’ as well as specific interface metaphors like ‘windows’ and ‘pages’ are used to obscure the actual physical infrastructure and complex technology involved.  This essay will: (a) look at different ways of thinking about the language of metaphors (b) critically review arguments about how metaphors are used to describe the Internet (c) review the physical, geographical, social and political embeddedness of the digital and finally (d) question whether the impact of metaphors is to obfuscate the machinery of the Internet.


page revised July 2018

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