The Digital 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 (2008) note that the above introduction to Foucault’s talk on heterotopia contains some prescient remarks about our contemporary era. They suggest that this might be an early formulation of what would be described as the network society (Castells, 2002).

This on-going section of the website (introduced June 2018) starts to rethink the concept of heterotopia within the contemporary context of new technologies, the internet and our digital era.


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

Dehaene, M. and De Cauter, L. (eds.) (2008) Heterotopia and the City, London and New York: Routledge. on-line access Dehaene-and-De Cauter


(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

Jacobs, K. (2004) ‘Pornography in Small Places and Other Spaces’ Cultural Studies 18 (1):  67-83.

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

Patrício, C., Breser, C. and Ioannidis, K. (2019) ‘Heterotopic Landscapes: From GreenParks to Hybrid Territories’ in Smaniotto Costa et al(eds.) CyberParks – The Interface Between People, Places and Technology: New Approaches and Perspectives. Springer International Open Access Book 14-24

Text available

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

Witteborn, S. (2014) ‘Forced migrants, emotive practice and digital heterotopias Crossings: Journal of Migration & Culture5 (1) 73-85

PDF available

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


(2) 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.

(3)  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: 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.

(4)  The digital dismantling of heterotopias: Michel Serres’ Thumbelina

How can we transform the space of the campus, which mimics the space of the defensive camp of the Roman army, both of which are traversed by the usual paths, and divided up into juxtaposed cohorts or lawns? (Serres, 2015: 38)

One feature of many heterotopias is the forming of a centre of concentration and order – prisons, schools, libraries, gardens of antiquity and cemeteries, for instance, focus and regulate people, children, books, symbols, bodies.

Michel Serres’ mischievous account – Thumbelina – of the impact of digital technology on traditional institutions evokes the thought that the the Internet, for example, might dismantle many heterotopic concentrations. Serres refers in particular to schools, universities, hospitals and libraries. Is it the case that some of the socio-cultural heterotopias mentioned in Foucault’s talk are potentially breaking up through a process of disordering? Here is Serres:

A school, a classroom and a lecture hall are concentrations of people, students and professors; a library is a concentration of books; a laboratory is a concentration of instruments. But now, this knowledge – these reference works, these texts, these dictionaries, and even observatories! – are distributed everywhere. …(12)

The old spaces of ‘concentrations’ -some of which Foucault defined as heterotopias – are ‘diluted and expanded’. Dilution implies a weakening, whereas expansion suggests possible multiplication. Where does this leave heterotopias? Has the digital loosened the grip of the six principles of heterotopia that Foucault sketched out? Traditional heterotopias were distinct enclosures, with strict boundaries, one entered a different world that mirrored and yet inverted and disrupted what was outside.

It has been argued that digital games and specific websites replicate some of these features of heterotopia (see section 1 above) but what about the impact of the digital overall? If we take the university, the hospital and the library, we see traditional borders loosening, a more fluid access with no strict inside and outside. In these cases, as Serres argues, it is about access to knowledge which is generally more ‘freely’ available (acknowledging examples where it is still much about privilege, power and money). Serres argues that knowledge is now out there and as a consequence the relationships between health experts and patients or teachers and students are starting to change.

Yet away from the realms of knowledge, if we think about traditional brothels, for instance,  – another example of heterotopia cited by Foucault – relationships are also changing. Sex workers and clients use the Internet pervasively and the need for a separate collective, enclosed space is diminished (and sex workers claim that this gives them more control). Prisons are growing and becoming overcrowded in many countries and remain wretched ‘dark’ heterotopias but for reasons of economy alternative forms of digital surveillance are springing up in tandem with ‘community’ sentences. Even traditional cemeteries are beginning to widen their access, not only with, for example woodland burial grounds, but also the rise of digital remembrance sites. The pattern is the same – dilution and expansion – exacerbated by digital technology. Traditional heterotopias are being dismantled. Discuss!


(5) The digital realm of invention: more from Michel Serres’ Thumbelina

On the other side, perhaps the digital revolution does bring a flourishing of heterotopia that is not in the form of specific web-sites and virtual worlds, but more in relation to Foucault’s (1970 [1966]) first account of ‘textual’ heterotopias that breaks the boundaries of customary ways of thinking as outlined in his preface to ‘The Order of Things’. In the preface, Foucault  cites the now famous passage from Borges, a baffling classification of animals found in an imaginary Chinese Encyclopaedia, that ‘shattered all the familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought’.

(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied (j) innumerable. (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies (Foucault, 1970: xv).

He is confronted with a text that goes beyond merely juxtaposing the unusual, a text with  a complete lack of ‘common ground’, a frightening disorder.

The ‘space’ that Borges conjures up can only be found in the ‘non-place of languages’ and is nothing like the formal theory of relations that Serres performs across his works, connecting threads from disparate sources, but the impact of the  passage from Borges on Foucault raises questions that Serres also addresses.

On what ‘table’ according to what grid of identities, similitudes, analogies have we become accustomed to sort out so many different and similar things? (Foucault, 1970: xix)

In ‘The Order of Things’ Foucault goes on to trace the history of the  fundamental codes of culture in the human sciences. In contrast, Serres goes on to mix up and relate different codes across sciences and elsewhere, to discover a new order of things. Here Serres has much to say beyond the confines of his book ‘Thumbelina’. For instance in his conversations with Bruno Latour (1995), he speaks of a theory of ‘means, of relations, of rapports, of transports, of wandering’ as a ‘contemporary manner of thinking’ and suggests that we are immersed in a new ‘space-time of communication’. His whole approach to philosophy is to invent rather than interpret, criticise or judge and he does this through ‘cross-breeding’, linking up disparate realms of thought from mathematics, hard sciences, social sciences and the humanities.

Whilst for Serres this ‘wandering’ is rooted in rigorous training in different disciplines beyond the scope or ability of most of us, his hope expressed in ‘Thumbelina’ is that new forms of digital communication open up a general field of invention. The labyrinth of the Internet introduces the possibility of play that defies classifications and compartmentalisations. Vast amounts of knowledge are now stored for us outside our brains, allowing us to dip in and out and produce inventive play. Deliberately and provokingly naïve perhaps,  but Serres offers an alternative to those who judge that our lives and thoughts will be increasingly controlled by algorithms.

Passages from ‘Thumbelina’ seem to plea for us to invent new forms of ‘heterotopias’ through the opportunities and openings offered by digital  technologies. Serres (2015) considers how the Internet has the potential to break down all the traditional orderings of knowledge, all moribund classifications:

The ill-sorted or disparate has virtues of itsown, of which reason is unaware (40)

Serres urges us to mix things up, trying out a new menu each day as we open up our computers, ‘as if from a strange planet’. For Serres, the internet encourages experimentation. Unlike thinking through concepts and forms of abstraction, which act like a ‘cork-stopper’, the web allows us to stay with singularities, particularities, examples and the endless, labyrinthine description of things.

For Serres, Thumbelina, the child of new information technologies, has the chance to at least start to break the familiar lanscapes of our thought.

Foucault, M. (1970) [1966] The Order of Things, Andover, Hants: Tavistock.

Serres, M. (2015) Thumbelina: The Culture and Technology of Millennials. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Serres, M. and Latour, B. (1995) Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. University of Michigan Press.

page revised March 2019

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