Outtakes: What does cyberspace look like? Martin Dodge's maps are the best images yet

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Cyberspace was a place in the imagination long before it existed in the real world, wherever that may be. The science fiction writer William Gibson made the first pictures of it, as a "consensual hallucination" in the early Eighties, but he used only words. Ever since then, geographers have been trying to catch up with the vivid yet indistinct pictures that Gibson gave us, of great towers of data surrounded by defensive ice, with tiny probes flying between them, thirsting for information like mosquitoes.

Martin Dodge, a young geographer at University College, London, has been collecting maps of the Internet since 1984. Some, he says, are simply graphs. This means that they are like the Tube map: they show the relationship between places, but not their relative distance. Two stations an inch apart on the Tube map can be 300 yards or three miles apart on the ground. The card catalogue in a library similarly arranges books in ways that take no account of their physical location, though you can use it to find them on particular shelves.

It is a style that suits the Internet very well, since physical distance means little there. It can take as long to connect to a computer in the bowels of Canary Wharf as to one in California. The simplest maps that people use to find their way around computer networks, directory trees and so forth, need have no relationship at all with the underlying physical space.

On Dodge's site, some of the most striking diagrams are maps of web sites, to help people find their way around a really very limited section of cyberspace. The thing about a map of a web site is that it corresponds exactly to the territory mapped: click on where you want to be, and you are there. It is like the wood between the worlds in the Narnia books, where there is a calm forest, full of small pools, but jumping into any pool will bring you to another world.

Martin Dodge prefers real maps, where the patterns of data-flow are overlaid on physical depictions of the world. In his favourite maps, the continents fountain light at each other, representing the streams of information washing the world. Great areas of darkness remain. But America, Europe and the Far East are all brightly lit.

"People have a real desire to find out where they are," he says, "and to make a space real by mapping it". This is a curious remark. You suddenly understand that maps are necessary when the world gets too large to walk around or to see all from one vantage point. "Maps that are aesthetically pleasing are distinct from those which are useful; but the best are both.

"We're trying to make things tangible," he says, which is an extraordinary remark when you think about it: a map on a screen is no more and no less tangible than anything else depicted there. Yet it feels more solid, and this feeling seems to be built into the ways we understand the world. In the end, all maps of cyberspace are not depictions of anywhere in the world: they show us our own understandings. Visit Martin Dodge's cybermaps at www. cybergeography.org/atlas/geographic.html

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