In William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, cyberspace is actually spatial: the main character, a “cowboy” charged with hacking into data networks, navigates a virtual universe with all the trappings of a material one. Neal Stephenson’s 1992 Snow Crash followed in Neuromancer’s footsteps, imagining a “metaverse” structured like a physical city. Stephenson’s protagonist gives physical expression to his desires in the metaverse, where he manipulates an avatar that’s a consummate athlete and swordsman.
The cyberpunk literary tradition anticipated a series of real-world technical developments in which the digital and the spatial converge. The latest of these is Microsoft’s Project HoloLens, a digital headset that will allow wearers to map the world around them, summoning 3D charts and creating holographic visualizations of information. Rather than typing queries into a search engine on your computer, for instance, you would call up a hologram of a search engine in the air in front of you and interact with it. Users of the HoloLens won’t invoke data with their fingertips but with their entire bodies. Like the hackers in Neuromancer and Snowcrash, they will be in cyberspace.
The HoloLens is only in its embryonic stages — an early prototype was introduced at a presentation last month, and it’s not clear when the product will reach the market — but it joins similar technologies gesturing at the possibilities of an embodied internet. Google Glass, before it was discontinued, allowed users to browse the web and take photographs without reaching for their phones or computers. The widely anticipated Internet of Things, a broader vision for a more virtual future, would integrate the web into physical infrastructure and objects, like public transportation or home appliances. (The project is ambitious and would requiring collaboration between a host of institutions and companies.)
Google Glass and the Internet of Things empower us to influence physical objects from afar: our online commands are enacted in the world around us, affecting not just the exchange of information but also our tangible environments. HoloLens takes things one step further, transforming our thoughts and web experiences into what look like physical objects. As world impinges on mind, mind impinges on world to create an extreme manifestation of what philosophers and cognitive scientists call “embodied cognition”: the idea that as we become increasingly reliant on technologies like smartphones, digital networks work their way into our mental processes, altering the way we think. Cognition becomes distributed throughout our environment as search engines take on the role once reserved for memory. HoloLens is the next step, allowing us to think in space.