Parables for Proto-Space: An Introduction


Digital humanities offers the opportunity to imagine the future of how we live with and through our technologies. 2014-15 5CollDH undergraduate fellow Craig Campbell’s project speculates on the architectures of cyberspace, and explores the ways that we already (and have always) live in digital space. In his own words: 


In mathematics, the parabola is defined as the arching shape that results from intersecting a cone with a plane parallel to one of its sides. The parabola is immediately evocative of the diagrammatic section, the time-honored architectural tool for practical representation. The parabola signifies an important base-line of physics, representing the shape of the path taken by a projectile that is subjected to gravity. Etymologically, parabola derives from the Ancient Greek word parabole (παραβολή)—placing side by side—from roots para (παρα-), meaning ‘analogous’ or ‘parallel,’ and bole (βολή), ‘to cast’ or ‘to throw.’

A parabola is a graphic representation of the symmetrical path of a thrown object in space. But subtract gravity, collapse geography, and pixelate the image—what, then, happens to parabolic form? How does a projectile move through digital space? To understand how trajectories are constructed, paths developed, and navigation oriented in digital space is to understand how dimensionality itself functions in digital domains.

The etymological heredity of “parabola” discloses its close cousin, the “parable”—defined as a concise narrative vignette, now closely associated with its Biblical use. The parable is an illustrative story, a metaphor for describing (often moral) conceptual material through simple narrative content. It performs concepts instead of explicating them, and draws on story-telling as both a rhetorical and analytical strategy. With what words would one articulate the architectural aspects of a place that lacks some of the very most basic aspects of architecture? How might one tell a parable of digital worlds? To narrate the story of the metaphorical path of the digital projectile is to perform the navigation of digital space.

Whether digital space is actually a spatial concern at all has been, since its earliest days, subject to debate. After all, the digital screen lacks depth. Digital artifacts are, by their definition, rooted in a binary logic of zeros and one. So to qualify “cyberspace” and “digital space” as appropriate subjects for spatial analysis a definition of “space” is in order.

One definition of space imagines an empty grid, striated along axiomatic vectors that meet at right angles. This corresponds to the familiar “graph” in high school math class. When objects populate this space, they can be coordinated, or assigned a fixed location, according to these axes. This ‘in-the-beginning-there-was-The-Void’ image defines the interstices between objects as empty, static, and boring.

Here, the ‘traditional’ definition of space breaks down. Space is an active and dynamic phenomenon. Space does not simply exist; it occurs. It’s not enough–or at least not interesting–to talk about space by itself, or in terms of a singular, vacuous coordinate system. Space ‘coordinated’ only in the sense that a person perceives objects with respect to their own position. Spatiality can be understood, then, as relationship of an object (or objects) to a movement or an event–namely, the mediating event of perception. Forces that move through and permeate space do not exist as disembodied vectors without origin, but rather emanate, in concentric degrees of intensity, from objects of perception themselves. A deft architect, consequently, will engage these forces–will trace the emergent forms of this perceptual space–to create dynamic architectures.

Paolo Portoghesi & Vittorio Gigliotti. “The effect of the geometry extending beyond the building." Drawing for Casa Papanice in Rome, 1969.
Paolo Portoghesi & Vittorio Gigliotti. “The effect of the geometry extending beyond the building.” Drawing for Casa Papanice in Rome, 1969.

My Digital Humanities Project, which coincides with my senior thesis in Architectural Studies, begins here. I include narrative fragments, or “parabolic” events, that function as ‘parables’ to describe spatial encounters with the projects I analyze. I privilege storytelling in order to perform rather than explain the concepts I explore. Show, not tell. It is in this way that the cold data-corridors of cyberspace reach back into the reality of the physical world. By defining “space” as, at its core, an activity generated by the subjective human experience–from subjective human bodies–this project firmly grounds itself in both the ‘digital humanities’ and the ‘humanity of the digital.’

Craig Campbell
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Craig (Amherst College '15) is one of six 5CollDH undergraduate fellows for the 2014-2015 academic year.