Mental - Material vs. Digital - Physical

Author: Gytis Dovydaitis

I am trying to conceptually comprehend the internet as a space. One thing is for sure: the binary opposition of technically defined digital - physical spaces tells very little about actual characteristics of space in relation to the internet. After reading numerous academic publications my perspective started to shift towards a complex layer system. Here I will present the initial stage of my thought process.

Geometric abstraction of Euclidian space - the dominating spatial system used in natural sciences and architecture, defined by three dimensions of height, width and depth.
Geometric abstraction of Euclidian space - the dominating spatial system used in natural sciences and architecture, defined by three dimensions of height, width and depth.
Hyperbolic geometry - a common alternative to Euclidian paradigm. Typographically,
Hyperbolic geometry - a common alternative to Euclidian paradigm. Typographically, cyberspace is more hyperbolic than Euclidian.

Internet spatiality is obviously composed both of material and psychic phenomena. However, neither of sides covers a full picture. Calling internet a digital space by straightforwardly applying physical principles on it does portray internet as a transcendental "world - out - there", something what is separated from reality, hence ontologically irrelevant in comparison to physical space. Such assumption brings various political, social, psychological implications. But this comes not out of nowhere: the ontological supremacy of physicality comes from materialist train of thought. Enlightenment and the age of rationality praised the material world to such an extent that subjective psychic experiences were pushed away as trivial. Although phenomenology, psychoanalysis and postmodernity brought various social and psychic aspects back to the stage, the idea of space had remained primarily a materialist concern anyway. Contemporary science still has space in its grips. It's also not uncommon to see how architecture still speaks of space as simply an organization of objects. Hence internet called a space remains a secondary space, while space built out of concrete and bricks seems to be the primary plane of human existence. While from a first glance calling internet a digital space might seem to bring the two worlds closer, and yet - it acts as a segregationist verbal device: there is “space” and there is “internet space” or “cyberspace”. However, phenomenology and postmodern philosophy showed that there is one coherent space, only divided into various sections, and sometimes these divisions are formal, sometimes psychic, and sometimes purely metaphoric. What would bring positing a different dichotomy: instead of physical - digital, a material - mental? Here the phenomenological aspect of internet spatiality would be emphasized, where various cognitive effects internet has on humans would rise to display. Internet is not simply a space where you can feel cold, it’s a space where your attention is manipulated. Material - mental division allows to integrate the internet into a wider array of spatial experiences, not only those conveyed thorough the computer screen. Here internet becomes both part of the material world as infrastructure and interfaces, and part of mental world as phenomenological experience of moving, embodying or interacting.

The mental space is commonly described and depicted
The mental space is commonly described and depicted as being hyperbolic.

Material - mental model creates a useful division into layers. On the one hand you could speak about it in linear terms, as material side being infrastructure, devices, interfaces, and then turning into mental with movement and interactions (which appear to be inherently important for the experience of space). But there also is value in speaking about materiality of mentality: of movement or interaction, which happens because program code - a material substrate - allows it, or creates conditions for it. And just as well you can speak about mentality of materials - mental assumptions, significations, associations with devices or rooms where these devices are held. It’s not as much a linear structure, but more like a dialectically connected layer system.

Material - mental model creates an interesting precedent where mental aspect of internet spatiality becomes compared to the dreams, daydreaming, memory. But does anybody say that we are moving in our memory? There is the act of remembering, recalling, reminiscing, but not moving through the memory (although sometimes that is used as a metaphor in poetic contexts). Spatiality of internet is a lot more vivid and embodied than that of dreams of daydreaming.


Digital - physical dichotomy emphasizes the interface and infrastructure, and juxtaposes it with immaterial digital superstructure, which imposes certain structures on the physical, while physical is the content and object of manipulation for the digital. Mental - material is a more phenomenological view where mental is not only mediated digitally, but semiotically generated in general - it’s the lived space of Lefebvre mixed with representations of space. Shifting from digital to mental puts more emphasis on the cognitive aspect of interaction. While digital influences the mental, mental spatiality is invoked through both digitally and physically mediated symbols.

These ideas seem to have potential, which will be explored in later articles.