Cyberspace

true names

Cyberspace is ‘the notional environment in which communication over computer networks occurs.’ The word became popular in the 1990s when the uses of the internet, networking, and digital communication were all growing dramatically. The parent term is ‘cybernetics,’ derived from an Ancient Greek word meaning ‘steersman,’ ‘governor,’ ‘pilot,’ or ‘rudder’ (coined by American mathematician Norbert Wiener for his pioneering work in electronic communication and control science).

According to programmer Chip Morningstar and game developer F. Randall Farmer, cyberspace is defined more by the social interactions involved rather than its technical implementation. In their view, the computational medium in cyberspace is an augmentation of the communication channel between real people; the core characteristic of cyberspace is that it offers an environment that consists of many participants with the ability to affect and influence each other. They derive this concept from the observation that people seek richness, complexity, and depth within a virtual world.

Cyberspace is a social experience where individuals can interact, exchange ideas, share information, provide social support, conduct business, direct actions, create artistic media, play games, engage in political discussion, and so on. In the early years of computer networking users were sometimes referred to as cybernauts. The term cyberspace has become a conventional means to describe anything associated with the Internet and the diverse Internet culture. The US government recognizes the interconnected information technology and the interdependent network of information technology infrastructures operating across this medium as part of the national critical infrastructure. Among individuals on cyberspace, there is believed to be a code of shared rules and ethics mutually beneficial for all to follow, referred to as ‘cyberethics.’ Many view the right to privacy as most important to a functional code of cyberethics. Such moral responsibilities go hand in hand when working online with global networks, specifically, when opinions are involved with online social experiences.

The term ‘cyberspace’ began appearing in fiction in the 1980s (for example, the 1980 Vernor Vinge novella ‘True Names,’ and the 1980 John M. Ford novel ‘Web of Angels’). Yet it was through the work of cyberpunk science fiction author William Gibson, that the word became prominently identified with online computer networks, beginning with the 1982 story ‘Burning Chrome’ and popularized by his 1984 novel ‘Neuromancer’: ‘Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.’ Now widely used, the term has since been criticized by Gibson, who commented on the origin of the term in the 2000 documentary ‘No Maps for These Territories’: ‘All I knew about the word ‘cyberspace’ when I coined it, was that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It seemed evocative and essentially meaningless. It was suggestive of something, but had no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.’

Sociologist Don Slater uses a metaphor to define cyberspace, describing the ‘sense of a social setting that exists purely within a space of representation and communication . . . it exists entirely within a computer space, distributed across increasingly complex and fluid networks.’ The term ‘Cyberspace’ started to become a de facto synonym for the internet, and later the World Wide Web, during the 1990s, especially in academic circles and activist communities. Just as in the real world there is no world government, cyberspace lacks an institutionally predefined hierarchical center. This does not mean that the dimension of power in cyberspace is absent, nor that power is dispersed and scattered into a thousand invisible streams, nor that it is evenly spread across myriad people and organizations, as some scholars had predicted. On the contrary, cyberspace is characterized by a precise structuring of hierarchies of power.

Author Bruce Sterling, who popularized this meaning, credits cyberlibertarian John Perry Barlow as the first to use it to refer to ‘the present-day nexus of computer and telecommunications networks.’ Barlow describes it in his essay to announce the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1990: ‘In this silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one forsakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone. You can see what your neighbors are saying (or recently said), but not what either they or their physical surroundings look like. Town meetings are continuous and discussions rage on everything from sexual kinks to depreciation schedules. Whether by one telephonic tendril or millions, they are all connected to one another. Collectively, they form what their inhabitants call the Net. It extends across that immense region of electron states, microwaves, magnetic fields, light pulses and thought which sci-fi writer William Gibson named Cyberspace.’ As Barlow, and the EFF, continued public education efforts to promote the idea of ‘digital rights,’ the term was increasingly used during the internet boom of the late 1990s.

Cyberspace describes the flow of digital data through the network of interconnected computers: it is at once not ‘real,’ since one could not spatially locate it as a tangible object, and clearly ‘real’ in its effects. Secondly, cyberspace is the site of computer-mediated communication (CMC), in which online relationships and alternative forms of online identity were enacted, raising important questions about the social psychology of internet use, the relationship between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ forms of life and interaction, and the relationship between the “real” and the virtual. Cyberspace draws attention to remediation of culture through new media technologies: it is not just a communication tool but a social destination, and is culturally significant in its own right. Finally, cyberspace can be seen as providing new opportunities to reshape society and culture through ‘hidden’ identities, or it can be seen as borderless communication and culture.

According to Bruce Sterling: ‘Cyberspace is the ‘place’ where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person’s phone, in some other city. The place between the phones. […] in the past twenty years, this electrical ‘space,’ which was once thin and dark and one-dimensional—little more than a narrow speaking-tube, stretching from phone to phone—has flung itself open like a gigantic jack-in-the-box. Light has flooded upon it, the eerie light of the glowing computer screen. This dark electric netherworld has become a vast flowering electronic landscape. Since the 1960s, the world of the telephone has cross-bred itself with computers and television, and though there is still no substance to cyberspace, nothing you can handle, it has a strange kind of physicality now. It makes good sense today to talk of cyberspace as a place all its own.’

A forerunner of the modern ideas of cyberspace is the Cartesian notion that people might be deceived by an evil demon that feeds them a false reality. This argument is the direct predecessor of modern ideas of a brain in a vat and many popular conceptions of cyberspace take Descartes’s ideas as their starting point. Visual arts have a tradition, stretching back to antiquity, of artifacts meant to fool the eye and be mistaken for reality. This questioning of reality occasionally led some philosophers and especially theologians to distrust art as deceiving people into entering a world which was not real (e.g. Aniconism, avoiding images of divine beings). The artistic challenge was resurrected with increasing ambition as art became more and more realistic with the invention of photography, film (e.g. ‘Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,’ an early film known for ‘astonished people in the audience who were unaccustomed to the amazingly realistic illusions created by moving pictures’), and immersive computer simulations.

American counterculture exponents like William S. Burroughs (whose literary influence on Gibson and cyberpunk in general is widely acknowledged) and Timothy Leary were among the first to extoll the potential of computers and computer networks for individual empowerment. Some contemporary philosophers and scientists (e.g. David Deutsch in ‘The Fabric of Reality’) employ virtual reality in various thought experiments. For example philosopher Philip Zhai in ‘Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality’ connects cyberspace to the platonic tradition: ‘Let us imagine a nation in which everyone is hooked up to a network of VR infrastructure. They have been so hooked up since they left their mother’s wombs. Immersed in cyberspace and maintaining their life by teleoperation, they have never imagined that life could be any different from that. The first person that thinks of the possibility of an alternative world like ours would be ridiculed by the majority of these citizens, just like the few enlightened ones in Plato’s allegory of the cave.’

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