Convergences

It’s fitting that we start our online Convergences project off with this week’s topic — Cyberspace:

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 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

This quote, from William Gibson’s 1984 science fiction novel Neuromancer, was the first time the term “cyberspace” had been given meaning. Since then, it’s played an important role in our culture, in academics and even in politics. This week’s discussion will attempt to explore what kind of “space” cyberspace is, how its meaning may have changed from the past, and what it may mean in the future.

To start, let’s look at the spatial aspect of cyberspace. In the “Sidewalks In Cyberspace” essay, Zatz compares and contrasts online space with its “offline” counterpart:

Relationships among ordinary, physical places are primarily structured by relationships of distance and direction. Places occupy fixed locations in space, and although the significance of fixed relative location is substantially influenced by technological interventions and social practices, geography matters nonetheless.

…Cyberspace is different. Although within its bounds a discrete cyber-place may be substantially similar to analogous “real world” places, the relationships among cyber-places are vastly different. Three features are particularly salient: distance, adjacency, and fixity. (Convergences, pp. 287-288)

Zatz states that, in cyberspace, distance is erased (the next stopping point is just a URL away), adjacency moves from something geographic to an active practice (that is, we’re only adjacent if I blogroll you, or if I create a trackback to your blog), and fixity has no meaning (as web sites can be, and are, constantly changing).

Koppell, in “No ‘There’ There,” approaches the notion of cyberspace from a very different direction. Instead of noting how online and offline spaces are different, he questions whether cyberspace is a “space” at all:

Cyberspace isn’t on any map, but I know that it may exist, because it is spoken of every day. People spend hours in chat rooms. They visit web sites. They travel through this electronic domain on an information superhighway. The language we use implies that cyberspace is a place as tangible as France or St. Louis or the coffee shop on the corner. But why, exactly, should we think of the Internet as a geographic location? (Convergences, pp. 283-286)

Koppell notes that other “communities” (professional groups, ham radio operators) don’t imply space. He says that TV, telephones and postal mail offer the ability to communicate, but we don’t regard them as spaces. Maybe, he suggests, the idea of online as a space is simply a marketing ploy by AOL to make it seem more mysterious, more intriguing?

Koppell is most interested in the legal and regulatory aspects of the net. He contends that cyberspace isn’t really anything new, and while the idea of the online world as something new and pristine, a “pure state,” may give politicians pause, existing laws concerning economics and criminal behavior can essentially be applied.

So, who’s right? Or maybe, like many things, it’s not really matter of right and wrong…

One argument against Koppell’s view is from Bruce Sterling, a sci-fi writer and thinker (currently writing for Wired). In “The Hacker Crackdown,” he addresses our topic up front:

A science fiction writer coined the useful term “cyberspace” in 1982. But the territory in question, the electronic frontier, is about a hundred and thirty years old. 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. The indefinite place out there, where the two of you, two human beings, actually meet and communicate.

Although it is not exactly “real,” “cyberspace” is a genuine place. Things happen there that have very genuine consequences. This “place” is not “real,” but it is serious, it is earnest. Tens of thousands of people have dedicated their lives to it, to the public service of public communication by wire and electronics.

Perhaps that’s a better standard — cyberspace is a real place, because real things happen there. I like the word “earnest.” Do we do a disservice to the concept of cyberspace — and its inhabitants — by even questioning its existence, or its reality, or it’s “purity” (as Koppell remarks)?

Note that the essays from the text were written at least six years ago. That’s practically a lifetime in digital years. Let’s fast forward to today, and see if things have changed.

Six years later, the space between what’s real and what’s virtual is closing. The web has exploded. Blogs have turned around the concept of journalism. Online gaming worlds (such as Second Life and World of Warcraft) have millions of inhabitants, and online communities (such as the liberal group blog, Daily Kos) get some of the highest audience numbers on the net. The word “earnest,” again, comes to mind. Certainly in the online space of left-leaning politics, of which I’m very well acquainted, people take the ideas of “community” and “politics” and “activism” very seriously.

Virtual gaming is especially interesting, because here is where the edges of online and offline space are blurring most noticeably. Entire economies have developed in these games, economies that cross over into the real world. Advertisers are also seeking out these games, with product placement deals for real life products. There’s even a labor market appearing, as workers from poorer countries create virtual goods that pay them real world cash. Virtual sweatshops, perhaps?

Real world politics have even infiltrated the virtual — in 2005, a group of Chinese gamers committed virtual suicide, to protest their government’s crackdown on game play.

It’s clear things have changed since Koppell and Zatz wrote their pieces. Do the essays in Convergences still hold true? Are the points valid, or has time — and technology — passed them by?

Some final thoughts, not necessarily in any order…

Zatz’s notions of online space centered on the URL, which implies a web browser as the graphical user interface (or, GUI). What happens when that changes? One day, perhaps, the GUI, our “window” into the web, may be much more immersive, much more 3D. Think of the movie Minority Report, and the way Anderton interacted with his computer. Or imagine walking through your computer, using a visual interface similar to what we see in a first-person shooter game. Does that make the spatial aspect of cyberspace more real?

Next, noted media theorist Lev Manovich, in The Language of New Media, discussed the concept of “telepresence”:

Telepresence allows the subject to control not just the simulation but reality itself. Telepresence provides the ability to manipulate remotely physical reality in real time through its image. The body of a teleoperator is transmitted, in real time, to another location where it can act on the subject’s behalf – repairing a space station, doing underwater excavation, or bombing a military base in Iraq or Yugoslavia. (pp. 166-167)

And, related, Stanford’s The Presence Project has examples of what Manovich spoke of in theory — using the web to control real world activity. Does the concept of telepresence make cyberspace as a space more, or less, valid?

There’s much more we could bring into this discussion: online property rights, net neutrality, the advertising industry and it’s impact, the political economy behind cyberspace.

As a point of discussion, though, let’s bring the conversation back to the original question of cyberspace as a “space.” What do you think? Is it helpful to use spatial references when thinking about the online world?

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