The Myth of Cyberspace

In the early 1980s, when personal computing first became a reality, the faces of glowing terminals had an almost magical aura, transubstantiating arcane passages of 1s and 0s into sensory experience. In fact, the seemingly impenetrable complexity of what was unfolding behind the screen created a sense of mystery and wonderment. We were in awe of the hackers who could unlock the code and conjure various illusions from it; they were modern magicians who seemed to travel between two worlds: reality and cyberspace. One day, we imagined, these sages of cyberspace would leave their bodies behind and fully immerse themselves in the secret world behind the screen. Such images manifested themselves through the decades in films like Tron, Hackers, and The Matrix and in the fiction narratives of the cyberpunk genre. When the public internet first emerged, images of cyberspace were already deeply embedded in our collective imagination; these images have become the primary lens through which we view and evaluate our online activity. For this reason, tracing the genealogy of the cyberspace concept reveals much about present cultural assumptions regarding our relationship with information technology.

The term cyberspace was first coined by author William Gibson. In Neuromancer, he imagines it as

a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system ... Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.

A “nonspace,” meaning that cyberspace lacks the physicality that “space” conventionally implies. Gibson’s  cyberspace is an imaginary setting where information takes on some of the properties of matter. Yet, cyberspace is transcendent; it requires leaving behind the body and the physical world that contains it. When hackers “jack in,” they are no longer conscious of the physical world. The hacker trades a physical body and environment for one constructed of digital information. It is important to note that, as the cyberpunk genre evolved, it increasingly wrestled with forms of consciousness that blended sensory inputs from physical and digital sources. Nevertheless, cyberspace, as an ideal type, involves total separation of physical and digital.

Gibson described cyberspace as a “collective hallucination,” suggesting that cyberspace was a place shared by multiple disembodied minds. However, the very same phrase also aptly describes the role that the concept of cyberspace has now come to occupy in contemporary culture. What was once merely a descriptor used in a fantasy setting has evolved into an extensive moral and political framework predicated on a perceived dualism between “the real world” of atoms and “the virtual world” of bits — an ideological assumption Nathan Jurgenson recently described as “digital dualism.”

The history of the cyberspace concept’s evolution from a descriptive category to a moral one is somewhat varied. Initially, when the commercial internet promised to make cyberspace a reality, it was greeted with much fanfare. For early internet pioneers, the “real world” vs. cyberspace dualism served a certain naive, if profitable, political agenda of envisioning the Web as a utopia where users could escape the divisions and institutionalized inequalities of the past. A memorable MCI commercial from 1994 reflects the zeitgeist of that period, touting the Web as a place set apart from all existing ills in the world:

People here communicate mind to mind. There is no race. There are no genders. There is no age. There are no infirmities. There are only minds. Utopia? No, the Internet.

However hyperbolic these claims seem in a contemporary context, this sort of unbridled optimism is a logical extension of belief that the Web is separate from the rest of reality.

This early optimism would not go unchallenged for very long. It took little time for broadcast media outlets to seize upon the perceived separation between “the real” and “the virtual” as a source of attention-grabbing sensationalism, recasting the World Wide Web as the new Wild Wild West — a rough-and-tumble space of cyber-bullying, cyber-sex, and cyber-crime. The rhetoric of “cyberspace,” “the virtual,” and “cyber-[fill-in-the-blank]” were put to use, invoking fear of things that were portrayed as equal parts dangerous and incomprehensible. The New Yorker’s famous “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon from 1993 captured the growing fears that a predator could be lurking behind every chat message or screen name. In the 2000s, real-name policies, identity-verification schemes, and users’ general preference for transparency took much of the mystery out of the Web; nevertheless, dystopian rhetoric about the loss of intimacy, authenticity, and intellectual depth still abounds. Recent polemics such as Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur, and Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion dispute cyber-utopianism largely without ever challenging the dualist assumptions that make such naive optimism about the Web possible in the first place.

The problem plaguing cyber-utopians and cyber-skeptics is that both fail to recognize that the whole real-virtual dualism is nothing more than a fiction. There have never been any real “console cowboys” diving into computer screens, their bodies transposed from atoms to bits. Our everyday use of the internet is very much an embodied experience. Consider apps like Foursquare or Yelp and GPS devices: Their purpose is to provide us (and marketers) with useful (digital) information based on our physical location. Another example of how technology blends the physical and digital is in the marketing of tablet devices. Recall that the launch of the iPad was accompanied by images of Steve Jobs lounging back in a chair, consuming digital information in physical comfort. We use the internet differently on tablets — and even consume different sorts of information — than we do on laptops or desktop PCs. Perhaps, most importantly, the Web itself varies widely based on users' geographic location. Beyond the basic issues of infrastructure and state censorship, there are other geographically-bound characteristics of populations, such as language, that very much influence what digital resources are available to local users. The Web reproduces existing social norms and geopolitical divisions more than it defies them; it is characterized by redundancy, not transcendence.

Even Gibson has come to acknowledge that the cyberspace concept has little purchase in describing our current relationship with technology. He now argues that the realm of digital information is being “everted” into the physical world. That is to say, there are not two separate realities — one of atoms and one of bits — but one blended or augmented reality where atoms and bits interact and continuously influence one another.

But if lived experience is reflected so poorly in the concept of cyberspace, then what drove us to imagine cyberspace in the first place, and why does the concept still persist? The cyberspace myth — that digital information inhabits a world apart from physical matter — appears to have been a reaction to the proliferation of interactive communications technologies, not all of which were digital. In the introduction to The Hacker Crackdown, Bruce Sterling traces the genealogy of the concept back to our desire to make sense of what happens in the space between people engaged in a long-distance telephone conversation:

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.

For Sterling, cyberspace emerges from a subjective experience of separation. The telephone creates a feeling of cognitive dissonance. How can the other person on the line be so far and yet seem so near? To overcome this disconnect, we create for ourselves a little expository travel narrative. We begin to imagine information as occupying space and then imagine this space as something that can be traversed and experienced, an alternate geography that provides a new path to reach the other person on the line. And though we know we are indulging in a fantasy, we can’t help but take it seriously. Sterling captures this when he writes: “Although it is not exactly ‘real,’ ‘cyberspace’ is a genuine place … This ‘place’ is not ‘real,’ but it is serious, it is earnest.”

The fantasy of cyberspace is “serious” because it is cognitively necessary. It relieves us of the burden of having to parse the seemingly infinite complexity of the systems that make such communication possible. This kind of fantasizing is a counterpart to what sociologist Anthony Giddens calls the “bargain with modernity.” Giddens believes that our modern lives are characterized by an endless series of risks (e.g., driving a car, stepping into an elevator, taking medicine, etc.) because it is not possible for any one individual to understand all the minute complexities of the myriad technological systems we depend on every day, we must place our trust (and our very lives) in the hands of experts. Trust is our basic conscious mechanism for dealing with such complexities; denial is its unconscious counterpart. Fantasy gives substance to this denial. Part of the seductiveness of the cyberspace fantasy is that, by denying the complex, mutually determining relationship between our society and the Web, it makes our lives and our everyday judgments simpler.

Romantics might argue that the inability of individuals to control or even fully grasp complex technological systems illustrates a need to turn back the clock, to return to simpler times. For such techno-skeptics, socio-technical complexity is an insurmountable obstacle for the human species and the kind of denial engendered in the cyberspace myth is symptomatic of a deep-seated incompatibility between humans and technology. I will not embrace such an argument here; rather, I agree with Giddens that humans can thrive under conditions of socio-technical complexity, even if we must forfeit certain notions of self-reliance. As I see it, the true problem with denying that digital information and the physical world are conjoined and reciprocally influential is that this belief leads to a rift in our perception of reality. That is to say, the fantasy of cyberspace represents a refusal to accept digital information (and its physical extension in computer terminals and other machines) as part of the natural world we inhabit. And, as such, those digitally augmented things appear alien and unnatural to us. We believe them to be separate from us in some profound way.

A young Karl Marx once made very similar argument when observing how industrial production technologies upset long-established human relationships. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he contended that the human species is defined by several fundamental relationships between humans and the social environment we inhabit. He argued that we experience alienation when social structures disrupt these natural relations by imposing some form of separation. Alienation can result in profound negative social and psychological consequences. Though Marx was primarily concerned with the Industrial Revolution (stoked by the spread of capitalism), his observations about alienation are potentially applicable to other technological transformations.

Alienation, however, has more to do with how we organize society around a technology than the technology itself. That is not to say technology is inherently politically neutral — it is hard to imagine non-alienating factory work under any circumstances (grand speculations about communism notwithstanding) — but the way we interpret technology and integrate it into our lives is subject to a degree of cultural relativism. The myth of separation between the real and the virtual (and the alienation it engenders) is simply one possible cultural reaction to the emergence of Internet technologies — a particularly insidious one that leads us to trivialize or delegitimize many of our own (digitally-mediated) social interactions. As digital information increasingly augments various facets of our lives, we grow alienated from those same facets, which now appear to us as less real.

The great irony of the cyberspace concept is that, though we embraced it to resolve cognitive dissonance, it has come to cause only more of it. As Facebook, Twitter, and other social-networking sites have grown more popular, it has become undeniable that they play an important role in organizing our social lives. Our presence on these sites arguably has become so important that we begin to experience the world differently, tailoring our behavior toward producing desirable sorts of things to share on them. We all know intuitively that what we do online affects us offline and vice versa — that both comprise the same friends, the same conversations, the same events. Yet the collective fantasy of cyberspace and all its related vocabulary are so deeply embedded in our cultural logic that we cannot help but lapse into denial of these obvious truths. Our language betrays us; it obfuscates the truth of our experience.

Western culture has a long history of creating such dualisms when confronted with crises of meaning or identity. For example, we have long evaded questions regarding our mortality by conceptually separating matter and form, body and soul. As with cyberspace, this age-old dualism generated a subsequent need to imagine a space where soul could exist apart from body, so we imagined heaven and hell. Our uncritical acceptance of the cyberspace fantasy has imbued it with a similar sacredness; it has become part of a new secular religion, built on faith in something that is imagined but never experienced.

Religion, as Emile Durkheim famously defined it, “is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions — beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community.” Cyberspace is exactly the sort of thing that we have set apart conceptually and subjected to ceaseless moralizing: It has become almost second nature to claim that “the virtual” is less intimate, authentic, or natural than “the real.” Despite its failure to compellingly describe the world we inhabit, cyberspace nevertheless thrives as a framework for making moral judgments about that same world. Cyberspace has become our Mount Olympus, the founding myth of the Internet Age. It is an article of faith, not the product of lived experience.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with fantasy. Speculative fiction provides an important opportunity to anticipate and prepare for techno-cultural change. The problem arises when we begin to prioritize that fictional narrative over actual experience, when we let these speculations control the reality that emerges. We have allowed the myth of cyberspace to usurp reason and to shape perception in our increasingly digitally-mediated lives. Perhaps, this realization should not come as too much of a surprise. Gibson himself recognized that the creative capacities of human beings predispose us to supplanting concrete observation with abstract concepts. A passage from Memory Palace can be read almost as claiming that the cyberspace myth fulfills some broader human teleology:

You see, so we’ve always been on our way to this new place — that is no place, really — but it is real. It’s our nature to represent. We’re the animal that represents — the sole and only maker of maps. And, if our weakness has been to confuse the bright and bloody colors of our calendars with the true weather of days, and the parchment’s territory of our maps with the land spread out before us—never mind. We have always been on our way to this new place — that is no place, really — but it is real.

Cyberspace is not real per se but real in the sense of the Thomas theorem: "If [wo]men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences." Real reality is not characterized by such dualisms; it is equally made of atoms and bits. The cost of upholding this mythical separation is that we have become disassociated with many aspects of our lives. If we hope to make ourselves whole again, we first need a new vocabulary, new myths, and new representations for the Web.

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