The term cyberspace, was originally a creation of late twentieth-century science fiction, and it has come to have two extended uses. In technical training contexts, it has become a useful handle for the notional “space” a person (or “user”) enters when logging on to a computer. In a social science context, the term refers to new social spaces fostered by computer-enabled automated information and communication technologies (AICTs). Often, those using cyberspace in this way confer on it important, and even transformative, impacts on “real life” social relations. However, a tendency to assume transformation without demonstrating it means descriptions of cyberspace should be approached with caution.
The term was first used by William Gibson in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. By making an electronic connection, or “jacking in,” to networked computers, a character in the novel entered into “cyberspace,” an alternative and rather dark social universe whose interaction with real life drove the novel’s plot. Shedding negative connotations, “navigating in cyberspace” became a helpful metaphor for the experiences of getting around a computer’s virtual “desktop,” navigating in and out of open software “windows,” or projecting a personal “avatar” in an online virtual game or business communications environment.
As computers appeared in more and more human activities, technology talk was similarly cyberspaced. This use paralleled the late twentieth-century, popular use of the term technology, which was often equated linguistically with advanced technological forms and innovations. Thus, the realm of technology became coterminous with cyberspace.
It is now common in social science to critique such uses of technology, and thus to be suspicious of cybertalk. Since all cultures are substantially mediated by technologies of one sort or another, to equate the technological with cyberspace is ethnocentric. In the field of STS (science and technology studies), technology is used analytically to refer to any complex of artifacts, actors, and practices. Still, social scientists interested in the relationship between technology and social change (e.g., Hakken 1999) have found interactions between cyberspace and real life to be a convenient point at which to start analyzing the dynamics of hybrid (computered and noncomputered) social spaces.
The term information technology (IT) also became widely used in this period; it was used to refer to any system of practices involving devices for automatically storing and manipulating digitized information (e.g., computers). IT shifts the focus away from a particular computing machine to the broadening range of more general systems in which it becomes embedded. Particularly with the rise of the Internet and similar technologies of communication with embedded IT, scholars began to talk more about information and communication technologies (ICTs). What is distinctive about computer-mediated ICTs, and thus of cyberspace, is the extent to which information storage, manipulation, and communication take place according to protocols built into hardware and software.
Like other labels, such as Information Age or Knowledge Society, cyberspace tends to be equated with epochal social change. AICTs are presumed to play a seminal, causal role in globalization (see Friedman 2005). Such presumptions fit neatly into long traditions of theorizing, from Leninist Marxisms to postmodernisms, that privilege technologies as engines of social change. In the long, especially American version of technological determinism, the impact of any other social dynamics on technologies is largely ignored.
Ironically, the social correlates of automated ICTs, and the dynamics of cyberspace, become both more pronounced and harder to see. The attribution of transformational changes in social relations to the adoption of AICTs is reinforced by, and reinforces, popular perceptions of massive, technology-induced social change. That AICTs automate processes (make them more rapid, more far-reaching, etc.) is what gives them their potential to transform. Yet in carrying out interactions among data, information, and knowledge “behind our backs,” AICTs also make these social processes more opaque. The political and social theorist Langdon Winner points to a dazzled, computing-induced “technological somnambulism” that has made the age of cyberspace an era of “mythinformation” (Winner 1984).
Thus, there is a belief that cyberspace colonizes real life, that the new social relations engendered by computing first influence and then come to dominate what went before. Its popularity explains why social science attends to cybertalk, but to many observers it should do so as hypothesis, not as presumption. Social scientists need to explore the ways in which the social dynamics of computer-mediated spaces are influenced by, as well as influence, other social dynamics. Some, such as Frank Webster, have studied cyberspace in this even-handed empirical manner, and those with long ethnographic involvement in cyberspace tend to document social continuities between cyberspace and other social dynamics. Yet even this work too often complexifies its own interpretation, performing transformationalist rhetoric irrespective of—and often in contradiction to—its own empirical results.
In practice, university courses on the social impacts of computing outnumber those on the impacts of social processes on computing. The pervasive sense that transformative social change is inevitable, and therefore not worth thinking about too much, may follow functionally from the actions of powerful social forces that have an interest in promoting this view. For all these reasons, social research on cyberspace, like most popular musings on technology, needs to be approached with skepticism.
SEE ALSO Technology; Technology, Adoption of
Bell, Daniel. 1973. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting. New York: Basic Books.
Gibson, William. 1984. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books.
Hakken David. 1999. [email protected]?: An Ethnographer Looks to the Future. New York: Routledge.
Webster, Frank. 2002. Theories of the Information Society. 2nd ed. London: Taylor & Francis.
Winner, Langdon. 1984. Mythinformation in the High Tech Era. IEEE Spectrum 21 (6): 90–96.
Cyberspace is a term used to describe a new kind of "space" that has been made possible by the Internet. The word has a short but complex history with obscure and shifting meanings and constitutes a context for ethical issues related to science and technology.
In everyday life the notion of space is self-evident and denotes that, along with time, "in which" people live. In mathematics it refers to a collection of elements, such as points, that satisfy certain mathematical postulates. In both cases space is more given than created. In the first case, space is given, while in the second case it is a created, abstract space that people can understand conceptually but cannot directly experience.
The term cyberspace gained notice after William Gibson's use of it in his science fiction novel Neuromancer (1984). Through one of the novel's characters Gibson speaks of cyberspace as "consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions" of people, thus referring to a "non-real" space that is common to all. More specifically, he speaks about a "graphical representation of data" that emerges by abstraction from "every computer." One comes to be in cyberspace by turning a switch "on" and thus producing an instantaneous transition to it. Once there, people can enjoy the "bodiless exultation of cyberspace." Although they are somewhat confusing, these are powerful characterizations.
The prefix cyber derives from cybernetics, a term coined by the mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894–1964) in 1948 to denote the study of control processes in machines and animals. That term was derived from the Greek kubernetes, meaning "governor" or "pilot." Cyberspace, then, is a kind of "controlled," humanly produced space.
In one of its senses cyberspace refers to the "spaces" associated with virtual reality, an advanced computer-based technology in which people wear headsets with stereoscopic displays, carry trackers that sense their motion, and use special input devices. With the help of those devices people navigate in "simulated" spaces, typically graphical representations of three-dimensional mathematical spaces. The integrated use of these devices creates an experience of immersion in a "virtual" reality, thus realizing an important aspect of Gibson's vision: that it is possible to enter into cyberspace, leaving the body behind.
In another sense, which became predominant in the mid-1990s, cyberspace refers to the integrated "space" made possible by the Internet, which is populated by large numbers of entities of various kinds and in which people perform multiple activities. Although this space does not support immersion, it brings to life another important ingredient of Gibson's cyberspace: the fact that it is common to all.
In City of Bits, William Mitchell approaches the Internet from the perspective of space and place and suggests that "the worldwide computer network—the electronic agora—subverts, displaces, and radically redefines our notions of gathering place, community, and urban life" (1995, p. 8). Mitchell proposes that the Internet is antispatial in the sense that it is "nowhere in particular but everywhere at once" and that it is noncorporeal because people's identity in it is "electronic" and disembodied. In addition, because of this disembodiment, the constructions others make of people in an effort to give those people an identity are fragmented. Also, the Internet favors asynchronic communication.
Increasingly, the word Internet is being invested with a broad meaning to encompass the notion of cyberspace in the second sense discussed above. For this reason ethical issues arising in cyberspace are covered under the entry "Internet." Other ethical issues are discussed in the entries "Cyberculture" and "Computer Ethics."
AGUSTIN A. ARAYA
Gibson, William. (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books. This is a science fiction novel that became very popular among science fiction readers. It was also a source of inspiration for people working on certain advanced computer technologies.
Halbert, Terry, and Elaine Ingulli. (2002). CyberEthics. Cincinnati: West-Thomson Learning. A textbook on ethical issues that arise in the Internet and cyberspace. It combines analysis by the two authors with extensive reprints from works of several well-known authors in the area. Emphasizes a legal perspective and strives to present a balanced view of the issues by examining them from multiple viewpoints.
Mitchell, William J. (1995). City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Perceptive analysis of several dimensions of the Internet and cyberspace, made partly from the point of view of architecture, with its emphasis on space and place, and partly from the author's early experience with the Internet.
Cyberspace refers to the online world that is formed by computer systems and networks. The word was coined by author William Gibson in his science fiction novel Neuromancer. It originated in the mid-1980s to define the virtual world that exists due to the advent of the Internet, which in its earliest form was a community that shared ideas and information.
Increasing interest in cyberspace has given way to a plethora of new ideas and related jargon. The term cyber is used as a prefix with increasing regularity. Cybergeography, for instance, is known as the study of the spatial nature of computer communications networks, or the geography of cyberspace. Cyberpsychology, the study of the psychological impact of cyberspace, also is becoming popular as the number of World Wide Web surfers increases.
One of the most significant additions to cyberspace has been e-commerce. With technological advances, the business world has been able to apply traditional brick-and-mortar ideas to the realm of cyberspace. Advocates of the early days of the Internet feel that e-commerce has had a negative effect on the integrity of cyberspace, while others argue that the growth of e-commerce in cyberspace is crucial to economic development. Originally used as a forum for exchanging information and ideas, cyberspace has become a virtual marketplace where a Web surfer can trade stocks, buy just about anything, take care of banking needs, and even apply for home loans.
The rising popularity of e-commerce has made it nearly impossible to go online and enter cyberspace without encountering a barrage of advertising and commerce information. For instance, when the search engine Yahoo! was first introduced, no shopping links appeared on its home page. By the early 2000s, this had changed. Web surfers using the site to search for information saw a list of online stores pop up, offering products related to their search. From November to mid-December 2000, online spending more than doubled over the same time period in the previous year, reaching $8.7 billion. These numbers are predicted to increase dramatically in coming years.
To protect the growing numbers of online consumers and merchants, e-commerce legislation known as cyberlaw has emerged. Similar to laws in the real world, cyberlaw deals with topics such as the protection of copyrights, business transactions, electronic payment systems, and privacy. This type legislation continues to develop in response to the evolution of cyberspace, commercial and otherwise.
Barham, Richard. "Quest for Harmony in Cyberspace." The Banker. August, 2000.
Colin, Robert, and Lori Enos. "Report: 85 Percent of Net Surfers Shop Online." E-Commerce Times. May 31, 2000. Available from www.ecommercetimes.com/perl/printer/3440/.
Enos, Lori. "Study: E-Holiday Spending Doubled." E-Commerce Times. December 27, 2000. Available from www.ecommercetimes.com/perl/printer/6306.
Regan, Keith. "These Are the Web's Good Old Days." E-Commerce Times. June 2, 2000. Available www.ecommercetimes.com.