In a restricted but popular sense, cyberculture denotes the hacker subculture along with various social and artistic manifestations; as such it references feedback loops, computer slang, video games, the Internet, hypertext, virtual communities, and more. In a wider and more argumentative sense, cyberculture refers to contemporary culture in its totality, insofar as it has been influenced by cybernetic technology and its creative ideas. In both senses cyberculture has become a new scientific and technological context that stimulates ethical reflection.
The term cyberculture appeared in the 1980s but is ultimately dependent on Norbert Wiener's creation of the science of "cybernetics" (1948). An initial cyberculture emerged before the term itself when the scholarly community attempted to apply cybernetics to the interpretation of phenomena in psychology, economics, politics, anthropology, and education. The work of Gregory Bateson (1972) and Heinz von Foerster (1984) in the development of "second-order cybernetics" was central to this development, as was the promotion of information and systems theory. In the Soviet Union cybernetics, after initially being rejected under late Stalinism as another form of bourgeois ideology, also exercised a special attraction as a possible means to reconcile central planning with the increasing complexities of large-scale systems that were straining under top-down management inefficiencies (Gerovitch 2002). Cyberculture in these senses was never so named, and was never more than an issue among specialist intellectuals.
A second-stage cyberculture emerged in science fiction from the mid-1980s. Bruce Bethke (in his 1983 short story "Cyberpunk"), William Gibson (in 1984's Neuromancer), and others developed a new form of science fiction; in opposition to classical science fiction, which had become somewhat domesticated, such authors introduced raw (punklike) elements and expressed a negative vision of the short-term future. Bruce Sterling (1986) provides a general introduction to this form of cyberculture. Promoted in part simply by the linguistic accident that cyber could be easily prefixed to anything from space to sex, cyberculture experienced a rapid inflationary moment in cyburbia and cyberia, cyberphilia and cyberphobia.
Science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson justified this inflation by declaring: "Our concept of cyberspace, cyberculture, and cyber-everything is ... a European idea, rooted in Deuteronomy, Socrates, Galileo, Jefferson, Edison, Jobs, Wozniak, glasnost, perestroika, and the United Federation of Planets" (1994, p. 100). In this sense, cyberculture includes everything from science and technology to politics and literature as it has been altered by the mediation of computers, digital interactivity, and "hacktivism" (Himanen 2001). From such an amplified perspective, cyberculture is simply that culture which emerges through symbiosis with cybernetic or information technology, itself understood as the fulfillment of technoscience, after the manner of Martin Heidegger's identification of cybernetics as the ultimate stage of metaphysics (Heidegger 1972). Indeed, the methods of experimentation and logical analysis that are central to science have now been supplemented with simulation modeling that introduces something such as cyber-experimentation into science.
Using a distinction between culture (of and related to nature or the body) and civilization (of or related to politics and rationality), cyberculture may also be thought of as constituted primarily by those human interactions with the material world of advanced technological artifice that are replacing nature as the basic context for human experience. Cybertechnology in some form has come to exist in the background of all new political orders and rational discourse, and even encourages human beings to consider the ways in which they are becoming cyborgs (Haraway 1991) or posthumans (Hayles 1999).
The general examination of cyberculture in these disparate senses is found in cyberculture studies, which includes the more focused field of cyborg studies. According to David Silver, director of the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies, this kind of activity has passed from popular promotion based on the image of a "cybernetic frontier" through an initial scholarly concern for sociological (virtual communities) and psychological (online identity transformation) implications, to what he terms "critical cyberculture studies." In critical cyberculture studies the ethical issues implicit in such works as Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993) and Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995) become explicit themes.
The shift from description to critical assessment has taken place around four overlapping themes. First, questions are raised about the personal and environmental safety of cybernetic hardware. The silicon chip and carbon-zinc battery industries are not as obviously polluting as steel mills and chemical plants; they nonetheless present major challenges to worker safety and environmental contamination in both the production and disposal cycles. Safety and ergonomic issues are further associated with the use of screens (eyestrain) and hands (keyboard and mouse strain).
Second, critical issues are further associated with economic and political discussions of dot-com cyber-industries. Concerns for the economic and political impacts of automation extend into discussions about cybernation, cybercrime, accounting fraud, marketing hype, treatment of labor, and concentrations of wealth and power in the networked society. Debates about a possible digital divide also fit in this category. At the same time, Pekka Himanen (2001) has argued that a distinctive cyber-economics is growing out of the "hacker ethic" applied to business affairs using open-source software. Finally, questions of cyberpower have been posed in relation to adaptions of the Internet to enhance democracy, to plot or practice criminal and terrorist communications (including venial hacking or "cracking" and the launching of viruses), and to police those same communications.
Third, detailed historical, sociological, and psychological studies have attempted to contextualize the practices characteristic of cyberculture. Empirical case studies qualify both promotional hype and jeremiad alarms. Cybersex is not unexpectedly one of the most written about topics (see, for example, Ben-Ze'ev 2004). But cyberculture is revealed as not so much cut loose from culture as culture in a new form, full of subtle negotiations taking place between online and off-line worlds, yet still with persistent dangers. The standards of acceptable behavior in cyberspace—for online communications, for instance—are constructed in ways that mirror what happens in playgrounds or offices.
Fourth, the narratives of cyberculture call for aesthetic and literary criticism. What are the distinctive structures of motion pictures of the cyberfuture such as Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), and The Matrix (1999)? Is cyberart a distinctive form that enhances—or does it only exploit and entertain? Can computers write poetry? In what ways do such stories and productions inform or obscure the phenomena they both use and challenge? What distinctive roles do violence, glamour, sex, and speed play in cyberspace? The mass production of virtual pornography, including bestiality and pederasty, poses special questions for cultural criticism.
These four themes, along with issues of ethical responsibilities among cyberprofessionals and questions about the ontological status of cyberrealities, are included in an increasing number of books focused on cyberethics. (The Association for Information Systems nevertheless restricts "cyberethics" to information system ethics.) Although all these themes appear in other encyclopedia articles, their relations deserve to be highlighted here to emphasize synergies and interactions among the various dimensions of coming to ethical terms with the new life human beings are creating for themselves through cyberculture, whether narrowly or broadly defined.
Bateson, Gregory. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. San Francisco: Chandler.
Ben-Ze'ev, Aaron. (2004). Love Online: Emotions on the Internet. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Bethke, Bruce. (1983). "Cyberpunk." Amazing Science Fiction Stories 57(4): 94–105.
Gerovitch, Slava. (2002). From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gibson, William. (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Berkeley.
Haraway, Donna J. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Hayles, N. Katherine. (1999). How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Heidegger, Martin. (1972). "The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking." In On Time and Being, trans. Joan Stambaugh. New York: Harper and Row. Originally published, 1964. For interpretation, see Herbert L. Dreyfus, "Cybernetics as the Last Stage of Metaphysics." In Proceedings of the XIVth International Congress of Philosophy, Vol. 2. Vienna: Herder.
Himanen, Pekka. (2001). The Hacker Ethic, and the Spirit of the Information Age. New York: Random House.
Jones, Steven G. (1997). Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Rheingold, Howard. (2000). The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, rev. edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Silver, David, and Donald Snyder. (2003). "Cyberculture and Related Studies." In Education and Technology: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, ed. Ann Kovalchick and Kara Dawson. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Stephenson, Neal. (1994). "In the Kingdom of Mao Bell; or, Destroy the Users on the Waiting List!" Wired, no. 2.02: 98–103, 128–132.
Sterling, Bruce, ed. (1986). Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. New York: Arbor House.
Turkle, Sherry. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.
von Foerster, Heinz. (1984). Observing Systems. Seaside, CA: Intersystems Publications.
Wiener, Norbert. (1948). Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. New York: Wiley. 2nd edition, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1961.
Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies. Available from http://www.com.washington.edu/rccs/.