cyberspace

The term “cyberspace” derives from a singular and particular source and quickly devolves into a welter of associated and comingled pseudo-synonyms. Originally coined in William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel “Neuromancer”, cyberspace has, in the years since its 1984 debut, been the matter of interpretation and reinterpretation in both popular and academic circles. Terminologically, the word in question is multiply defined or obfuscated in “the common vernacular, which has increasingly used Internet and Web interchangeably, if not merged with an even broader, more amorphous term – cyberspace” (Klotz). Cyberspace as a term has become, in popular media, a sort of catch-all for any iteration of computer mediated virtuality, communicative device or pseudo-spatial simulation. As a term, the word is complex and “The extent to which we mix metaphors when speaking of this technology (highway, frontier, community, web) hints at our complex understanding of it.” (Markham). Any action tangentially connected to these themes is quickly appellated as a “cyber”-something with examples ranging from cybersex to cybercrime to cyberbullying. Since the nature of cyberspace is still a very flexible and current concern, the term lacks a certain specificity in popular parlance.
Things are hardly better in the academy, and a definitive definition of cyberspace is still a matter of debate. “One of the relatively straightforward definitions of cyberspace offered by William Gibson, is to be ‘wrapped in media’ and this expresses a vital aspect of the phenomena” but of course does not address particular manifestations of the phenomenon. That being said, there are certain aspects of the term which can be generally agreed upon. Cyberspace can be broadly understood as a mutually imagined environment within the medium of computer mediated communication that is perceived through specifically coded visual or audio representations.
The language of this description points toward the two major aspects of cyberspace, those being the spatial and the social. Strictly speaking, cyberspace is not an actual “space” and cannot be described as having actual physically spatial measurements. This fact notwithstanding, cyberspace is understood, represented and apprehended as possessing the attributes of a particularly unbounded and multidimensional “space”.(Lyon) Virtual interactions take place “within” cyberspace rather than through it, evidencing an unspoken conception of the medium as a sort of arena for interactions, rather abstracted from the physically networked computers that constitute the actual makeup of the medium. At this juncture it may prove useful to distinguish cyberspace proper from the internet or electrospace which “is literal and concrete rather than virtual or symbolic” and as such constitutes the physically spatial medium that the virtually spatial medium of cyberspace inhabits. (Graham) The Internet is a technological artifact that one goes on, whereas cyberspace is a virtually accessible cultural space that one goes in. What, then, is going in and what is it going into? From a strictly literal sense nothing from the user actually enters into cyberspace save the semiotic inputs resulting from physical manipulation, but that conclusion is as boring as it is facile. If cyberspace is “spatial” in the theoretical and experiential meaning of the term, something must occupy said space. A perceived self-representation of the virtual body seems the most likely candidate for such a hypothesis, as “The body never disappears in cyberspace; it is continually reaffirmed, reimagined, and reified – written and re-written, over and over again”. (Rodriguez) Deleuze and Guattari have posited the structure as rhizomatic “which has the characteristics of connection and heterogeneity: any point of a network of rhizomes can be connected to anything else in the network, and must form such connections”. This depiction quite naturally evokes a finely if chaotically wrought web and its virtual equivalent, the Web. These connections create spaces of movement between the “rhizome” nodes, making cyberspace “a ‘smooth space’ whose potential for expansion is infinite; “One rides a ‘flux’ and ‘flow’ of information. One wanders.” (Emery) In short, cyberspace is a systemic network in which no one connection is necessary, but some connection is; it is this rhizomatic networked space through which the virtualized perception of the user’s body subjectively “moves”.
Though not as etymologically evident as the “space” in cyberspace, the cultural aspect of the term is also highly relevant. It is vital to recall that while cyberspace is a virtual space, it is not a space apart and that “Cyberspace is inflected by the values, cultures, power systems, and institutional orders within which it is embedded.” (Sassen) While we may meaningfully discuss cyberculture, it is disingenuous to treat it ex nihilo. McKenzie Wark extends Plato’s analogy of The Cave towards cyber society insisting, with other theorists, that “Cyberspace, like the theatrical stage, implicates the real outside the machine, as it produces its own real inside the machine”. (Roderiguez) Gibson’s description of cyberspace as a “mass consensual hallucination” is a good starting point, but his poetics do not address the multiplicity or specificity of cybercultural experience. Cyberculture is not monolithic, and “Internet users do not comprise a single culture, but enact innumerable cultural forms”. (Markham) This fact derives from the rhizomatic structure of the space; if this is a space wherein any connection can form, the threshold for the creation of any one niche is rather low. The effort required to communicate is nearly negligible in a cyberspace which “offers a medium in which people can interact and coordinate their actions without relying on face-to-face communication” (Tsagarousianou et al) Another important facet of cybercultural exchange is that it is largely asynchronic and textual. Barring videochat, discourse is most often conducted via discrete snippets of text with consequences that are more thoroughly discussed in Text.
While the technical aspects of cyberculture are vital, they can arguably be understood as the stage upon which subjective cybercultural experience manifests. Cyberspace is both imagined and real, and “That which was previously mentally projected, which was lived as metaphor in the terrestrial habitat is from now on projected entirely without metaphor, into the absolute space of simulation”. (Baudillard) Cyberspace is an arena of real virtual creation, and the relationships and experiences forged there possess characteristics of both the real and virtual to such an extent that the term “hyperreal” has been posited to describe them. In this “hyper-reality, image saturation and simulacra seem more powerful than the real”. (Jordan) Communities here are not built on propinquity or kinship ties, but rather through shared virtual experiences or virtually shared real experiences. These communities are real(ly virtual), and “The fact that many people believe virtual communities to be real places in which they live real experiences brings this blurring of the real and the unreal closer to Baudillard’s postmodern moment of the hyperreal than to representation. (Karatzogianni) This notion of cyberspace as hyperreal is problematic in what it implies; if cyberspace is apprehended as more real than the real, where does that leave us as media theorists? Are we on the cusp of “The end of space through cyberspace, the end of knowledge through information and the end of the imaginary through the hyperreal”? (Nunes) These categories are by no means exclusive or diametrically opposed within cybertheory, and while there is a certain sensationalistic feel of breathless futurism amid some of these claims they give rise to intriguing dialogues in which many “‘critical’ and ‘poststructuralist’ cyber theories are examined and interrogated from within but simultaneously expanded to become ‘hypermodernity’”. (Armitage and Roberts) Many of these dialogues attempt to attach a value judgment to the phenomenon of cyberculture, with the discussion focusing primarily on whether or not cyberspace and cybersociety is deleterious or beneficial to the virtually mediated relationships it fosters. The relationship to the self is also at stake under McLuhan’s model of prosthesis/amputation model as “Self-amputation forbids self-recognition” which leads to “narcissistic hypnosis” (McLuhan) Regardless of whether the advent of cyberspace is viewed as a bane or a boon, it is difficult to ignore that it has become an integral part of for most inhabitants of developed countries; we now “wear all mankind as our skin” (McLuhan). It is a site of relation and communication, discussed, debated and legislated to the point where it would be fair to say that “In the poststructuralist cyber cultural framework where animated life activities develop, a key facet of cyberspace is its contemporary hold over the cultural imaginary.” (Amritage and Roberts) Like any media, the cultural content does not reside in the actual medium itself, but instead is composed of its users’ interactions with each other through the medium. At the same time, a blank book is still an artifact which can be identified as a book even though it lacks content, while the concept of an empty cyberspace is fundamentally nonsensical. Cyberspace and cybersociality are functionally different from static media in that they are constantly and necessarily being remediated into different forms while “cybernetics redraws the boundary once again to locate both the observer and the system within complex, networked, adaptive and coevolving environments through which information and data are pervasively flowing, a move catalyzed by the rapid development of ubiquitous technologies and mixed reality systems.” (Hayles) Biomedia explores this concept in parallel, especially as it relates to the regulation of “information flows” within DNA. (Thacker) Cyberspace is cyborgical; without the human element cyberspace transforms into a sterile nullity. It must be recreated infinitely, as there is no other media that can encapsulate cyberspace; you cannot bind it in a book, record it on a tape, or hold it in the memory but cyberspace can accept all these media form. It is a human/media hybrid, “a mosaic, a random organization of moments embedded in text and live through the body/mind to create a narrative in retrospect.” (Markham)
According to the Oxford English Dictionary cyberspace is “The notional environment within which electronic communication occurs, esp. when represented as the inside of a computer system; space perceived as such by an observer but generated by a computer system and having no real existence; the space of virtual reality.” Though factually accurate, the unstated assumptions that underlie this admittedly concise definition gloss over a veritable cornucopia of problematics for critical media theory. The term itself is undergoing constant remediation and critical redefinition making it difficult to definitively state what, in fact, cyberspace is.

Aubrey Slaughter

Works Cited
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