The word “cyberspace”

The word “cyberspace” (a portmanteau of cybernetics and space) was coined by William Gibson, the Canadian science fiction writer, in 1982 in his novelette “Burning Chrome” in Omni magazine and was subsequently popularized in his novel Neuromancer. “Meatspace” is a term coined later as an opposite of “cyberspace”.

While cyberspace should not be confused with the real Internet, the term is often used simply to refer to objects and identities that exist largely within the computing network itself, so that a web site, for example, might be metaphorically said to “exist in cyberspace.” According to this interpretation, events taking place on the Internet are not therefore happening in the countries where the participants or the servers are physically located, but “in cyberspace”. This becomes a reasonable viewpoint once distributed services (e.g. Freenet) become widespread, and the physical identity and location of the participants become impossible to determine due to anonymous or pseudonymous communication. The laws of any particular nation state would therefore not apply.

Besides aiding the layman’s suspension of disbelief in fictional works, the success of this rather ambitiously ambiguous metaphor is in large part due to the splintering of the profession of Computer Programmer into various specialized vocations. As John Ippolito put it:

“These days there is no reason to expect a video editor to know HTML, a web designer to know perl, a database programmer to understand packet switching.

So to introduce his readers to cyberspace —the global fabric that supposedly knits together all these separate threads— Gibson fell back on something our culture had prepared everyone to understand: a chase sequence through an imagined space. It would seem, therefore, that the metaphor of cyberspace is not merely a narrative of convenience but a practical necessity”.

As well as being a concept used in philosophy and computing, cyberspace has been commonly used in popular culture, for example

* The anime Digimon is set in a version of cyberspace called the “Digital World”. The Digital World is a parallel universe made up of data from the Internet. Similar to cyberspace, except that people could physically enter this world instead of merely using a computer.
* In the math mystery cartoon Cyberchase, the action takes place in Cyberspace, managed by the benevolent ruler, Motherboard. It is used as a conceit to allow storylines to take place in virtual worlds — “Cybersites” — on any theme and where specific math concepts can be best explored.
* In the movie Tron, a programmer was transferred to the program world, where programs were personalities, resembling the forms of their creators.
* The idea of “the matrix” in the movie The Matrix resembles a complex form of cyberspace where people are “jacked in” from the real world, and can create anything and do anything they want in this cyber world.

Although cyberspace is a common idea it can mean several different types of virtual reality. In the rest of this article we will explore a few, starting with the simplest and then increasing its complexity one after another until reaching the logical extremity.

Cyberspace As a Metaphor: Text-Based Internet-Surfing

The word “cyberspace” is currently used in a primarily metaphoric sense and is mostly associated with the Internet. When we sit in front of a computer and turn it on, something like magic happens before us; if we are correctly hooked up we can bring up an environment of hypertext with a click of the mouse. It feels like that behind the screen, there is a potentially very huge reservoir of information that is always in the making. Such a reservoir is somewhere, out there. We are certainly aware that people who generate information, and places wherein information resides, are not behind the screen or in the hard drive, but we nevertheless take the computer as a gateway to another place where other people have done similar things. Conceptually, we tend to envision a nonphysical “space” existing between here and there, and believe that we can access that “space” by utilizing computer-based technologies. We send messages to others by e-mail, or talk to others in a chat room. We play chess on-line interactively as if the rival were right before us, though invisible. By participating in an on-line teleconference, we experience some sort of presence of other conference participants. But where are we? Where are those with whom we communicate? Since we can reach one another in a certain way, but are mutually separated after all, we tend to envisage the potential of such an electronic connection in terms of spatiality. Usually, we call it “cyberspace” that connects and separates us at the same time when we are engaged in the networked electronic communicative activities — the “space” that seems to open up or shut down as the computer screen is activated or deactivated. In this sense, what we get from cyberspace is mostly text-based information with graphic visual aid.

But the concept of spatiality is based on the notion of “volume duality”, as Zettl calls it. A space has positive and negative components. The positive volume has substance, while the negative volume is empty and delineated by things with substance. For example, a room has the negative volume of usable space delineated by positive volume of walls. But text-based Internet does not have such duality. When we surf the Internet for its textual contents, we know we are spatially situated in front of a computer screen, and we cannot enter the screen and explore the unknown part of the Net as an extension of the space we are in. We know that the volume duality does not extend to the textual sources, because the screen itself belongs to the positive side of the space, and the gap between the screen and us belongs to the negative side; that is, the duality is already exhausted before we consider the textual contents on the screen. As for the gap between two words in a textual page, it only functions to separate two symbols, and symbols are not considered substantive entities.

When we read the text page by page, however, we might attribute a spatial meaning to the interval between two pages if we consider the unturned pages to be somewhere “out there.” The choice of the word “page” may also figuratively implicates a spatial interpretation. Furthermore, words such as “files”, “folders”, “windows”, and “sites” might even suggest that there be a spatial dynamic at work behind the scenes. But the only role of these figurative metaphors is organizing the textual contents, and the contents themselves are not figurative. The word “cyberspace” here refers, therefore, not to the content being presented to the surfer, but rather to the dynamic that enables us to surf among different units of contents. We project a figurative structure into the symbolic connections which we know clearly are not figurative or spatial.

Therefore, “cyberspace” understood not as something other than “space” but as one kind of space, is metaphorical. Some of us call it “nonphysical” space as if space allows a nonphysical version, but it remains unclear how space can be non-physical in its original sense. The metaphorical use of the term seems to be based on our understanding of the electronic connectivity, for the purpose of storing and delivering symbolic meaning, as a means of gathering and separating contents. In such a case, the word “space” might suggest a collage of positive and negative volumes, or the interplay between presence and absence of meaning. It directs us to regard the delivered meaning-complexes as delineated by operational units that are not given as symbolically meaningful, and that correspond to our actions of clicking, scrolling, typing, etc. These actions create “gaps” between our mental operations that articulate different units of meaning carried by symbols.

The prefix “cyber” is derived from our understanding of a cybernetic process as a self-reflexive dynamic system that uses a negative feedback circuit to stabilize an open-ended process. Here the notion of cyberspace applies such an understanding of the self-reflexive mechanism in cybernetics to the meaning-making process of the hypermedia. Thus cyberspace suggests a possibly infinite number of occasions of grouping and separating, surfing and routing, constructing and destroying, etc. This open-ended quality resembles the perceived infinity of the physical space that cannot be pictured as being bounded by something. It is impossible to imagine that it would reach a final closure. Similarly, the experience of always having a potential to encounter something unknown or unexpected seems to be inherent in the surfing process. This is a process of perpetual interactions.

In the context of such a metaphor, how can we understand the notion of cyber-culture? In fact, there is a tendency in the media to equate cyberspace with cyber-culture, and forget the hard-cored phenomenological aspect of cyberspace. When some journalists attempt to play the role of cultural critics on the Internet, they frequently convey a message that cyberspace is equivalent to a digital community or a digital city. That is, a web of personal relationships, where civic democracy is based on a balance of diversity and unity, or of coherence and openness. But such an equation between cyberspace and a web of personal relationships does not help us envision the possibilities of cyberspace and cyber-culture, because it prevents us from asking the question of how cyberspace allows for the rise of cyber-culture; nor does it help us understand the fact that the metaphoric nature of text-based cyberspace has been carried over to the current understanding of the formation of the so-called “cyber-culture”.

One assumption behind the notion of cyber community as currently held is that a community, as a cultural entity, can be formed solely on the act of communicating a shared set of social values. But in the real world, we don’t consider such an act alone a sufficient condition for cultural identity. It seems that the physical proximity, geographically and ethnically understood, is more basic for the formation of cultural identity among those with shared values. The rhetoric of cyber community has yet to be justified by solid analysis before it can hope to become a conceptual tool that helps us understand cyberspace and cyber-culture adequately.

Cyberspace As an Incomplete Replica: Video-Based Game-Playing

Video-based game playing differs from text-based communicating in regard to the meaning of spatiality, as long as the “gap” on the screen is a representation of the negative volume of space in the setting of the game. Video images are meant to be figures that actually occupy a space and the animation is meant to reproduce the movement of those figures in motion. Images are supposed to form the positive volume that delineates the empty space. Video images have to be able to move across the screen, on which the physical space of the game-player merges with the purported space surrounding the game figures.

A game cannot adopt itself to the cyber-culture metaphor unless it first reaches out to engage more players in the game, and then allows players to be figuratively represented on the screen. These figurative surrogates that act on behalf of the players are called “avatars.” But since an avatar represents the player in an objectified manner, the alleged identity between the player’s actual body and the avatar is no more than a stipulation. In such a case, there is no primordial space constitution at the ontological level. The Husserlian constitutive act of consciousness does not take the space surrounding the avatar and the space surrounding the player’s body as one and the same space.

If we now call it “cyberspace” that allows avatars to move around as symbolic representations of the actual participant’s bodies, then the metaphoric use of the word that suggests an open-ended potential of meaning-generating and reserving would become obsolete. A notion of digital community discussed above would now demand a representation of the alleged community members by avatars. However, since the sense of participation depends strongly on the participant’s self-identity as an un-mediated subjective person from her first-person perspective, the objectified avatar necessarily creates an ontological gap that cannot be filled by stipulation, and the talk about cyber-culture remains metaphorical and flashy.

Cyberspace As a 3-D Immersive Environment: Interacting with Synthetic Entities

Video games don’t have to stop at the avatar-player level. Once an immersive environment is furnished in the game that separates the player from the natural environment, the objectified space will be incorporated into the first-person perspective. It will replace the original space, and the artificial space will be extending from the center of the player’s field of vision to unlimited possibilities, and thus cyberspace is experienced as the only space with no other level of spatiality being constituted. The 3-D images will be made to change according to a pattern such that the player’s movement will be experienced as moving in a stand-alone world; this world has a potential to evolve by itself, and can extend to the unknown remoteness. It is experientially equivalent to the physical world we are familiar with before we enter cyberspace. In his book, Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality, Philip Zhai suggested a game-playing scenario as follows:

Suppose you and your partner are going to play the game for the first time. Before you get started, you will each be instructed to wear a helmet (or goggles) so that you won’t be able to see anything except the animated video images on two small screens right in front of your eyes, and to hear anything except sounds from two earphones next to your ears. So you see 3-D animation and hear stereo sound. You need also, perhaps, to wear a pair of gloves that will both monitor your hand movement and give you different amount of pressure against your palm and fingers corresponding to your changing visual and audio sensations in the game. You are now situated in a motion tracker so that you can move freely without leaving the place and your body’s movement can be detected and the signals can be fed into the computer; the computer also processes all visual, audio information as well. So you are totally wired to play an interactive game with your partner, mediated by cyberspace. Your partner is in another room, wired to the same computer, doing the same.

As soon as the game gets started, you begin to see with your eyes, hear with your ears, and feel with your hands and with the whole body, a self-contained environment isolated from the actual environment. In other words, you are immersed in cyberspace. Let us assume a typical type of game contents as follows. Your partner and you, each holding a shooting gun, are ready to fire at each other. The 3-D images are so realistic, and your body movements are coordinated with your images on the screen in such a way that you can hardly tell the difference between the animated images and your original body. Your partner looks as real as yourself. There are perhaps a few trees or rocks between you and your partner. There may also be a house you can get in and out, or what not. You can touch the leaves of the tree, and feel the hardness of the wall. So you run, turn, hide, get nervous, bumped, scared, or excited; you hear noises from different directions; when your partner shoots at you, you feel the hit on the corresponding spot of your body; you hesitate and pull the trigger to fire back…back and forth…back and forth…until one of you gets a “fatal” shot, bleeding, and loses the game. Now the game stops but you don’t feel a sharp pain or feel like dying even if you are the loser. Actually you will shortly get unwired and come back to the actual world, alive and amazed.

In such a game-playing experience, the players must take the cyberspace as the actual space in order to get involved in the process. They must suspend the judgment whether the perceived spatiality is “real” or “illusory” and ignore what their memory tells them concerning the difference between the current immersive experience of the game and a real situation. They must respond to the objectified entities in cyberspace exactly like they do in the real world, since they visually, aurally, and kinetically experience their own bodies in the same cyberspace. The consciousness must undertake a Husserlian non-reflective act of space constitution in the same way it does for the actual space. At this point, cyberspace has realized itself as it is originally meant to be. It isolates the player from the actual space with the immersive environment; it represents the totality of the positive and negative volumes of virtual reality.

As soon as we enter into such a virtual environment that enables us to interact with one another while we are constituting the very spatiality itself, we can anticipate the formation of cyber-culture in a non-metaphoric sense. If we communicate with one another in cyberspace in such a way for the purposes of conversation, value-sharing, feeling-expressing, or project-oriented cooperation, etc., then a cyber-community can be literally formed. A cyber-culture will then follow its own destiny of rise and fall.

The idea of a fully immersive cyberspace, such as that depicted in the matrix, is often used as a possible situation in epistemology intended to demonstrate the possibility of skepticism and present one argument for it. This is perhaps one of the most popular arguments in all of philosophy, for a discussion of it see brain-in-a-vat. It should be noticed however that the brain-in-a-vat argument is unlike cyberspace as concieved here as it talks about the sense organs being bypassed and the reality experience being fed into the brain directly. One difficulty with cyberspace as a philosophical tool to promote skepticism is that it requires the existence of a ‘real world’ outside of cyberspace wheras a hardline skeptic would say that it is possible for there to be no ‘real world’ at all.

Cyberspace As an Augmented Habitat: Teleoperation

Cyber-culture as discussed above is significant, but it is still non-consequential at the ontological level. The more exciting thing is that cyberspace and virtual reality can go even further. Combining it with the technology of teleoperation, we can enter into cyberspace and interact with artificial objects to manipulate the actual physical process. When I perform an act of picking a stone in cyberspace, for example, a robotic surrogate body of mine in the real world will pick up a real stone. Since all of our physical contact with the natural world for the sake of survival and prosperity is hardly more than asserting physical force to objects, robots can, in principle, perform all tasks of the same kind. So we can build the foundational part of the virtual world in which we are able to accomplish all agricultural and industrial works without ever leaving cyberspace.

Therefore, virtual reality with the capability of facilitating teleoperation will have all the necessary components of the actual world. Furthermore, if we were put into the immersive environment of cyberspace by our parents before we know anything about the actual world, and trained to do everything by teleoperation only, we will take cyberspace as the default habitat, and be unable to function well in the natural environment. As a result, we would develop a natural science about that unknown virtual world, if we are not the designer of its infrastructure and don’t know the design principles of this virtual world. Here is what Zhai wrote in his book:

“Let us imagine a nation in which everyone is hooked up to a network of VR infrastructure. They have been so hooked up since they left their mother’s wombs. Immersed in cyberspace and maintaining their life by teleoperation, they have never imagined that life could be any different from that. The first person that thinks of the possibility of an alternative world like ours would be ridiculed by the majority of these citizens, just like the few enlightened ones in Plato’s allegory of the cave. They cook or dine out, sleep or stay up all night, date or mate, take showers, travel for business or pleasure, conduct scientific research, philosophize, go to movies, read romances and science fiction, win contests or lose, get married or stay single, have children or have none, grow old, and die of accidents or diseases or whatever: the same life cycle as ours.”

“Since they are totally immersed, and they do everything necessary for their survival and prosperity while they are immersed, they don’t know that they are leading a kind of life that could be viewed as illusory or synthetic from outsiders such as us. They would have no way of knowing that, unless they were told and shown the undeniable evidence. Or they would have to wait for their philosophers to help them stretch their minds by demonstrating such a possibility through reasoning.”

“A more interesting possibility is that their technology would lead to the invention of their own version of VR, which gives them an opportunity to reflect on the nature of ‘reality’ in a tangible way, just as we are now doing at this moment. Then they would possibly ask the same type of questions as we are asking now.”

“If there were such a free kingdom, can we say they are in a state of ‘collective hallucination’? No, if by calling it a hallucination we mean to know that ours is not the same. What if I ask you: ‘How can you show me that this imagined nation is not the one we are in right now?’ That is, how do we know that we are not exactly those citizens immersed in VR? In order to separate ourselves from such a possibility, let us assume the basic laws of physics in that virtual world have been programmed to be different from ours. Suppose their gravity is twice as much as ours. So their ‘physical’ objects of the same molecular structure as ours will accelerate, say, twice as fast when they are in free fall, and twice as heavy when they try to lift them. At the same time, they can see lights such as infrared or ultraviolet, which we cannot see. Their scientists will formulate the law of gravity according to their observations. Due to a well-coordinated interface, they can teleoperate things in our actual world smoothly and thus run their basic economy well.”

“Knowing all of these from our ‘outside’ point of view, can we thereby judge that their scientists are wrong while ours right? Of course not, because they would have as strong a reason to tell us that our scientists are wrong. Moreover, from their point of view, they are not doing any teleoperation, but are controlling the physical processes directly; we, not they, are in fact doing teleoperation. If we tell them that their VR outfit gives them distorted version of reality, they would tell us, by exactly the same logic, that our lack of such outfits disables us from seeing things as they are. They would ridicule us and say, ‘You don’t even know what ultraviolet and infrared look like!'”

When cyberspace reaches the stage of Teleoperation, cyber-cultures in every sense would be able to develop just in the same way traditional cultures do in the actual world. Therefore everything we can say about traditional cultures in general would apply to cyber-cultures, and there is no need to discuss every specific mode of cyber-culture in such a circumstance. After all, as Zhai pointed out in his book, the basic idea is simple: ontologically and functionally, the goggles are equivalent to our natural eyes, and the bodysuit is equivalent to our natural skin; there is no relevant difference between them that makes the natural real while the artificial unreal. But the significant difference lies in their relationship to human creativity: we were given one world, but make and choose the other.

Cyberspace As an Arena of Artistic Creativity: Non-Consequential Re-Creation

If we only had the foundational part of virtual reality serving our practical purposes, virtual reality would be no more than an efficient tool for manipulating physical processes. What will fascinate us more is the expansive part of virtual reality. This part of VR will unlock our inner energy of artistic creativity for building a synthetic world as a result of our free imagination.

This expansive part does not have the same ontological status as the foundational part since, first of all, virtual objects in it do not have their counterparts in the actual world based on physical causality. In this expansive part, we may encounter all kinds of virtual objects as a result of digital programming. We can perceive virtual rocks with or without weight, virtual stars that can disappear at any time, virtual wind that produces music, and so on. We can also have virtual animals like or unlike animals we have seen before in the actual world. Secondly, we can “meet” virtual “human beings” whose behavior is totally determined by the program. They are not agents, do not have a first-person perspective, and do not perceive or experience anything.

Therefore, in this expansive part, events are neither related to the causal process in the actual world nor initiated by an outside conscious agent. This is a world of pure simulation, or a world of ultimate re-creation. In such a world, cyberspace is a sea of meaning, and it’s so deep that any imaginable mode of artistic or recreational culture would have a chance to grow out of it.


Early philosophical conceptions

Before cyberspace became a technological possibility many philosophers suggested the posibility of a virtual reality similar to cyberspace. In The Republic, Plato sets out his allegory of the cave which is widely cited as one of the first conceptual realities. He suggests that we are already in a form of virtual reality which we are deceived into thinking is true reality. True reality for Plato is only accesible through mental training and is the reality of the forms.

These ideas are central to Platonism and neo platonism. Perhaps the conception closest to our modern ideas of cyberspace is Descartes thought that people might be deceived by an evil demon which feeds them a false reality. This argument is the direct predesessor of the modern ideas of brain in a vat and many popular conceptions of cyberspace take Descartes ideas as their starting point.

Early philosophers also suggested the existence of a virtual cyberspace that was created by life like artistic representations. Some philosophers came to distrust art because it deceived people into entering a world which was not real and sited examples of artists whose paintings, sculptures and even literature could deceive people and animals. These ideas where reserected with increasing force as art became more and more realistic and with the invention of photography, film and finally emersive computer simulations.

Modern Philosophy and Cyberspace

Perhaps one of the first indications of cyberspace becoming a topic of deep human consequence arose during the 1978 Nova Convention, in a conversation between William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Timothy Leary, Les Levine & Robert Anton Wilson about the nature of evolution, time, space and mind. One of the underlying themes in the convention was the disenchantment with the Blue Sky Tribe and the initial cravings for “cyber topics” such as transhumanism, Gaia theory and Decentralisation.

William S. Burroughs’ quotes from the convention:

“Time is a resource, and time is is running out. We are stuck in this dimension of time.”

“This is the space age, and we are here to go.. However, the space program has been restricted to a mediocre elite who —at great expense— have gone to the moon in an aqualung. Now, they’re not really looking for space, they’re looking for more time. Like the lungfish, and the walking catfish; they weren’t looking for a dimension different from water, they were looking for more water”.

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