I have been rather consumed with the idea of a parallel place to this place which we all know and love on earth called cyberspace, where things are a little warped, a little strange, a little out of the ordinary.
What do we know about cyberspace? Not a huge amount, it seems. I’ve done some research.
Firstly, I wanted to find out where the prefix cyber- came from. Cyber as a prefix first appeared as part of what was called cybernetics, a scientific field of study that was developed in the 1940s. This word ‘cybernetics’ derived from a Greek word kubernētēs (κυβερνᾶν), ‘steersman’, which comes from kubernan which means to steer. Cybernetics, as a term, associated with the blending of man and machine, soon became synonymous with the notion of ‘the future’, specifically, a future where man and machine are both equally thinking sentients. It wasn’t quite real.
Shortly after the birth of cybernetics, in the 1960s and through to the postmodern era in the 1990s, we see a proliferation of adapted words based on the prefix cyber, including cybercubicle, cyberfriend, cyberlover, cybersnob, and even adverbs like cyber-sheepishly. Arguably, the most enduring of these was the word, cyborg (made up of the cyb- of cybernetics and the org- or organism) described a blending of the man-made machine and the organic being studied in cybernetics to create something that had the capability of thinking freely and adapting to new environments. Cyborg has endured time. We still talk of cyborgs.
The term cyberspace itself was another of the ‘cyber-‘ words that proliferated following the 1960s and one which has endured to now. It is widely, but incorrectly, believed to have first appeared in 1982, in William Gibson’s novella ‘Burning Chrome’. In fact, it appeared earlier in a piece of art.
It first appeared in capital letters in the lower right-hand corner of a collage showing human figures placed within a space made up of geometric and organic shapes and forms. The creators of this piece of art were artist Susanne Ussing (1940–1998) and architect Carsten Hoff (b. 1934). Together they produced many works during the years 1968–1970 under the umbrella name Atelier Cyberspace.
In these terms then, initially, the concept of cyberspace was not particularly philosophical or theoretical. It certainly wasn’t scientific of science fictional.
The interesting thing about Ussing and Hoff’s cyberspace is the fact that it was a spatial concept. It was all about the organic interconnectedness between human form and the world. They were very much ahead of their time in considering this relationship. This ‘space’ is somewhere, which, perhaps ironically, has disappeared as technology has engulfed our lives. Yet, perhaps, this way of looking at the blending of the real and the virtual in our lives should not be seen as having died. There is a comforting place in cyberspace. This is how I see cyberspace. It is a place where strange things could exist, such as the captured glitches in the google maps landscape and images of two-headed cats on google earth, the objects imagined and described via social media, the bizarre, esoteric poetic text created scanned texts online.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry for cyberspace defines it as: ‘the space of virtual reality; the notional environment within which electronic communication (esp. via the Internet) occurs’.
Cyberspace now is associated with lawlessness, fear, lack of control and an underworld. Why shouldn’t it be a pleasant underworld? A sensual place where things that don’t look like they should be real, are real, where bodies are different and merged with text and objects. It could be a world where two-legged tables exist, gravity works sideways, the ceiling is the floor and the floor is the ceiling. It could be a place of a childhood imagination. Is it a place of pure data? It is a place where potentially, anything could happen.
William Gibson described cyberspace as a ‘nonspace’. This ‘nonspace’ means a space which lacks the physicality that ‘space’ implies. It is, to him, an imaginary location, if location is the right word, where information assumes the properties of matter. Gibson also described cyberspace as ‘collective hallucination’. This implies that it is the place of many minds – my mind as it meets yours online. However, to divorce the real and the virtual in this way, to create this ‘cyberspace’ seems to be missing the point.
The Internet, or, cyberspace, was supposed to be this free, utopian place where there would be no gender, no race, no superiority or inferiority, no rules, no commercialism, no capitalism, no politics at all. It was a place separate from the rest of reality. It was a place of unbridled optimism.
The real-virtual dualism is fictional. If lived experience is reflected so badly in the notion of cyberspace, the question is: what drove us to imagine cyberspace in the first place, and why does the concept still persist? The myth of cyberspace, that digital information inhabits a world apart from physical matter, is perhaps a reaction to the spread of interactive communications technologies, not all of which are in fact digital. The mythical ‘cyberspace’ is the space between the physical realities – two phones, two computers. Bruce Sterling, in The Hacker Crackdown, argues that cyberspace emerges from a subjective experience of separation. Sterling states that ‘we do not really know how to live in cyberspace yet’ (1992). He notes that cyberspace is a genuine place. I agree with him. It is as real as this current space I sit in. The interesting irony of the concept of cyberspace is that, even though we have thus far embraced it to resolve cognitive dissonance, it has causes more of it. Our offline lives impact our online lives, and visa vesa.
What’s more, I have recently found out also that you can exist in cyberspace after you die. There are ways and means to tweet to Twitter and to update your status in Facebook after you die. You can also request that messages or videos be sent to your loved ones on special occasions such as their birthdays, weddings etc long after you have died.
So this place which I am fascinated with includes two legged cats, strange gravitational forces, wonky roads, and dead people. Does that not sound uber-cool to you? It does to me.