The Savvy Scientist

The overdue death of cyberspace

Posting in Architecture

The word "cyberspace" once seemed ever-present in popular tech writing. Its gradual disappearance reflects how well society has adjusted to ubiquitous networking.

Remember "cyberspace"?

As William Gibson, the author who coined the word in his science fiction, put it, cyberspace was the cool "consensual illusion" experienced by billions of users of the world's online networks, an unthinkably complex "graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system." Or as his fellow author Bruce Sterling said, cyberspace was that mental plane where we go during a phone conversation. It was that strangely perilous and exciting realm where l33t hackers might be kings and revolutionaries, where new mega-fortunes would be won.

Or at least it seemed that way a decade and more ago, as multitudes started going online for the first time. Today, both the word and the ideals it represented have fallen on hard times, for better or worse. Cyberspace, which once sounded like the digital Promised Land, has become the fabled lost continent of Netlantis.

The story of what happened to cyberspace may say something about how metaphors and jargon help us to grasp the potential of new technologies -- and how they become obsolete.

Shrinking cyberspace

These thoughts came to mind not long ago when I chanced across the word while reading and realized how long it had been since I'd last heard it. The word may have always seemed a little nerdy and embarrassing, but for a while during the late 1990s, it seemed almost inescapable in tech news stories and popular culture. Given how ubiquitous computing and online communications have become, could cyberspace really have fallen so far out of favor?

To check whether my sense of the term's disuse was accurate, I did some unscientific surveys of the word's occurrences over the past couple of decades, starting with Lexis-Nexis searches through back issues of various newspapers.

(I had hoped to do broader, more collective searches across groups and categories of publications but my Lexis-Nexis service wouldn't tabulate more than 3,000 hits at a time, which truncated the results.)

The pattern was obvious and fairly consistent. After scarcely appearing at all, "cyberspace" started to explode in late 1993 and 1994, coinciding with the introduction of the Mosaic web browser -- the software that made the Web accessible and the Internet much more useful for most of the public. The word faded, though, with the dot-com era (it may have started to go even earlier: coverage of the dot-com stock bubble may have slightly juiced up its numbers around 2000). It has weakly persisted or been in slight decline ever since.

A similar search for the use of "cyberspace" in books using Google's Ngram Viewer yielded a similar pattern.

Hypothesizing that writers might have started using "Internet" or "the Web" as replacements for "cyberspace," I compared their usage as well. The results don't prove anything but they're certainly suggestive: those other online terms grew robustly long after cyberspace dropped off.

Cyberspace's bad fortunes at first seem perplexing. A billion more people are online today than at the word's peak. Second Life, massively multiplayer online role-playing games, low-cost virtual reality gear, and consumer-level motion-capture tech like Microsoft's Kinect have made digital spaces into real places for tens of millions of people. Why would "cyberspace" lose traction when the concept has more relevance than ever?

Verbal mission creep

Cyberspace started out as narrowly signifying only the representation of users' experience while interacting with computer systems and data structures. It didn’t even necessarily connote something as sophisticated as immersive virtual reality; early proponents of the term were happy to accept type interfaces as manifestations of cyberspace.

But the slippery notion that it also represented a mind set -- the place where the mind wandered while online -- helped to guarantee the expansion of that definition. Over the objections of purists and with the help of bemused and dazzled journalists, cyberspace gradually became loosely synonymous with both the Web and the Internet for many people.

And with that expanded definition came pronouncements that made the rise of cyberspace more mythic and millennial. For some, it stopped being just a metaphorical construct: it became a digitized domain of pure thought and potentially infinite freedom. John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, spoke for all of them in his "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," which begins:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. … You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

The normal constraints and rules didn't need to apply.

Reality bites back

But inevitably, real-world constraints do still apply. As some social critics always argued, the metaphor of cyberspace disguised that the Internet consists of a lot of software running on a lot of servers -- servers with actual geographical locations and owners subject to local laws and financial limitations. (Gibson himself described the term as "evocative and essentially meaningless.")

As societies come to rely on the Internet more, they are forced to confront those realities and their implications. Past debates over whether online retailers should be subject to sales tax like their brick-and-mortar competitors and whether the First Amendment applied in chat rooms were only a warm-up.

For instance, the whistle-blowing Wikileaks organization has made use of the Internet's gifts for preserving anonymity and tested the abilities of governments to crack down on those who spill their secrets. But Wikileaks survives in part by basing its servers in places like Sweden, where information providers enjoy constitutional protections. A pending piece of U.S. legislation, the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the Research Works Act, would grant intellectual property owners extraordinary rights to shut down websites that they felt infringed on their works. Whatever one thinks of either Wikileaks or SOPA, it's hard to see how imagining that they operate in some parallel digital universe will help to clarify the controversies.

Another consideration may be that computers are no longer the only -- or often even the principal -- way that people go online. Twenty years ago, the prospect of an immersive, sensually rich cyberspace offered welcome respite from user interfaces ruled by command lines and window-based file architectures on a monitor. These days, people are just as likely to be using the Internet through phones, tablets, or other devices that are part of their daily lives. The distraction of navigating through some realized cyberspace may be the last thing they need or want.

Moreover, online-based companies increasingly take advantage of users' geographical locations in their delivery of services. The online world and meat-space are becoming more intertwined. The futurist Alex Soojung-Kim Pang captures it precisely:

As the Internet becomes more pervasive -- as it moves off desktops and screen and becomes embedded in things, spaces, and minds -- cyberspace will disappear.

Social media may also have changed people's perceptions of the online experience. For people who have grown up in the past 20 years, the online experience doesn't need demystifying: it is as natural as conversation for them because -- as Bruce Sterling said -- it is where they have conversations. The cyberspace of today's Internet isn't a vast, dizzying complex of glowing data structures where lonely cowboy hackers roam. It's Facebook.

Other materials of interest:

"The Death of Cyberspace," by Lawrence Lessig [pdf]. An essay from 2000 in which the noted law professor lamented how oppressive intellectual property regulations were already strangling the creative spirit that had characterized the early Web.

"Cyberspace," by Mark Graham, a research fellow at the University of Oxford's Internet Institute. A blog post in which he discusses some of his own criticisms of the cyberspace concept.

"Ten Reasons to Stop Apologizing for Your Online Life," a TEDx Victoria talk video by Alexandra Samuel, a social media researcher at Emily Carr University who argues that people should stop putting "online friends" into a category apart from other real-world relationships.

Image: florian_kuhlmann, via Flickr

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John Rennie

Contributing Editor

Columnist, Science John Rennie is the former editor-in-chief of Scientific American. He has written for IEEE Spectrum, New York Times and The Economist and has appeared on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, NPR and Minnesota Public Radio. He has spoken at the World Business Forum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wharton School of Business, University of Tennessee and Middlebury College and is an adjunct instructor at New York University, editor at large for Txchnologist.com and contributing editor to ecomagination.com. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure