Table of Contents
Defining cyberspace is really a matter of context. For example, John Perry Barlow, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, famously defined it as “... where you are when you are talking on the telephone.”. Others have defined it more narrowly, as the interactive space that is used for all computer mediated communication, or even the space that the web resides in. William Gibson, who coined the term in his Sci-fi novel Neuromancer (1984), suggested it was a “consensual hallucination”. Here, we'll take the broadest of views.
A common factor in almost all definitions of cyberspace is the sense of place that they convey - cyberspace is most definitely a place where you chat, explore, research and play.
How can we discover the geography of the Internet? How does this geography alter our perception of the real and virtual worlds?
Since the Internet is really just a set of interconnected points, it is readily examined using the formal techniques of topology or graph theory.
A common technique is to use Internet traffic diagnostics, such as the ping and traceroute commands to explore the structure of the nodes that connect to form the internet. Webcrawlers (as used by search engines) can also explore and discover the underlying network.
The resulting maps are a snapshot of the Internet's topology at a give point in time, and aside from being quite beautiful, also clearly illustrate the concentration of data paths at key points in the network, and the resilience of the Internet through its use of multiple pathways between nodes.
One of the most attractive methods of examining the structure of the Internet comes from the field of traditional cartography. Maps of the Internet can be made in many ways, such as overlaying a physical map of the world with nodes and links, or taking a central node and drawing network connections radiating out from this.
Further reading: CyberGeography.org
The implementation of the Internet on a global scale has been a fundamental part of the globalisation of industry and commerce. A similar revolution occurred with the first intercontinental telegraph links, where there was suddenly the possibility of sending information almost instantaneously in a world where transatlantic travel still took weeks.
Many commentators have examined how our perception of the world's size and shape has changed because of this, from Marshall McLuhan's “global village” through to Frances Cairncross coining the “death of distance” phrase to sum up the effects of instant communication.
What we are beginning to realise is that the world (and in particular, human society) is a form of network in itself, and one in which the degree of connectedness is increasing rapidly with the advent of the internet. The rise of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace have made this phenomenon so much more tangible.
For further reading, examine Milgram's “Small World Problem”, which popularised the idea of “six degrees of separation” (1967), and was more recently tested by Duncan J. Watts in his book Six Degrees. The BBC has also featured this topic, see Whitehouse (1999a).
Since cyberspace is not bound by physical laws and real-world constraints, we can be more imaginitive in our use of spatial metaphors for online worlds. To some extent this has already been seen in computer games, where multidimensional (i.e. more than three dimensions) worlds, hyperspace jumps and wormholes become possible. Kant postulated that we are bound to a three-dimensional world only by experience, and that there is no theoretical problems with the existence of spaces of four, five, or more dimensions (Browne Garnett Jr., 1965).
Cyberspace also allows us to experience something close to a perfect world too - virtual reality can model the world exactly, and create a place which is mathematically perfect, an idea which looks back to the philosophy of Plato and his ideal forms (Heim 1993, p.8).
There has long been discussion on the nature of knowledge, and on the differences between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. As we move into the information age, these questions will become more important. The reliability and usefulness of the information around us, and the techniques we will need to master to discern this and filter out the signal from the noise are all part of our philosophy of information.
As an example, let's look at the hyperlink. Hypertext links are both simple and complex. On the surface, they merely provide a reference to another online resource, which a browser can use to access that resource. But links can be used in many more ways than this simplicity would suggest. They can point to small or large amounts of information (a glossary entry, or a whole encyclopedia). They can reference local or remote resources. They can even be used to add irony (the e-zine Suck was the exemplar of this), or to add meaning to an otherwise simple phrase. In effect, the link has become “a rhetorical device loaded with meaning.” (Shields 2000).
But the way the link appears does not necessarily indicate any of this - you have to click to discover the role and meaning of the link.
Dreyfus argues that this presents a paradox. The hyperlink was created “to use the speed and processing power of computers to relate a vast amount of information without needing to understand it or impose any authoritarian or even generally accepted structure on it” (2001, p.9), rather than for any purpose related to meaning or understanding.
Information in cyberspace tends to be interactive, dynamic and temporary. Most web sites are restructured regularly, and their content changes often on a daily basis, which means that whilst the information is up to date and fresh, it can be difficult to return to it and rediscover it.
Despite this, web information can also be surprisingly persistent. Controversial documents that have been taken down from one website often appear in multiple mirrored locations. Often, the chances of survival of a resource are primarily dependent upon the number of people interested in the resource, often out of the control of the owner/webmaster.
There have been attempts at ensuring the core material of the web does not disappear unnoticed. For example, the WayBack Machine attempts to archive a significant proportion of web information for future generations. But the most successful and most widely used archive is the cache that some search engines store of the pages they have catalogued. Coupled with the power of the search engine, the cached copies of websites can be startlingly persistent, again showing that information can live well beyond its owner's control.
Further reading: Brown & Duguid (2000)
Another observation on the use of knowledge arises from the power of Google and other search engines to find almost everything we need at the click of a button. There is no longer a need to remember facts, we can just google them. We are only limited by the skill with which we use the search engine, and how specific and trustworthy we need the answer to be.
It's clear that developing this type of “informational intelligence” is a much better strategy in the long-term than memorising facts (especially if you have as poor memory retention as I have).
Further reading: Morville (2005)
One of the casualties, perhaps, of this early stage in the information age, is the canonical work, the authoritative, quotable, stable text that print publication inevitably tends to produce. How do we develop systems of classification, authority and structure that allow us to reference online materials? And how do we cope with the transience that we discussed earlier with respect to this referencing.
Again, search engines can help here, with Google keeping cached copies of many pages that have long since disappeared, but there is little systematic archiving of useful material outside of the organisations that are generating it.
One attempt at imposing structure and metadata onto the web as it exists today involves adding extra, meaningful, but invisible information to each web resource, so that information-processing applications such as Google can more effectively analyse and catalogue web information. The Semantic Web is a group organised by the World Wide Web Consortium, of technologies and individuals that are attempting to do this.
At the core of the Semantic Web initiative is the creation of ontologies, which are structured vocabularies of common terms and their relationships, and which allow a measure of interoperability between different web applications.
At the grass roots level, there is also a strong movement towards reusing and
“repurposing” data that is available on the Internet (often
called mashups. For example, data available from Google
Maps can be combined with data from a telephone directory to create a more
semantic map, which provides information such as
contact details. If combined with business websites, there's the possiblity of
mapping which has a very rich set of information associated with each location.
See, for example, Flickr maps [
where mapping information is applied to photographs.
The prevalence and speed of communications technologies are giving rise to a number of ethical dilemmas which philosophers are beginning to puzzle over, as they try to understand the new information landscape.
Many centre around issues of access. For some societies, a lack of access to information is a generational problem; the use of ICTs needs to be learned, and as ICT is integratesd into schools, the problems will disappear over time.
More often, availability of access is more linked to availibility of resources and wealth in general. The digital divide is often referred to as a resource problem, and in many third world countries
Being a Good Cybercitizen
Key reading: Graham (1999).
What are its distinctive characteristics? John Perry Barlow, former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and now a respected voice on the implications of technology, suggested that “Cyberspace is where your money is”.
In his groundbreaking novel Neuromancer, author William Gibson laid the foundation of thought about cyberspace as a space separate from the physical world:
Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...
|--William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984).|
Gibson's view of cyberspace, seen from a time before the Internet was well known, is of a data space where information is represented as shapes and forms that can be navigated through. We have a little way to go before this navigable space with its strong spatial metaphors can be realised for the ordinary Internet user, but progress in virtual reality technologies has shown that it will be possible.
In the film The Matrix, cyberspace is an escape from reality, a creation which gives participants a semblance of normality and protects its inhabitants from the truth of how the world really is. It's a place where almost everyone plays according to the rules because they believe that cyberspace is real, but where the realisation that the matrix is just software frees an inhabitant to do “impossible” things, to subvert the rules (of society, of physics, etc.). The Matrix seems real because the majority believe it to be real.
To some extent, we already have navigable spaces on the Internet. The World Wide Web is a “space” in the sense that we move through it and are able to explore and map its contours and boundaries. Efforts are being made to construct a geography of this new space, examining the pathways taken by data and the structures of the web sites themselves.
But the Web is a highly abstract space, and usually gives us no sense of place. MUDs and MOOs, on the other hand, are specifically constructed to have the characteristics of place, in order to make the virtual space more “real” and familiar.
Clay Shirky suggests that their social nature was an accidental side-effect of the games culture, and had to evolve rather than being deliberately planned and created:
Had the developers of the original MUD set out to create a purely social arena like LambdaMOO, they would have failed. Ideas, both cultural and computational, about social organization of electronic spaces were too embryonic in the late 70s; any such attempt would have bogged down in the details. By starting with a game and letting it develop from there, places like LambdaMOO have been able to organize organically.
|--Clay Shirky (web reference now unavailable)|
Margaret Wertheim (1999) draws parallels with the spiritual realms so predominant in the medieval period, and argues that cyberspace is directly analagous to these 'other spaces'.
As with the medievals, we in the technologically charged West on the eve of the twenty-first century increasingly contend with a two-phase reality.
She believes that both the spiritual world of Dante and the information space of cyberspace are real in a metaphysical sense
Despite its lack of physicality, cyberspace is a real place. I am there--whatever this statement may ultimately turn out to mean.
Sherry Turkle (1995) talks of the way that our `being' in cyberspace can be radically different to our physical being; a way to explore the identities we'd like to have. This creation of multiple identities can significantly help some people suffering from some mental illnesses, or even just shyness.
Gordon Graham (1999) examines cyberspace as a `radically new' technology, commenting that
If 'being' in cyberspace is a new kind of being, distinct from but nonetheless just as metaphysically substantive as `being' in the flesh for instance, then there can be little doubt that the Internet is indeed a radically new technology.
To some, the future appears to be rather bleak given the possibilities for abuse and infringement of civil liberties that cyberspace seems to offer:
...there is every potential, if we are not careful, for cyberspace to be less like Heaven, and more like Hell.
though it's my opinion that, if we address the problems outlined in this module trhough education, technology and democratic governance of the Internet, we have the chance to build a more utopian global society than is possible in real life.