An understanding of cyberspace probably includes information and communications technology (ICT) as much as the science fiction
worlds of cyberpunk where the term itself was coined. Whether through fact or fiction, immersive environments and
cybernetic enhancement have resulted in multi-modal representation, "the jump-cutting of space" and transmutations
of the self. The writings of social theorists who analyse "the techno-cultural condition of the present and forseeable
future" reveal a recursive relationship between SF literature and postmodern social theory: Jean Baudrillard's
narrative, for instance, can be read as science fiction and cyberpunk literature as a kind of social theory (Featherstone, 2000).
The assignment generates a technological and literary context. Three readings are examined in detail to identify methods and frames for analysing cyberspace*.
* The term cyberspace was first used in the late 1960s by Atelier Cyberspace; It did not, however, refer to networked computers, digital or virtual spaces.
1 Background information
Cyberpunk integrated film noir, detective fiction, and postmodernist elements with contemporary trends and processes. The cyberpunk universe is informed by punk culture, as well as the counterculture of the 1960s, and usually revolves around the fictive architecture of cyberspace. In the novel Neuromancer, cyberspace is described as "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 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" (Gibson, 1985).
TECHNOLOGICAL CONTEXT (1980s/90s)
- Proliferation of computer networks and personal computers;
- Development of internet architecture for public access; Institutional networks and bulletin board systems;
- Use of TCP/IP protocols to transfer data;
- FTP and Telnet access of remote machines; Electronic search/retrieval with Gopher software;
- Chat applications allow real-time [text-based] user communications;
- Virtual gaming worlds, e.g. Multi-User Domains;
- Virtual reality (VR) research at MIT and NASA; Spatial Data Management.
Cyberspace is based on "the use of electricity to mediate human communication" (Farrall) and can be defined as "any computer-moderated information system" (Bricken, 1991). The actual architecture of cyberspace thus includes networked computers, human-machine interaction, simulated environments and co-presence as well.
2 Instantiations of cyberspace
1) The internet became an exemplar implementation of cyberspace although the term refers to any kind of computer-mediated
space. Hypertext technology, distributed multimedia objects, and high-speed access have led to non-sequential retrieval of
information and "the collapse of physical space." Present-day cyber-societies can transfer files, search databases, play
games, use chat for synchronous interaction and conduct their shopping online.
2) The term cyberspace translates into »navigable space«. Since humans interact with a 3-dimensional world by nature it would appear that a simulated electronic version should possess similar spatial qualities:
▶ In screen-based virtual reality, configurable 3-D environments, avataric co-presence, and cyber-communities were implemented using Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) and Extensible 3D Graphics (X3D).
▶ Immersive environments* bear a certain relation to the cyberpunk notion of "disembodied post-humans" who interact with data by "jacking into the matrix." Virtual reality allows users to step into an interactive 5-dimensional multimedia space.
* The reference is to the Cave automatic virtual environment (CAVE).
3 Three readings
1. Mapping Cyberspace
"Our lives offline become embodied through our memories and experiences online, so that a recursive process exists as
the virtual is realised and the real virtualised." (Dodge, 2000)
The selected chapter  provides a definition of cyberspace and examines technologies behind the internet and virtual reality. It begins by tracing milestones like Sutherland's Ultimate Display, the packet-switched architecture of ARPANET, hypertext technology, as well as VR research & development at MIT. The authors emphasize the transformative agency of ICTs upon society. They discuss the "destruction of space by time", the ensuing effects on material practices, and the creation of a global-local nexus. The disruption of the one-to-many communication model has changed the production and exchange of knowledge. That cyberspace contributes to a blurring of boundaries between nature and technology, resulting in "recoded flesh" and hybrid beings, is explained with respect to Donna Haraway's cyborg. The authors investigate how theories of cyberspace are made. The spatial identity of cyberspace - itself comprised of "many spaces that are all constructions" - is related to absolute space (Aristotle /Newton) and relational space (Leibniz /Kant). In this regard, the necessity for both a traditional geographic- and a socio-political analysis is underlined.
2. Cyberspace and the World we live in
"For all its futuristic pretension, Rheingold's imagination is fundamentally conservative and nostalgic. He is essentially
concerned with the restoration of a lost object: community." (Robins, 1995)
By offering a critical reflection organised into Cyberspace and Self-Identity and Virtual Community and Collective
Identity, the author attempts to de-mythologise the utopian designs on cyberculture as promulgated in the late 1980s and
early '90s. He argues that despite their computer-mediated modes of being, humans still continue to be defined by the
physicality of the real world they inhabit. Several discourses on cyberspace are taken up where the problematique of identity
present in postmodern societies (fragmentation and dissolution of the self, changing realities, loss of control) has been
linked with the redemptive potential of a techno-reality able to neutralize the "distressing consequences of
fragmentation" and where "coherence [can be] sustained through the fiction of protean imagination."
If interacting with the artificial world afforded by cyberspace does create "the illusion that internal and external realities are one and the same" then there will be a digital divide between the "solipsistic [hallucinating] individual" (who might for all intents and purposes be a »brain in a vat« that believes it is happening) and the socio-political reality of all the other individuals in the physical world. The author criticizes a utopian view of VR/cyberspace that proposes isolationist and escapist forms of society, calling it "a familiar dogma" and "regression as transcendence."
In relation to techno-communitarianism, or virtual communities that are supposed to "recover the values and ideals that have been lost to the real world," he crucially points out the tendency of grand [social] designs - including the utopian project - to exclude, neutralize and displace the OTHER or the pluralistic. But when collectivities repress difference, asymmetry and conflict (which are part of a "healthy democratic process") the individual may be "reduced to pure functionality" to help maintain the illusion of consensus.
3. Virtual Worlds: No Interface to Design
"A virtual world can be informative, useful, and fun; it can also be boring and uncomfortable. The difference is in the
design." (Bricken, 1991)
High value is placed on user experience design in this seminal technical report from HITL that reviews the state-of-the-art on immersive virtual worlds. It begins by showing the difference between screen-based interface design and the creation of virtual worlds in order to explain the paradigm shifts involved. The author considers three stakeholders - engineer, designer, participant - and makes use of the term co-creation to describe their interactions in a project. Each stakeholder will have a different mental model of cyberspace: (1) Hardware- and software engineers care about functionality and implementation; (2) Designers are committed to user experience and thus "focus on the people using the technology;" (3) Participants* are concerned with utility, e.g. by ascertaining the "costs and benefits of the system." The report closes by identifying design- and technology issues relevant to cyberspace within a broader context of power, control and politics.
* May allude to participatory design and user participation in systems development.
"Dominant discourses around virtual reality treat it as a disembodying medium. Such discourses talk of leaving the body
behind at the computer terminal, of projecting a wandering mind into cyberspace." (Murray and Sixsmith, 1999)
1) A formal discussion of cyberspace can be structured around binary constructs - mind/body, space/spacelessness, real/virtual, prophet/sceptic - since "modernist systems of thought are founded on essentialist, dualistic categories" (Dodge, 2000). It has been argued, for example, that ICTs have led to "the death of distance" and that cyberspace can interfere with modernist spatial logic by rendering geographic space obsolete. But then digital data* is always preceded by mechanical action while time-space convergence is limited by the speed of light. Hence the location and materiality of the supporting hardware/infrastructure - which are needed to make anything virtual happen - are likely to be pointed out.
It is, moreover, suggested that a "complex interplay between local and global forces" is actually resulting in both decentralisation and centralisation and that, while cyberspace envelops and increasingly manages geographic space, it is unlikely to replace it (Dodge, 2000). As cyberspace blurs the separation of real and virtual, a recursive relationship based on "two modes of mutually informing existence, urban and electronic" is played out in the postmodern city, with "urban space and cyberspace each [enabling] an understanding and negotiation of the other" (Bukatman, 2000).
In response to claims [built on the mind-body problem] that the corporeal body can be separated from the virtual body, Murray and Sixsmith argue that "bodies [are] bounded within the sensations they receive [and thereby] located in time and space."
* "So wie nichts ohne Medien ist, sind Medien nichts – ohne ihren Gebrauch." (Münker, S: 2009, Philosophie nach dem »Medial Turn«)
2) Cyberspace can be analysed from several perspectives, e.g. utopian, social-constructivist, postmodern, and political-economic:
- Utopian constructions of the future are often inspired by the transformative potential of cybertechnologies, promising "radiance and light, a utopian arena of equality, friendship, and virtue" (Wertheim, 1999). A vision of cyber-utopia might integrate with ancient dualistic systems of matter and spirit by attempting to balance "unthinkable complexity" with transcendence and belief.
- Social constructivism implies that new technologies will not just appear (because they are technologically possible), but rather evolve in context with a social reality. The development of a technology is also likely to involve consultative and participatory processes, including consumer feedback. In this light, cyberspace may be seen as a social artefact and a product of social mediation.
- Postmodernism rejects modernist principles such as universal truths, ideologies, grand narratives, reason, and objective reality. It is defined by scepticism, even moral relativism, and values "readings, interpretations and intertextual relations." A postmodern reading of cyberspace is multifactorial, pluralistic and highly integrated, if not all-encompassing ... In this approach, "the virtual intersects with the real" and cyberspace is "part of an experiential continuum in peoples lives" (Dodge, 2000).
- A political-economic approach contends that new technologies will not just appear, but rather evolve in context with a society's mode of production, e.g. capitalism and market forces. For example, if the desired outcome is "accessibility of affordable systems, the ease with which people can use them and the degree of control that individuals have over their participation in cyberspace" (Bricken, 1991), then a successful process to help achieve this will probably include a productive "relationship between cyberspace and capital" - perhaps on the basis of large-scale investment* [in research & infrastructure], industrial/corporate profits driven by mass consumption, or 'free' services you can use on the provision of your data.
* It is interesting in this context that Marshall McLuhan's definition of media included electricity, money, and weapons.
Author: Marcel Ritschel, Date: 21.03.2007 (revised: 2017)
Assignment for Making Theories 85505; University of Technology, Sydney
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