Facets of Cyberspace

Cyberspace is a frequently-used term in today's society which carries a number of different meanings. It is generally accepted that it has something to do with computers and the 'virtual world' created within the networks across the globe. Resources and information relating to cyberspace abound; following is a small collection of those resources which collectively attempt to define cyberspace from a number of perspectives and disciplines.

Click the name of a section to expand a list of related resources.

Attempting To Define Cyberspace

There are a variety of attempted definitions of cyberspace, spanning from the technical architecture which makes its existence possible to discussions of the people who inhabit it in an attempt to vicariously define cyberspace itself. Following is a small selection of definitions which are along the generally-accepted vein of cyberspace's meanings:

William Gibson's definition from Neuromancer (1984)
Cyberspace: A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphical 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, in an interview with Dan Josefsson (1995)
"Cyberspace is a metaphor that allows us to grasp this place where since about the time of the second world war we've increasingly done so many of the things that we think of as civilization. Cyberspace is where we do our banking, it's actually where the bank keeps your money these days because it's all direct electronic transfer."
David G.W. Birch & S. Peter Buck, Hyperion (c/o the Electronic Frontiers Foundation site, n.d.)
"Cyberspace is an extension of the idea of virtual reality. Instead of seeing computer data converted into pictures that come from human experience (as in a flight simulator), or extensions from human experience (such as the "desktop" metaphor used with personal computers), cyberspace comprises computers, telecommunications, software and data in a more abstract form."
Webopedia (Last Modified: 2002)
A metaphor for describing the non-physical terrain created by computer systems. Online systems, for example, create a cyberspace within which people can communicate with one another (via e-mail), do research, or simply window shop.
GetNetWise (n.d.)
Refers to the various information resources that are available through computer networks and the Internet, as well as to "communities" which have developed through their common use of such resources, and to the culture which is developing in such electronically connected communities. May also be used to distinguish the physical world from the digital, or computer-based world.

Networked Computer Systems

Networked computer systems provide the foundations for a new type of existence, a new environment in which to exist. Starting in the late 1960s, networked computers began changing the way that people worked and played, until today, when they entirely change the way that people live. This vast network of computers and electronic devices is a large part of what is today thought of as cyberspace. It is these systems which provide the location, the 'space', the world which we may inhabit and call cyberspace.

Searching for the history of cyberspace tends to lead one to numerous articles about the history of the Internet, and in particular the physical computers and networks which make it up. It seems that for a large percentage of people, cyberspace and the Internet are synonymous.

Netizens: An Anthology - Ronda & Michael Hauben (1996)
A handbook describing the history of the Internet from a technical and informational perspective (rather than a personal/political one).
The Internet's History and Development - Scott Ruthfield (1995)
Appearing in ACM Crossroads, a student magazine for the Association for Computing Machinery, this historical piece describes the military roots of the Internet's development.
Martin Dodge & Rob Kitchin's Atlas of Cyberspace - Mapping Cyberspace Using Geographic Metaphors
This page of the amazing collection of maps and diagrams explaining the Internet attempts to represent the entire network in relation to the geographic location of the servers, networks and connections which make it up.

Science Fiction/Science Fact

There is no doubt that science fiction helps us to both understand and in indeed form cyberspace. How far away is science fiction from science fact? All too often it is only a matter of time. Not only can science fiction be used to help us understand existing cyberspace concepts, in some cases it also helps us form our perception of cyberspace, and then create it in that image.

One of the very early movies to really look at 'life in cyberspace', albeit from a perspective of treating it like a game (a serious one at that). Presents a world where the computer is 'alive' within itself and a person is 'abducted' into that world.
Neuromancer (plus Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive), by William Gibson
Widely acclaimed as the novels that defined by cyberspace and cyberpunk (especially Neuromancer), this series was pivotal in introducing the world to the idea of electronic existence and virtual reality. Gibson's was the first use of the word 'cyberspace' and future definitions are shaped by the roots he created for the term.
Blade Runner
Ridley Scott's 1982 movie depicting a very 'tech-noir' environment where technology and real life met head-on. This movie was one of the first 'realistic'/negative looks at the future of technology and cyberculture (robotics/cyborgs etc). There are numerous resources analysing Blade Runner.
Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man
Released in 1992, this movie was one of the more popular early movies to construct a visual picture of what 'cyberspace' might look like. The fully-immersive virtual reality in Lawnmower Man became the accepted vision of what computing in the future would look like.
Hackers, the 1995 movie directed by Iain Softley was a relatively mainstream attempt to introduce people to the hacker culture and the world they lived in. It provided a very visual 'cyberspace' in which the hackers 'worked', probably based on Gibson's "clusters and constellations of light. Like city lights, receding."
The Matrix Trilogy
The Matrix trilogy is a series of modern science-fiction movies portraying 'levels' of reality through a simulated version of Earth which most of its inhabitants believe is real (fully-immersive virtual reality from birth). It brought cyberspace and cyberculture back to the forefront of public thought and discussion, including the re-popularisation of the 'hacker' culture.

Networked Culture & Personality

When people interact online, with their new, online personality, they do so in new and interesting ways. The culture of the interacts which take place on the Internet, via mobile phones and SMS, over email, instant messaging and in online multi-user dimensions (MUDs) is a new creation which evolves daily. Looking at this culture can give us insight into what cyberspace really is and what it means to the people who inhabit it.

Cyberspace and the Virtual Public - McKenzie Wark (1999)
An interesting discussion about the use of technology to augment our lives, and the increasing amount of time we spend with technologies like the Internet, television and radio (specific focus on Australia).
Electronic Democracy Toolkit - Howard Rheingold (1996)
Discusses the use of online tools and applications (and the Internet in general) to affect and enhance offline (real-world) democracy and other political systems.
Encouraging Cyberculture - Roger Clarke (1997)
Clarke discusses the authority models which apply in cyberspace and the inappropriateness of most offline structures. He covers the development of cyberculture, and how 'civil' online behaviour can be encouraged and nurtured to form communities via the Internet and associated technologies.
Quaking In My Boots - Mary-Anne Breeze (1997)
Appearing in the second issue of the 'Cybersociology Magazine', this article examines the formation and existence of the gaming community, focusing on the game Quake. It talks about the evolution of a special dialect/language, the transference of offline values into the online world, and indeed about the community's spill-over into the real world (physical meet-ups of gamers).
The Online Identity: How MUDs Shape Fantasy Into Reality - Kalvin MacLeod (1999)
Discusses the effects of online involvement in MUDs on the offline identity of participants. Talks about the distribution of identity across a number of environments (both on and offline) and across time.

The Spatial Perception of Cyberspace

'Cyberspace' itself suggests a spatial metaphor for this entirely electronic 'world' which we have created and now inhabit. Understanding cyberspace as a physical, spatial environment is a common thread amongst researchers, users and even the creators of cyberspace, and shapes the majority of discourse related to the subject. How can we arrive at such a conclusion from a collection of networked computers which we will likely never directly see?

Martin Dodge & Rob Kitchin's Atlas of Cyberspace
"[A]n atlas of maps and graphic representations of the geographies of the new electronic territories of the Internet, the World-Wide Web and other emerging Cyberspaces... These maps of Cyberspaces - cybermaps - help us visualise and comprehend the new digital landscapes beyond our computer screen, in the wires of the global communications networks and vast online information resources"
Small Pieces, Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web - David Weinberger (2002)
In chapter 2, Weinberger discusses the perception of the Internet, the Web and Cyberspace in spatial metaphors. He talks about 'measured' space and 'lived' space (i.e. measured space being the result of cutting reality into small, equal-sized chunks like meters, lived space being defined by things within it, such as 'downtown' being a place in the middle of a city). He talks about how this universal grid of measured space doesn't apply to the Web, because the Web is not in fact 'spatial' so much as it is 'place-ial' - it represents a place.
Information Architecture: From Craft to Profession - Earl Morrogh (2002)
In discussions relating to the creation of information 'spaces' online, Earl talks about the spatial metaphors of 'wayfinding' and 'navigation' and how they are staples of the Information Architecture's professional perspective. He talks about giving "occupants of an information space ... a sense of place in order to remain oriented" and states that "real-world or place-based concepts, such as environment and space, are helpful to both information architects and users in visually summarizing complex information systems."
Hypertext and Spatial Consciousness - Karen Steigman (1999)
Steigman talks about, among other things, bringing the public space into the private space via cyberspace (and hypertext), and about how attempting to describe cyberspace in a cartographic or geographic manner will unavoidably apply political connotations to the resultant perception and understanding of the inhabitants. She talks about how "defining and delineating borders and boundaries ... create a certain subject and allow it to exist in relation to those boundaries."

Virtual Reality

Taking the spatial perception of cyberspace one step further, virtual reality environments create complete electronic representations of reality, within this network of computers. Are we gods if create our own world? Virtual reality offers endless possibilities and opportunities, but creating an entire world may be a lot harder than it appears.

Colonizing Virtual Reality - Chris Chesher (1994)
Chesher talks about the introduction of VR and subsequent attempts to make the general public accept it as a 'parallel reality.' He talks about the process of popularising the technology, even without many working systems in existence, let alone in the public eye. The essay also covers negative issues of early VR adoption like its relation to mentally ill people.
Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace, from The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality - Michael Heim (1993)
Discusses what cyberspace and VR really are, and what they create. Talks about the connection between our existing, real-world beliefs and perceptions and their likely effects on VR, despite it being infinitely flexible. He talks about the 'erotic' allure of the power to create worlds and the ability to 'do anything' in cyberspace, deciding that "This is Eros" after all.
The Two Paths of Virtual Reality - John Suler (1999)
A very interesting look at virtual reality and the so-called reality that it creates. Touches on 'what is reality', and talks about how VR has the ultimate flexibility of not needing to be confined to the normal constraints of reality.
Virtually There - Jaron Lanier (2001)
Lanier talks about the use of virtual reality as a replacement for video-conferencing and discusses the idea of 'tele-immersion', where communicating parties are immersed in a shared virtual world, rather than existing on the ends of a video/audio connection. He talks about the difficulties of re-creating a reality where multiple people can be co-present in a realistic manner, without causing confusion or discomfort to those people.
Urban Simulation
Interesting site which covers the idea of recreating virtual representations of community in all forms. They list examples of 'urban simulations' including: art/design, entertainment, historic studies, litigation, real estate, security and transportation. Includes a section containing a number of interesting research papers and articles.