Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Shrinking Cyberspace Environment

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.” 

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.

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 favour?

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.

Hypothesising 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.

Read more of this article here: SmartPlanet

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