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    Oxford University Press, USA

    by Colin Flint


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    Born of War: Protecting Children of Sexual Violence Survivors in Conflict Zones
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Saturday
30Aug

Death of the City, Death of Cyberspace II

Death of Cyberspace


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

So writes Alex Soojung-Kim Pang at his blog, The End of Cyberspace. Quite how I've missed this blog is beyond me, given my occasional ill-informed polemic on exactly this subject at Ubiwar, and Alex's involvement with the Institute for the Future.

Alex maintains that cyberspace is a "metaphor we live by", coined by William Gibson in Neuromancer (1984). The relevant passage is worth quoting in full:

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 …

The term ‘cyberspace’ has come a long way since then, a term of which Gibson later said:

All I knew about the word “cyberspace” when I coined it, was that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It seemed evocative and essentially meaningless. It was suggestive of something, but had no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.
'Cyberspace' has become a metaphor, both reflecting our relationship with technology, and driving it. The same may apply to the metaphors we use within cyberspace, such as the use of metaphors drawn from the natural world.

Alex Pang:
... in a rapidly-emerging world of mobile, always-on information devices (and eventually cybernetic implants, prosthetics, and swarm intelligence), the rules that define the relationship between information, places, and daily life are going to be rewritten.

... new possibilities will emerge as new technologies, interfaces, use practices, games, legal theory, regulation, and culture adjust - and eventually dissolve - the boundaries between the virtual and physical worlds.

I forget who wrote that "cyberspace always touches ground somewhere", but Albert Borgmann implied this was true when he suggested that cyberspace is "parasitic" on reality. This connection with the physical world - born as it is of the very infrastructure that sustains it - is likely to increase rather than decrease as the processes that Pang describes intensify and diversify.

For those of a materialist bent this is not only true, but has always been true. The relationship between the real and virtual worlds is indeed not only parasitic but contingent on reality to create and sustain it. Cyberspace is a product - hardware or hallucination - of the human mind and, conversely, the physical and psychological effects of actions in cyberspace are instantiated in the material world, they touch ground somewhere.

This wrestling with the virtual and the real has, in my opinion, reached a critical point, exactly as Alex Pang says. The convergence of technologies reflects the convergence of the virtual and the real, while at the same time creating new spectra of emergent behaviour. Again, like Kazys Varnelis' urban infrastructure, some of this is born of the hardware itself, and the protocols deployed to use it efficiently.

There are suggestions that the internet itself is creating new forms of computing, such as 'pulse frequency coding', in which the network makes decisions based on statistical accounting for what connects where, and how frequently connections are made between given points (George Dyson). This would be emergent behaviour of the highest order, completely unpredicted by those who first devised the internet. Perhaps, as Primo Levi wrote in a prescient 1960s short story about a sentient telecommunication network, "It seemed that now the Network intended to control not only some but all communication."

Hardware apart, if the "killer application of the internet is people", then we are seeing this in spades. Social networking is the rage that fuels the so-called "Web 2.0". 'Web 3.0' will apparently be the 'semantic web', an intelligent network that flips the reflexivity of the net on its back once again, as this time the net will help us find what we want - intuitive, seamless interoperability and connectivity. Pre-emptive typologising aside, there is truth in this, but what behaviour will emerge both in man and the machine?

We cannot know. Pang's hypothesis is probably correct in its substance, but I wonder about the terminology. I don't think that cyberspace theorists actually do hang on Gibson's off-the-cuff coining nearly a quarter of a century ago. Gibsonian cyberspace is perhaps already dead but the concept he described has evolved beyond its original meaning, like 'media' or 'transport' or 'mail'. Does the term itself have emergent linguistic properties?

Sam Liles recently suggested that "cyberspace is the terrain of technology mediated communication". This navigable landscape definition has a simplicity and utility that, whilst maybe not of intense analytical value, certainly has a resonance for social scientists interested in negotiating the complexities of an evolving experience.

I suspect that cyberspace may, as is implicit in Pang's words, become the 'reality' that we will experience in the near future. Whether we will find a new term to describe certain forms of existence is unknowable. Man will find names for the tools and experiences of his world, howsoever they are constructed.

The death of cyberspace? More likely: the death of reality.


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