by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 09 March 2013
Last month, Michael Lind ordered us to Stop pretending cyberspace exists, calling the concept of cyberspace an idea that makes you dumber the moment you learn of it. The security consultant Alec Muffett has also complained about "cyberspace" for more practical reasons: that thinking of the Internet as a "space" leads to wrong-headed policies about security in specific and the Internet in general. In his presentation on thinking about securityMuffett illustrates this by replacing "cyberspace" in recent government statements with "TelephoneWorld"
I thought about these arguments several times last week during Eva Pascoe's Cybersalon, which asked, "has social media lived up to its original libertarian and communitarian promise of the Net?"
Eva Pascoe! Few under-30s happily asking Google to find the answers to pub quizzes on their phones will have any idea who she is, but in 1994 she opened London's first Internet café, Cyberia, in Whitfield Street. It was quickly followed by many more, and for a time in the late 1990s you could hardly walk ten yards in central London without passing a huge, computer-filled space (often owned by Selios Haji-Ioannou's EasyGroup) where £1 got you online long enough to check your email.
The idea of a café you had to go to in order to get online perfectly encapsulates why cyberspace *felt* like a different place. Now that you can casually dip your brain into the stream-of-online-consciousness any time, we've lost how different it felt when you had to dial up and wait while computers booted, modems mated, and pages loaded; in 1990 you could read each letter as it appeared on your screen. And every day a new technology or site to investigate, watching the Net being built. Eventually, of course, the need for cybercafés died off, killed by widespread computer ownership, free wifi, and mobile phones. I can remember when Cyberia opened, I have no idea when it closed.
As I said last week, the key element in making cyberspace feel like a separate place was that hardly anyone you knew was online. Today, you join Facebook to join your real-world friends and family. Twenty years ago, you went online and made friends with strangers, though many of them already knew each other. People described themselves as WELLperns, CIXen, and even Netizens and wrote books about virtual communities. Who today considers using Google an important part of their identity?
For many, what defined the Internet as a different "place" was the lack of what the ACLU's Jay Stanley calls "reverberations" in their daily lives - their "real" lives. Your boss didn't know about your evenings on the Usenet newsgroup alt.tasteless plotting the invasion of rec.pets.cats, and those cat-loving targets didn't know where you worked (though they might know where you went to school). Stanley argues that it's these reverberations that are really at the heart of many privacy debates. Certainly, the Net's increasing commercialization set off a series of shocks as material they people thought was ephemeral when they posted it resurfaced in newly public archives. Usenet was a prime example: in the late 1980s people knew their postings would expire after a couple of weeks; in 1995 those same people were stunned when Deja News revived them on the Web, and angry when the Google bought it. Today, Google's historical "Groups" archive is thought to be near-complete, minus some postings people have asked to be deleted.
It was predictable even in 1997, when I was writing net.wars-the-book that online and offline would gradually become less distinct from one another. Over time, our online relationships spilled offline and our offline contacts moved online. Government regulators argued that what was illegal offline should be illegal online (child porn, defamation, hate speech, copyright infringement); digital rights activists argued back that what was legal offline should be legal online (loaning friends copies of media, free association, freedom of expression). Nonetheless, smaller online social groupings - the WELL, some Web boards, IRC channels, anywhere that the same people persistently visit day after day rather than comment-and-run - still have a sense of community and place. In this sense, it was right to think in 1997 that the future of the Internet was to be many Nets.
The convergence between offline and online has accelerated rapidly since. Is it meaningful to say that the group you meet in the pub every Friday night is offline when each of you carries a mobile phone, pays by credit card, and geolocates your tweets? Soon, lampposts will have sensors, even human-driven cars will network traffic data, and any public encounter is likely to be recorded from all angles, while home-based 3D printing based on transmitted designs promises to complete the digital invasion of physical space. No wonder the US's data-driven companies are lobbying so hard to derail the EU's data protection review.
Some people definitely took "cyberspace" too seriously, but it's not a dumb concept; as a metaphor it conveyed something about the strangeness of change when pundits said in the early 1990s that "cyberspace is where your money is". Today it's where your personal data of all types lives. Tomorrow, it will be where the backup copy of your home lives. Don't blame the word for how it's been misused.
Technorati tags: cyberspace
Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).