What, Where, Whose is Cyberspace?

I know I promised to keep notices like this to a minimum, but… an important caveat: The title for this essay was dictated by an assignment for my course at UT Austin. Everything that follows is my own doing.

I think it may be best to address these three questions about cyberspace in turn, beginning with “what?” I alluded to this issue at the end of my last post: in literal terms, cyberspace exists only as a concept or a metaphor, as a way to describe the communications between networked computers. Speaking about computer and internet technology in metaphors is quite appealing because it can be very hard to discuss it otherwise. Just think of this blog entry; it is simultaneously electrical charges on a WordPress server somewhere, electrical charges in telecommunications networks, and electrical charges in your computer. But clearly that’s not all, as those charges are interpreted as/exist as binary data (1’s and 0’s), and then eventually as some kind of commonly used coding language (HTML, I believe), which is finally interpreted again and comes to exist as the arrangement of pixels that you see on your screen, which your trained eye can interpret as text.

This truly is a lot to handle all at once, but it seems that to describe how the internet really works without mentioning each of these things (and more) would be to leave something out. By contrast, I think “that’s a puddle of water, it rained this morning” would be a fairly adequate answer to the question “what’s that on the ground, how did it get there?” That’s a pretty straightforward, literal statement explaining the presence of some water. If someone looks over your shoulder right now and asks “what’s that on your screen, how did it get there?” it can be harder to know how to respond.

The cyberspace metaphor makes this sort of situation easier. It allows one to cut away many aspects of online experience which tend to be less important. Under the cyberspace metaphor you are no longer obligated to mention, for one, that the image on your screen is derived from binary code. Instead, you can say that someone “posted” this “entry” “on” a “web” “page” without worrying whether anything was “posted” or “entered,” if there really are a “web” and a “page” to be found, or if anything can be “on” them, in the traditional senses of these words. Conceiving of computer networks and the internet as users dealing with content in space (cyberspace) is easier to grasp than a literal explanation, and this conception holds a lot of commonly used language together.

If one truly embraces the cyberspace metaphor, the results can be quite fantastic… and I mean that literally. Descriptions of computer and internet technology can start to sound like supernatural fantasy. In cyberspace I can see all the way to a friend’s apartment in Egypt from my desk here in Austin, Texas. I can simultaneously attend an art exhibition, participate in a political protest, and lose money in an intensely competitive poker game. If I had more time and inspiration, I could use this very corner of cyberspace to become the author of a published novel. If I had the requisite skill, I could commit an act of terrorism by damaging property belonging to an evil corporation or government agency. I can, like a god, a wizard, or a shaman wrest truth from the void or create something from nothing. Control over time and space is at my fingertips, and it is up to me to use it. Cyberspace can seem magical when understood this way.

However, if one steps away from the cyberspace metaphor, many of these things fall apart: I wasn’t really in Egypt, I was just on Skype looking at video from a webcam. Then again, some things stand up a bit better: I was fighting for the 99% on Twitter, so I was only protesting in a limited way, but then again maybe my words or the mere addition of my online presence to a larger event taking place offline and online did have some impact. Other things stand up almost completely: I really did lose money playing poker (well, hypothetical money anyway). There are also some murkier areas: did I really create something from nothing, or did I just manipulate a few pre-existing pieces of computer technology?

“What is cyberspace?” thus remains a difficult question. Is it a misleading metaphor for internet technology, or is it a truer way to describe computer and internet technology? Cyberspace is certainly not going to be a means to literally describe how computer networks actually work; if you need help fixing your broadband connection or your website, you will probably need to find someone who is able to drop the metaphor and see things like HTML code. However, in describing human experience, the cyberspace metaphor can be a useful tool. On one hand, I’m not inclined to adopt the metaphor wholesale any more than I am inclined to say that I am doing magic in posting this blog entry. On the other hand, I cannot deny that there are times when I feel like I am interacting with something that isn’t someone’s attempt to represent something else through computer technology, and instead feel like I really am engaged more directly, even if that may not be literally true. If I may use another spatial metaphor; compelling description of human experience seems to lie somewhere between the literal world and the world of cyberspace. I personally lean towards the literal rather than the metaphorical, so I think it is necessary to be cautious in deploying the cyberspace metaphor, but it is also necessary to be willing to deploy it at least every now and again.

My discussion of the “what” of cyberspace went on longer than expected, but perhaps the “where” can be addressed more quickly. To me, this seems to be a relatively easy question among the three that have been posed. For my course at UT I recently read an essay by William J. Mitchell called “Post-Sedentary Space” (which appears in Mitchell’s Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City and in Pramod Nayar’s New Media and Cybercultures Anthology, where I read it). There Mitchell (perhaps a bit dryly) describes the progression of internet connectivity from wired nodes to wireless “fields of presence,” and the ways in which this progression has impacted various activities. In one sense, answering the question of “where?” simply demands this kind of analysis; cyberspace “is” wherever internet access is available. It thus exists in many nodes and fields. For those with 4G, satellite, or similar technology for internet access (which certainly isn’t everyone), those fields have come to cover quite a lot of our planet.

Using this blog entry as an example once again, the entry ought to be available over most of these nodes and fields. So where is the part of cyberspace that the entry occupies? In quite a lot of places, or across and through a lot of spaces. This is another moment where cyberspace can seem magical; while an entry in a diary is only available in one location, an entry in an online “web log” can be simultaneously available around the world.

There are some exceptions that trouble this sense of cyberspace being accessible wherever internet access is available. For example, some content is protected by passwords or select access. I’d like to have access to ESPN.com’s latest predictions on the 2012 NFL draft (go Browns), but I haven’t paid for the proper “Insider” account. In a metaphorical sense, the bit of cyberspace that I’m interested in is not “here” at my desk. And what if the Chinese government has deemed that predictions concerning the NFL draft are politically incendiary? Assuming (wrongly, of course) that the so-called “Great Firewall of China” is entirely effective, this bit of cyberspace wouldn’t be in the entire country of China either.

Still, these exceptions are so particular that they have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. They are also not a dominant trend, as the prevailing internet ethos encourages free and open sharing of information. Ultimately, the notion of simultaneous existence seems to be the best way to describe the “where” of cyberspace. This is a magical aspect of cyberspace, but it is also a confusing one. Cyberspace cannot be a simple blanket that covers the Earth, as the blanket would be twisted, warped, pulled, and multiplied in largely inconceivable ways. Literal descriptions of the “where” of the internet can be more direct, but a sense of magic is very necessary for this part of the cyberspace metaphor; magic is the only way that space can simultaneously exist in disparate nodes and fields.

Now I have come to the “whose” of cyberspace, which seems to be a difficult question, but one that may not demand (or deserve) a full answer. In order to describe who cyberspace belongs to, one clearly needs to begin with a conception of what ownership of cyberspace (in part or whole) would mean. Do you own a part of cyberspace if you can access it? If you can control access to it? If you can modify its content? If you can claim copyright ownership of its content? Describing cyberspace ownership must be taken on an entirely case-by-case basis, accounting not only for the particular area of cyberspace in question, but also for the nature of ownership in question. With this in mind, I would expect that a blanket (haha) answer for the “whose” of cyberspace will remain elusive.

For consistency’s sake, let’s use this blog entry as an example one final time. Do I own it because I have created and can edit its content? Does WordPress own it because they control its content and access to it? Does the government own it because some agency or other could shut it down if I say “nitropentaerythrite” one too many times? Does Anonymous own it (teh pwnzorz, even) because they could shut it down if I say “net neutrality hinders innovation” one too many times? Do you own it because you have access to it, and can freely share it with others?

Some interesting thoughts occurred to me while I wrote the last paragraph: 1) If multiple people can access one document simultaneously from different places, the multiplicity of its owners might be just as magical as the multiplicity of its geographical location. 2) The legal ownership of online content usually won’t have much to do with ownership of it in the metaphorical terms of cyberspace. 3) If cyberspace really is space, and not just content, then controlling how that space is structured is an important aspect of ownership. As such, sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube, which structure a great deal of the activity taking place in cyberspace, might be said to have some ownership of that activity. After all, most people weren’t interested in watching videos of cats or counting how many characters they were typing before YouTube and Twitter began encouraging these strange behaviors, directly and indirectly. Google, perhaps the subtlest of the aforementioned sites, need only make a simple animation coupled with a reference to a video game to see millions of people typing a predetermined phrase.

In the end, I will continue to hold any understanding of the “whose” of cyberspace in tension. You will not find me suggesting that cyberspace belongs to corporations, to governments, to the people, etc. in an exclusive way, or even in a dominant way, as others often proclaim it does. That is not to say that “whose” is not an interesting question; after all, I’d like to think that pondering it produced at least a couple of noteworthy insights above.

Really, the same could be said for the answers that I have provided to each of part of “what, where, whose is cyberspace?” none of these answers seems entirely complete or satisfactory. I’m actually quite pleased with this result; often enough the hallmark of close and careful analysis of something interesting, be it literal or metaphor, is that the analysis reveals its own inadequacy. Anyway, since cyberspace changes very quickly with the emergence of new technology and new ideas, I feel very little pressure to come up with a comprehensive definition which nevertheless might need to be thrown out in the blink of an iProduct (woof… if I can’t start with a bad pun, I might as well end with one, apparently). As I suggested above, I’m more interested in compelling descriptions of human experience than I am in final answers. With that in mind, the “what, where, whose” of cyberspace seems to be a space worth visiting and revisiting.


About Twelverton "TwelveOs" O'Shankley

There's not much to tell, frankly. I grew up in Seven Hills (the suburb of Brisbane Australia), my father Sevenworth O'Shankley made calculators and my mother ThreeGee Mobile-Telecommunications-O'Shankley was a radio tower. I think I'll leave it at that because personal branding is hard.
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