Cyberspace (1)

The first definition of cyberspace was attempted by William Gibson in the novel Neuromancer, in which he described "cyberspace" as:

"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 receding in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding..." (p.52)

Within the futuristic world of Neuromancer, Gibson was attempting to define a hitherto largely unexplored concept, that of the Matrix. This global network involved an amalgamation of virtual reality and the Internet, which the user entered via "jacking in" to a "deck" with direct neural feedback, enabling the user's disembodied consiousness to roam and interact with the datasphere. This definition was constructed in the early 1980s, when the both the Internet and virtual reality were still in their infancies (and they may still be in such a stage of development), so is it still relevant now? Was it actually ever relevant to the reality of cyberspace, considering that Gibson constructed it without accessing the Internet, as it was, or even using email (a situation in which the author remains today)?.

Cyberspace (2)

In considering the full meaning of "cyberspace", Gibson's definition is somewhat limited; he describes only the "Matrix" and no other dimensions of what cyberspace may be, or may evolve into. A more comprehensive definition (perhaps too comprehensive) is provided by Douglas Rushkoff in Cyberia - Life in the trenches of hyperspace. In this book, Rushkoff explores cyberia/cyberspace (he appears to use the terms interchangeably), seeing this metaphor as a new frontier in the human experience, encompassing computing, drugs, raves, technoshamanism and art, all of which may interact. He uses the term hyperspace only in the title and nowhere else in the book; perhaps hyperspace already has too many scientific definitions, whereas cyberspace is a still largely unexplored term. The widely-accepted definition of "cyberspace" is understood as the place in which the Internet exists (drawing heavily from Gibson's definition), but Rushkoff gives the term far greater scope. In his opinion, "cyberia" is:

"...the place a businessperson goes when involved in a phone conversation, the place a shamanic warrior goes when travelling out of body, the place an "acid house" dancer goes when experiencing the bliss of a techno-acid trance. Cyberia is the place alluded to by the mystical teachings of every religion, the theoretical tangents of every science, and the wildest speculations of every imagination." (pp.16-17)

From this one would expect Cyberiato be a voluminous trawl through religion, science and philosophy, but the book is mainly confined to the experience of cyberspace from the 1980s onward. Rushkoff chronicles the belief that the onrush on technology in postmodern culture, coupled with the rebirth of ancient spiritualism, is propelling humanity towards "cyberia", involving a questioning of the "very reality on which ideas of control and manipulation are based" (p.18). Thus cyberia is not only a place, it is a challenge to traditional power bases.

Rushkoff describes the creation of a "global electronic village" as a new paradigm within which communication will take place (for example, a usenet newsgroup); unlike the general passivity of television, the Internet is far more interactive, being user-defined and somewhat immune to censorship, though self-censorship is evident. But this new "village" can also be used as a base for a direct assault against the bastions of power (the multinationals, governments) by "hacking" their computer databases, either for fun, to achieve free long-distance telephone calls, or for industrial espionage. Computers also allow the creation of virtual realities (VR) - by wearing interface apparatus, one can be provided with the illusion that one is in another world, albeit manufactured. This technology removes the need for a monitor to see, or keyboard to control, one's directions to the computer; VR literally "plugs a user into cyberspace" (p.52).

The meaning of chaos theory and fractals

Mandelbrot fractal2

Central to understanding cyberia, Rushkoff claims, is chaos theory. First developed by Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1960s, this mathematical reasoning recognised that reality is inherently chaotic, but that chaos is also ordered. Derived from this were fractals, equations which grant objects a fractional dimensionality. Fractals are the symbol of cyberia, providing a concept of interconnectivity, feedback and iteration, that one small change can lead to huge repercussions (as in the saying, "When a butterfly flaps its wings in China, it can cause a thunderstorm in New York"). This is often associated with James Lovelock's theory of Gaia, that the planet and its inhabitants are part of the same biological organism. Taken together, these theories have been transformed by some cyberians into an understanding of the importance of their individual actions. Rushkoff states that this is clearly manifested in the culture of "house" clubs (which he anachronistically refers to as "raves",), where people come together to experience a "trance-like bliss" listening to music at 120 beats per minute. With no particular artist to idolise whilst on stage, the music of the house scene "liberates the dancers into total participation" (p.159), at one with themselves and each other. But this state of togetherness and bliss (being loved up) is either created or augmented by (most commonly) Ecstasy or other psychedelics.

The importance of psychedelic drugs

The use of these drugs seems crucial to comprehending cyberians; speed, cannabis, LSD, psilocybins and DMT are all mentioned in conjunction with most of the people Rushkoff describes in Cyberia. They are seen as mind or consciousness-expanding, which appears to contribute to the understanding of cyberspace. Rushkoff suggests that cyberians, rather than taking psychedelics to learn that reality is arbitrary and manipulable (as already discovered by their psychedelic forefathers in the 1960s, such as Timothy Leary), take them "for the express purpose of manipulating that reality and exploring the uncharted regions of consciousness" (p.197). Psychedelics suppress neuron transmission in the brain, thereby creating something of a "vacuum"; nature abhors such vacuums, and consequently the "space" is taken up by thoughts one would not normally experience. Rushkoff writes at length on the use of psychedelics in the computer programming community, where they were at first used to allow designers to literally visualise circuit boards and the path of electricity along them; today psychedelics are used to enhance understanding of chaos theory. There is some use of so-called "smart drugs" or "nootropics" to improve intelligence, but these are incomparable as to the power of LSD or DMT. Some cyberians further believe that use of psychedelics allows them access to the "morphogenetic field" of collective human experience surrounding the planet, which Terence McKenna describes in Cyberia as the "overmind", or a hint of future reality. But, given that so little is known about the brain and of the objective results of taking psychedelics, could this just be the chemically-induced ramblings of truly messed-up people?

The cyberneticisation of humanity

Humanity, according to Rushkoff, is already moving towards cyberia in a more direct way - by becoming cyborgs. The cyberians he chronicles are doing so by becoming more intimately linked with their technology. One extreme example is Sarah Drew, who believes that "current forms of communication - verbal and physical - are obsolete... ...someday she [believes she] will be able to project...a holographic image into the air, into which someone will project his own holographic image" (p.215). But on a simpler level, cyborgs are becoming increasingly prevalent in society as technology is used to sustain the body; pacemakers are commonplace and advanced prosthetics are also becoming so. Thus humans are assimilating technology into their bodies and into society, but this mechanisation of the brain creates a paradox, first explored by Norman Wiener in The Human Use of Human Beings. Wiener invented the term "cybernetics", which he derived from the Greek word kubernetes, meaning "steersman".

In the book, Wiener sought to understand society through studying the messages and communications which belong to it; he sees the future development of these facilities, with messages between men and machines, and between machines themselves, as increasingly important. Through the science of cybernetics, Wiener wished to develop "...a language and techniques that will enable us indeed to attack the problem of control and communication in general..." (p.18). He predicted the creation of the fully-automated factory, controlled by relatively affordable computers, but his central thesis is that it is desirable that automation should replace the drudgery of everyday tasks, thereby releasing people for creative pursuits, but at the same time these technical breakthroughs open the way to the dehumanisation of life (though this is already a daily occurance), and the final over-utilisation of the planet's resources. At this early stage of cyberneticisation, Wiener already saw commonalities in the functions of the human nervous system and computers (both being digital machines), especially in relation to feedback, which he viewed as an attempt to control entropy. Although references to vacuum tubes and "telephonic channels" date the book, it is a fascinating attempt to imagine the effects that cyberneticisation would have on humanity. Wiener's belief that technology may degrade humanity may yet come about, but the techno-junkies in Rushkoff's Cyberia would most likely disagree.


W.Gibson, Neuromancer (Victor Gollanz Ltd, London,1985)
D.Rushkoff, Cyberia - Life in the trenches of hyperspace (Flamingo, London, 1994)
N.Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings - Cybernetics and Society (Sphere Books Ltd., London, 1968)

Links to relevant sites:

A short analysis of Neuromancer by me
Cyberspace purely as a metaphor for the Internet

Advice on entering the Web
All your newby queries answered at World Wide Web frequently asked questions
Keep the Net free! Solidarity, brothers and sisters, at the Electronic Frontier Foundation
Quite trippy stuff: Mandelbrotian fractals
What does the future hold? Consult back issues of Mondo 2000, or Wired
Alternatively, live the revolution with HotWired

Don't just take my word for it - argue directly with Douglas Rushkoff

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Last mucked-about with: 20th March 1997
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This section contains pages on:

What cyberspace is,

Cyberspace as a metaphor, and

William Gibson's Neuromancer.

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