What is Cyberspace?

“Cyberspace: 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 ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”

William Gibson, Neuromancer

Welcome to issue #3 of Hacking the Metaverse! I’ve been thinking of trying out a more structured format for the newsletter, with a regular set of features. Buuuut… I’ve also been on holiday in South Africa this month, so I’ll be introducing these features gradually over future newsletters.

Cyborg Democracy

My newsletter is about “democracy in cyberspace”… but what do I mean by that? What exactly is cyberspace?

Science fiction author William Gibson is credited with coining the term, first in a 1982 short story published in Omni magazine and then in the 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer.

Though a bit dated now, cyberspace was once a popular metaphor for the internet, particularly among journalists and academics in the late 1980s and early ’90s. It even made the cover of Time magazine in March 1995.

So, yeah, “cyberspace” is a buzzword. In the 2000 documentary No Maps for These Territories, Gibson said he picked the word because it was “essentially meaningless”:

“It was suggestive of something, but had no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.”

In practice, people mean many different things when they use the word cyberspace. And, delightfully, one way it’s sometimes used is to describe the metaphorical space “behind the screen” or the “place between” communication devices.

For example, in a 1995 interview with PBS, the media theorist Neil Postman defined cyberspace as “where your consciousness is located when you’re using computer technology…”

Which is pretty far out. Or, in the introduction to his 1992 book The Hacker Crackdown, cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling wrote:

“Cyberspace is the ‘place’ where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person’s phone, in some other city. THE PLACE BETWEEN the phones. The indefinite place OUT THERE, where the two of you, two human beings, actually meet and communicate.”

For me, this usage distinguishes cyberspace from the “metaverse” (a term also originating in cyberpunk fiction, this time from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash).

The metaverse, as envisioned by Mark Zuckerberg, would be a graphical representation of an imagined space (i.e. objects in VR or Augmented Reality are visually perceived). Cyberspace is pure imagination.

Think of it like that scene in The Matrix when Neo and Cypher are watching streams of glowing green characters roll down a black display screen:

Neo: “Do you always look at it encoded?”

Cypher: “Well you have to. The image translators work for the construct program. But there’s way too much information to decode the Matrix. You get used to it. I… I don’t even see the code. All I see is blonde, brunette, red-head…”

The metaverse is cyberspace run through image translators. Which means someone else is doing the imagining for us.

That’s not necessary a bad thing, and could be incredibly exciting and liberating. However, as Nathan Dufour Oglesby puts it in this excellent BBC article (referring to fictional portrayals of the metaverse in dystopian cyberpunk):

“For while the user [in cyberpunk fiction such as Ready Player One or Snow Crash] may participate in the metaverse with apparent freedom, they remain subject to those who control the medium itself – the artists and programmers who create that world, and ultimately the powers behind them. Insofar as the simulators control the simulation, they control those who are simulated.

In a sense, this is not far from what companies like Meta have been doing all along. For in giving us spaces in which to create and promulgate our handles, our pages, our brands, they have been luring us into a kind of simulation – one that is characterised not by unity of experience across users, but fragmentation into the pigeon-holes of experience, the selective streams of information, the personalised and curated narratives, that characterise social media.”

Clearly, we’re not living in the world of Snow Crash or Ready Player One just yet. However, science fiction can play the role of cautionary tale. After all, in my last newsletter (#2: The Gamification of Politics) I discussed the potential for manipulation of our perceptions of reality via feedback loops between technology and human sense-making and sensory nervous systems.

These kind of cyborg reality circuits are baked into the morphology of the word cyberspace; the “cyber-” prefix comes from the field of “cybernetics”, defined by Norbert Wiener, one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, as “the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine”.

Indeed, the sense of cyberspace as a “non-space of the mind” came to William Gibson after seeing rows of young people so absorbed in playing early arcade videogames that he felt they almost wanted to merge themselves with the machines. As Gibson explained in a 2011 interview:

“The games had a very primitive graphic representation of space and perspective. Some of them didn’t even have perspective but were yearning toward perspective and dimensionality. Even in this very primitive form, the kids who were playing them were so physically involved, it seemed to me that what they wanted was to be inside the games, within the notional space of the machine. The real world had disappeared for them – it had completely lost its importance. They were in that notional space, and the machine in front of them was the brave new world.”

As Seth Giddings explains in the International Encyclopedia of Communications:

“Though the cyber- prefix has generally been used rather loosely to denote anything relating to computers and digital networks, Gibson’s derivation of the term cyberspace itself from his observations of arcade players links it directly to the scientific field of cybernetics. As the study of control and communication in nonlinear systems developed at the end of World War II, Norbert Wiener described cybernetics in terms of feedback loops between and through human, animal, and technological circuits (Wiener, 1948). Gibson’s vision of immersive cyberspace is based on video-game play, understood as intense loops of information through electronics, hardware, eyes, nerves, and reflexes. This description — as in Wiener’s cybernetics — resists any meaningful a priori boundary or hierarchy between human bodies, minds, and computer technologies.”

Ok, this behemoth is way too long already. I’ll leave things here for now and pick it up again in next month’s newsletter.

* * * Hyperlinkology * * *

GIZMODO: Experts Blast Meta’s First-Ever Human Rights Report as ‘Corporate Propaganda’ [“Meta has historically struggled to maintain face in the United States while operating in numerous countries found frequently to violate human rights, as have many of its competitors like Google and Twitter. Company whistleblower Frances Haugen alleged under oath last fall that Meta had been ‘literally fanning ethnic violence’ in countries like Ethiopia. Last week’s report seeks – and fails – to address the contradiction, rights groups told Gizmodo.”]

TECH POLICY PRESS: The Twitter Whistleblower Documents [“In a whistleblower complaint first reported by The Washington Post and CNN, former Twitter head of security Peiter ‘Mudge’ Zatko alleges that the social media company misled its board, government regulators and users about issues such as security, inauthentic accounts, and the company’s efforts to address mis- and disinformation. The complaint also alleges that Twitter CEO Parag Agarwal lied, in particular, in public statements concerning Twitter’s handling of so-called ‘bots’ on the platform following Elon Musk’s bid to acquire the company.”]

SFGATE: Sanas, the buzzy Bay Area startup that wants to make the world sound whiter [“Eventually, the company wants to expand beyond call centers by changing accents on consumer video and audio calls; Sanas has even mentioned an interest in film and TV. New voices are in the works, too: Someday, workers’ accents may be ‘translated’ into a Southern drawl for a caller in Louisville, or a Midwestern lilt for someone in Cleveland, instead of the more generic Standard American English, colloquially known as white person voice.”]

BINANCE BLOG: Scammers Created an AI Hologram of Me to Scam Unsuspecting Projects [“It turns out that a sophisticated hacking team used previous news interviews and TV appearances over the years to create a ‘deep fake’ of me. Other than the 15 pounds that I gained during COVID being noticeably absent, this deep fake was refined enough to fool several highly intelligent crypto community members.”]

OVERLAND: Against apocalypse: the slow cancellation of the slow cancellation of the future [“Are we ‘back’ to ‘normal’ yet? No one seems to know, which is an answer in itself. But this strange state of affairs could be the perfect soil in which to plant counterfutures. In this time of uncertainty and (marine) heat waves, in the cultural vacuum following the departure of the endless banal cancelled future, it is important to follow Hannah Arendt’s famous demand that we ‘think what we are doing’. It’s difficult to think about the present for long without thinking about the future, and the reverse is also true. As the hidden effects of the pandemic on culture continue to come into view, part of thinking about what we are doing could include considering whether the futures we imagine are genuinely fresh. Are we moving toward the new, or are we running the twentieth century on better hardware?”]

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