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Chapter 1:  A Place Called Cyberspace

"There was something amazingly enticing
about programming. You created your
own universe and you were the master of it."

Vinton Cerf [1]

     I can still remember how cool I thought I was in the late 1980s when I first connected my home computer to the Internet. I would often brag to my friends at work that I stayed up most of the night "jacked into the Matrix." Those were exciting times for computer professionals who were just beginning to gain entry into the mysterious world of networked computers. We now had access to seemingly unlimited amounts of information that could be found on thousands of computers all around the globe. As the song goes, " . . . those were the days, my friend." Back then the Net was a lot harder to navigate. To go from computer to computer one had to use what is known as a command line interface. In plain English, that means all interactions between a person and a remote computer take place by typing a long string of alphanumeric commands, pressing the ENTER key, and then reading a textual response sent back from a distant computer. There were no pretty pictures, no mouse, and no pointing and clicking. By today's standards, it was a boring and complicated way to access the Internet-all text and no graphics.

     Then, in the early 1990s, the technology we call the World Wide Web was introduced. By January of 1993 there were over 50 web servers online. Already, many of us were wondering where we would ever find the time to check out each new web site that appeared, as this was in addition to the millions of files already available on the Internet. Few people realized at the time that the World Wide Web was about to change the Internet forever. [2] Within seven years there would be almost five million Web servers providing a combined total of more than one billion unique documents online. [3] No longer was the Net to be the exclusive domain of us geeks (who, by the way, sometimes still get a thrill out of using the old command line interfaces). Text-based interfaces were out and graphical user interfaces, with their simple point-and-click metaphor, were in. Hundreds of millions of people flocked to the Web, and cyberspace experienced its first population explosion. The genie was out of the bottle.

What is Cyberspace?

     In 1984, when William Gibson coined the word "cyberspace," he said, among other things, that it was a "consensual hallucination." [4] Since then, the concept of cyberspace has been defined in a multitude of ways, including:

  • Cyberspace is the total interconnectedness of human beings through computers and telecommunication without regard to physical geography. [5]
  • An artificial world formed by the display of data as an artificial three-dimensional space, which the user can manipulate and move through by issuing commands to the computer. [6]
  • A metaphor for describing the non-physical terrain created by computer systems. Online systems, for example, create a cyberspace within which people can communicate with one another (via e-mail), do research, or simply window shop. [7]

     While these and dozens of other definitions of cyberspace all have some validity, there does not seem to be any agreed-upon, all-inclusive, concise definition of the word "cyberspace." In fact, the concept of cyberspace itself appears to be constantly morphing between related but slightly dissimilar meanings.

     In the preceding definitions, the one that I find least agreeable calls cyberspace a metaphor. Perhaps it is due to the fact that cyberspace is a non-physical reality that some see it as only a metaphor. However, to those who inhabit the online virtual worlds we will encounter later in this chapter, cyberspace is much more than a metaphor, it is a very real place. As you see, our attempt to describe cyberspace is already on thin ice; "How can a non-physical reality be called a place?" There is no simple answer to that question. I find it interesting, however, that whenever I ask someone if he or she thinks cyberspace is a "place," almost everyone answers, "Yes." When asked why they believe that to be so, a common answer is, "Because it feels like a place."

     My informal surveys also revealed some other common, but again very subjective, aspects of cyberspace. For example, people seldom have a sense of feeling alone when they are in cyberspace. Even when not using an interactive environment, such as a chat room, people often report a sense of being in the midst of a large crowd in some public space. Many have reported that this large, invisible crowd of strangers feels like a friendly group. Perhaps this is because the majority of people in cyberspace are there voluntarily. Although I am not willing to go along with Gibson's definition of cyberspace being a "consensual hallucination," I do find it to be a consensual place.

     Another approach to defining cyberspace is to look at it from the bottom up, beginning with its substrate-the minds, computers, and networks that support it. If we consider the human mind, we see that the brain is the physical substrate that supports the ethereal mind. The substrate that supports cyberspace is different. It has both physical and mental components, for it consists of computers, networks, and human minds. What has evolved out of this substrate is cyberspace. Perhaps we would be better served using the word "cybermind" instead of cyberspace, but that too can be misleading, as we will see in the next chapter.

     Today, the word "cyberspace" has largely come to represent a synergistic collection of concepts about where one's mind is when involved in mental activities that are leveraged by technology. In essence, being in cyberspace is comparable to an out-of-body experience that has been activated by some form of technology. Bruce Sterling captured this idea best when he 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, human beings, actually meet and communicate. [8]

     It is in this sense that the word "cyberspace" is used in this book. It is the limitless place one's mind finds itself in when applying technology to communicate with or to receive information from others. Therefore, your mind is in cyberspace when composing email or designing a web site. As Mark Pesce says, "Imagination in the context of the Internet is known simply-and powerfully-as cyberspace." [9] As used in the context of this book, it is not necessary for one to be actually sitting in front of a computer, which is connected to the Internet, in order to be in cyberspace. Minds can actually be projected into a cyberspace-like place simply by thinking about an e-mail received earlier, or by working out a design for a web site while driving to work. [10] It is the location of one's mind that determines whether or not one is in cyberspace. A mind that is in cyberspace is a mind that is altered from its normal, walking around state. This may not resonate with everyone who reads it, but it is what I mean when I speak of being in cyberspace.

     This definition implies that cyberspace is not a material realm. No part of your physical being ever can be in cyberspace. Only your nonmaterial essence, your mind, or mind/spirit, can enter cyberspace. Therefore, by definition, cyberspace is a place of spirit, a spiritual place. This does not mean, of course, that cyberspace is always reverent. Cyberspace is a reflection of who we really are-for in cyberspace our minds are more willing to explore new ideas, taste forbidden delights, and meet some very interesting people.

Virtual Communities

     The topic of virtual communities is so broad that it would take an encyclopedia to even begin to scratch the surface. [11] Ultimately, the emergence of virtual communities, gatherings without geographical boundaries, may be the single most important outgrowth of the Internet. For the first time in human history, people from around the globe are organizing into actual communities through the use of e-mail, chat rooms, mailing lists, newsgroups, web sites, and combinations of these and other technologies. Some have even begun to colonize cyberspace by building the Inhabited Virtual Worlds that are discussed later in this chapter.

     There do not appear to be any areas of human activity in which online communities have not formed. For example, senior citizens have formed online communities whose interests may focus on a particular geographic area, finances, politics, health, spirituality, and other issues as they relate to their age group. Communities have formed around hobbies, favorite vacation spots, raising children, and a seemingly endless array of other broadly defined and narrowly circumscribed topics of interest. What is more, most people consider themselves to be members of more than one online community, each one representing a different facet of one's personality and interests.

     The importance of these newly evolving collections of consciousness cannot be overestimated, for they just may be the best hope yet for our species to come to an understanding of the fact that we are all directly connected to one another. When a school child in Palestine joins an online gaming community he or she immediately begins to interact with others, young and old, who share a similar interest. It may be that this interest is initially focused on some shoot-em-up action game, but it is not uncommon for this involvement to lead to direct interactions with other gamers outside of the environment of the game that first drew them together. Gradually, these interactions lead to a discussion of real world events, and often this leads to a greater tolerance for ideas that are not a part of the culture in which one lives.

A Global Culture

     Is it possible that the Internet has become the cornerstone of what will one day become this planet's first truly global culture? If we are to consider the word "culture," unadorned by our emotional attachment to what it implies on a personal level, it seems that the answer to this question is a resounding "Yes!"

The dictionary defines "culture" as:

  • Development of the intellect through education and training; or
  • The arts, beliefs, customs, institutions and all other products of human work and thought created by a people or group at a particular time.

     Whenever I hear the word "culture" my mind first springs to France and its high culture of art and music and poetry. Some people believe that anything which falls short of a strict adherence to the formal structures of high culture does not even deserve to be called culture. While the beauty of high culture is widely accepted, it seems to me a very restrictive environment in which a creative mind must live. And, quite frankly, those people who remain set in their belief that only one form or another of artistic expression is worthy of being considered cultural are going to be left behind as human consciousness continues to expand into the new millennium.

     Taken in a broad sense, it appears that a truly global culture has begun to blossom forth on our planet. Using the Internet as its seedbed, this new culture is changing our societies more rapidly than anything we have experienced before. The rate at which the technology of the Internet is being adopted by such a large number of people throughout the world is entirely without precedent. In fact, political debate has already begun in several countries as to whether a person actually has a right to use the Internet. We are entering new territory here, one that presents a grave threat to the established order, those who preserve our cultures.

     Of course, transformations like these raise some important questions. Just what is this new global culture that is evolving? What does it represent? What is its shape? How is this evolution/revolution taking place? Is this an elitist culture, or will persons in less technically developed countries also be able participate? How are these revolutionary developments going to affect you? These are some of the questions that will occupy us for the remainder of this book.

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