April 2, 1998
Social Environment of Cyberspace - I
1. Background. See March 26 notes.
2. Virtual and Cyber. For Kroker and others, this is
the electronic frontier of 21st century society. This is the
replacement or redefinition of our biological human senses with
new ways of hearing, seeing, and touching, and of the replacement
of travel in territorial, geographic space by travel in cyberspace
- across the internet and in other programmed or open ended electronic
forms such as electronic games and simulations. Each of the ordinary
human senses become redefined and travel and communication also
become redefined. How often have you heard someone say "Let's
go to the Voyager site" or on TV the commentator says, "We
will now go to Tirana, Sarajevo, etc." while you do not move
from the chair. While virtual reality games and experiences may
represent an extreme of this type of reality, there are a number
of ways that we experience various aspects of this - using computers,
working on the internet, playing video games, watching TV, etc.
Next week we will see a Chrysler ad where it appears that design
of the Dodge Intrepid took place using a virtual system, and some
auto dealers have virtual test drives.
Virtual denotes images, models, or simulations that appear
real, but in fact are not physically existing. Of course, there
are computer codes, hardware, and software that create these images,
just as there are physical devices like lenses or mirrors that
create virtual optical images. The computer codes may originally
derive from physically existing objects but can be altered and
take on a recombinant form.
Virtual reality may seem to
be a joining of two terms together in a way that does not make
sense, but it has been used to denote the creation of images,
models, and simulations in cyberspace that may appear to be real
or appear to exist physically. While this term is now commonly
used with reference to computer games and other electronic forms
of simulation, Kroker is also using this in the way that Baudrillard
does, where "the simulation models become more real than
the actual institutions, and not only is it increasingly difficult
to distinguish between simulation and reality, but the reality
of simulation becomes the criterion of the real itself" (Best
and Kellner, p. 120). The Carillon reviewer of a Jane
Siberry concert at the Students' Union several years ago noted
that she had never heard an actual concert that reproduced the
record (or disk) as well as Siberry had done. K. Anderson defines
virtual reality as "the reality created by using a computer,
a reality that can be seen as virtual or artificial in the sense
that it is located in the user's mind as a result of an interaction
with an electronic device, rather than one in the material world"
(Anderson, p. 457).
Virtual. Root appears to be virtu, manliness, valour, worth and vir or man. Virtue was used as a quality of persons or a quality of things. Virtual as possessed of certain physical qualities, or that is so in essence or effect, although not formally or actually. This word has a long history in English, with varied meanings, but was used in optics in the 1700s to denote the apparent focus or image resulting from the effect of reflection or refraction upon rays of light. Applied in physics and then in computer science to denote "not physically existing, but made by software to appear to do so from the point of view of the program or user" (OED).
Cyber. Steer or control. Cybernetics as the field of control and communication theory, in machine or in animal. Norbert Wiener, 1948. Theory or study of communications and control in living organisms or machines. OED Supplement.
Douglas Kellner. "The term 'cyber' is a Greek root signifying 'control.' and the term has been absorbed into the concept of 'cybernetics,' signifying a system of high-tech control systems, combining computers, new technologies, and artificial realities, with strategies of system maintenance and control. The roor 'cyber' is also related to 'cyborg,' describing new syntheses of humans and machines and generally signifies cutting-edge high-tech artifacts and experiences." (p. 310 of Media Culture). Cyborg as "union of nature, society, and technology" (K. Anderson, p. 456, from D. Haraway). Kellner notes how this was connected to 'punk' from "the edge and attitude of tough urban life, sex, drugs, violence, and antiauthoritarian rebellion in lifestyles, pop culture, and fashion" to produce 'cyberpunk.' Together this meant "the marriage of high-tech subculture with low-life street cultures ... or to technoconciousness and culture which merges state-of-the-art technology with the alteration of the senses, mind, and lifestyles associated with bohemian subcultures" (p. 310)
Cyber and cyberspace are related terms. These come
from control or communication theory in machine or electronic
technologies. Cyber has often been connected with other
words to denote ways in which these electronic technologies are
joined with traditional ideas such as space and culture, to denote
that these traditional ideas take on a new form. Cyberspace has
no physical, geographic, or territorial location, but has a certain
reality, in the sense that we operate in it, act and interact
with it, get help from it, put information into it, assemble and
reorganize this information, and retrieve new forms of information
from it. Michael Benedikt defines it as
a new universe, a parallel universe created and sustained by the world's computers and communication lines. A world in which the global traffic of knowledge, secrets, measurements, indicators, entertainment, and alter-human agency takes on form. (from K. Anderson, p. 458).
Cyberspace was coined by William Gibson, the science fiction
writer, in 1984, to describe a sphere where people are connected
by digital communication. For Gibson, this is
A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts ... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding .(Gibson, Neuromancer, p. 51).
With the advent of the internet, this has taken a qualitative
leap, but is also part of daily communications, finance and banking,
and the workplace of many workers.
3. Stone on Cyberspace. Stone introduces the idea of
cyberspace and cyberspace or virtual communities in the "Introduction"
but provides the main theoretical discussion of its meaning and
importance in Ch. 1, "Collective Structures." There
she notes the introduction of the term into common usage (at least
within computer and science fiction circles) with the publication
of William Gibson's Neuromancer in 1984. While this was
a work of science fiction, it seems generally agreed that Gibson's
novel struck a chord with those familiar with computer technology.
While science fiction may sometimes seem to be set in a distant
future, Gibson has stated that he is writing about the present,
and much of what is described in Neuromancer is not that
distant from contemporary electronic communication.
Cyberspace then is a "space of pure communication, the free
market of symbolic exchange" (Stone, p. 33). As a space
of pure communication, this is not geographic, physical, or three-dimensional
space, and perhaps the comments of Virilio and Memarzia provide
the best descriptions of how this space differs from what we ordinarily
think of as space. Note that Virilio is writing at least partly
about military, political, and governmental forms of control.
"Space is no longer in geography - it's in electronics. Unity is in the terminals. It's in the instantaneous time of command posts, multi-national headquarters, control towers, etc...There is a movement from geo-to-chrono-politics: the distribution of territory becomes the distribution of time. The distribution of territory is outmoded, minimal." Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics.
"Cyber-architecture is space-time collapsed, beyond recognition, in so far as moving from one place/enclosure to another does not require the physical space-time journey. The physical manifestation exist only as electrons & the transceivers used in order for the user to exist within it, and the concerns are moved from the practical and economy to expression of intentions, interests and thoughts. It represents the design of experiences rather than objects, a paradigm shift in architectural consciousness." Kambiz Memarzia.
Also note that Stone considers this space to be a "free market of symbolic exchange." If there is a market, something must be exchanged, and what is exchanged is symbols (letters, words, images) combined in traditional or new forms. Kroker refers to these as the recombinant commodity, a "circulating medium of virtual exchange" (Kroker, p. 73). In more graphic form, Kroker notes:
In virtual capitalism, the recombinant commodity functions like
a hard-wired digital sequencer, cutting and splicing the surplas
matter of the wired economy into electronic bytes: imaging bytes,
sound bytes, body bytes, smell bytes, and money bytes. Here,
the (organic) body spasms as it vomits into the desert-like void
of the electronic body. (Kroker, p. 71).
Stone describes Gibson's view of cyberspace as a "financial,
cultural, and ethical frontier" (Stone, p. 34), with entry
directly from the brain, with the refigured persons separated
from their physical bodies but still attached or grounded in the
physical bodies. While Gibson'' later novels develop this to
different levels, where the "individuals" or "minds"
in cyberspace became independent of physical bodies, in contemporary
society, cyberspace has not yet developed to this stage (and perhaps
never will). But the automated tellers, the internet, games,
computer registration at the University, the University Library
Voyager system are all cyberspace. We all are involved in this
in one way or another; even those who do not consider themselves
active users of computers have representation in cyberspace.
That is, we all have an electronic or cyber existence, whether
we want to or not. Most of this existence is grounded in physical
bodies - i.e. information about the physical body is uploaded,
stored, moved, and analyzed in cyberspace and downloaded to physical
a. Bandwidth. One characteristic noted by Stone is bandwidth. She introduces this on p. 35 but provides a fuller description on p. 93. For Stone, bandwidth is "the amount of information exchanged in unit time" (p. 93). When individuals have face-to-face meetings in the physical world, there is relatively high bandwidth. We see each other, we see the facial expressions, gestures, and dress, we note how others react, what voices are like, and how people move. In bureaucratic situations the bandwidth may be reduced and in family or intimate situations, the bandwidth is very wide. With electronic forms of communication, the bandwidth is obviously reduced considerably. In telephone conversation a voice is present, and such conversations do provide some idea of a range of reactions of the other individual. E-mail with its very narrow bandwidth is good for communicating specific forms of information. When e-mail is used to express a wider range of human expression such as feelings, Stone notes that there may be much interpretation involved.
Stone argues that there are a number of effects of changing bandwidth.
She notes that when there is narrow bandwidth, there is more
room for interpretation, fantasy, and desire. This has implications
of this in phone sex - how the few words compress large amounts
of information, and how those who hear these words fill in "missing
information with idealized information" (p. 95). Another
example she uses is data services, where the desire to connect
and communicate may be as important as the actual content (pp.
b. Importance of cyberspace. As noted above, the effects
of bandwidth are important in leading to different forms of interpretation,
fantasy, and desire, and hence different forms of interaction.
These certainly have implications for the future direction of
electronic communication, the extent and manner of application
of these technologies in activities such as educational institutions
and bureaucracies. For day-to-day communication in private life,
there are probably similar consequences.
Stone notes three aspects that interest her (p. 36).
i. Social environment. The nature of cyberspace as a
social environment. Many of the old structures and modes
of interaction will continue to exist, but new forms will develop.
For example, the new social environment might be such as to develop
greater controls over workers (electronic monitoring, speedup),
or they might be used to develop greater democracy and communication
among workers (bypassing the supervisor, manager, or boss).
Both of these tendencies undoubtedly exist in workplaces. New
groups can develop and new forms of action take place - for example,
the Zapatistas or the Chinese students, internet groups based
on interest and ability to communicate when earlier contacts were
not possible. These could be especially important for people
with special interests, some disabled people, geographically isolated
individuals and those who may become socially isolated.
ii. Interaction. Interactions in cyberspace are emblematic
of the state of current interactions between humans and machines.
See next section on whether computer is a tool, prosthetic,
iii. Identity. Identities that emerge may represent what
we are becoming in the contemporary era. That is, the selves
and identities are a complex result of social structures, technology,
and social interaction, and in the modern and contemporary era
are always changing. What will these identities be like in the
future? Stone notes that many of traditional feelings such as
care, love, and desire will express themselves. At the same time,
other traditional feelings such as fear, suspicion, and hate will
also express themselves, and in addition there may also be new
forms of cultural transformation. The modern, capitalist era
resulted in new forms of selves, with individualized, rational,
self-seeking humans developing, and cyberspace may lead to similar
transformations. Will these create a more individualized self
or will there be more community created? Stone examines some
of these issues and possibilities.
4. Tools, Prosthetics, Social Arena.
a. Tool. One issue that Stone mentions near the
beginning of The War of Desire and Technology is whether
these new technologies can be regarded as tools (pp. 13-15).
Initially the computer was viewed as a switching device (on or
off), as a large and powerful calculator, or as a device to process
large amounts of routine information. In many ways this is still
what it is, and the computer can first be thought of as a tool
- something to assist with work, to make work easier, to allow
one individual to accomplish more work, and to allow the individual
to be more productive or efficient. Stone notes that this was
the dominant paradigm used in connection with computers, and perhaps
still is dominant. At the same time, she examines computers in
b. Prosthetic. A second way in which computer
technology may change action and interaction is that computers
and new technologies may become more like prosthetics than
tools. That is the computer becomes an extension of the body,
allowing the body to do something different, more, or in a different
manner than what it could without the prosthetic. Stone introduces
this idea on pages 1-5 of The War of Desire and Technology
and follows this up on pp. 12- 16, noting how the individual can
be changed as a result - adding capabilities to human action.
In this situation, the boundaries or edges of the individual
become less clear.
c. Cyborg. Even this may be a limiting way of looking at computers, and Stone hints at a third way in which computers may change social interaction - by actors in cyberspace becoming partially or wholly independent of the physical body. This idea has been more fully developed within cyberpunk fiction, where there are digital or other implants in bodies, alteration of the body through surgical procedures, cloning, and the development of new body forms. This may allow for the development of new selves, independent of the body. For example, in Neuromancer (pp. 24-25), when Molly is introduced, Case notes:
She shook her head. He realized that the glasses were surgically inset, sealing her sockets. The silver lenses seemed to grow from smooth pale skin above her cheekbones, framed by dark hair cut in a rough shag. The fingers curled around the fletcher were slender, white, tipped with polished burgundy. The nails looked artificial. "I think you screwed up, Case. I showed up and you just fit me right into your reality picture."
"So what do you want, lady?" He sagged back against the hatch.
"You. One live body, brains still somewhat intact. Molly, Case.
She held out her hands, palms up, the white fingers slightly spread, and with a barely audible click, ten double-edge, four-centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails.
She smiled. The blades slowly withdrew.
More details come later, and there are digital implants in Case
and Molly, leading to abilities to roam, work, and play in cyberspace.
As Stone notes, and as indicated in this quote, "the 'original'
body was the authenticating source for the refigured person in
cyberspace" (Stone, p. 34). In later novels, Gibson introduces
cyborgs or avatars, combinations of digital technology and human
bodies, and in some of these cases, "consciousness in cyberspace
[is not] warranted in a physical body" (Stone, p. 34). While
the actual occurrence of this seems to be only a remote possibility,
some developments in this direction have taken place, and have
many social consequences.
d. Play ethic. Returning to current developments, what interests Stone more is the manner in which computer technology is used to develop a play ethic, with accompanying new forms of social interaction. That is, computer culture may involve aspects of play, rather than work. She notes that this can create quite a different mode of use, one that is not necessarily intended but does emerge because it is possible. She notes how some high tech workers may engage in
social interactions in which they change and are changed, in which commitments are made, kept, and broken, in which they may engage in intellectual discussions, arguments, and even sex - they view computers not only as tools but also as arenas for social experience. (p. 15)
To the extent that the play ethic develops, the mode of
interaction of computer users may be quite different than in use
of the computer as tool. Note that in some workplace situations,
the play ethic may cause problems for employees dealing with their
supervisors or managers.
5. Kroker on the Body. When using virtual reality,
the body vanishes and becomes downloaded into data, repackaged
to travel across electronic networks. The usual human forms of
communication and sense are replaced by electronic forms which
are nothing more than digital codes and (dead) data. Information
about biological bodies can be obtained by various forms of medical
imaging, photographs, TV cameras, microphones, and data about
the individual from forms, questionnaires, and administrative
sources. These can be converted into codes, and once entered
into computers, can acquire a life of their own. This
is the repackaged body is the wired body which Kroker
claims is perfect. That is, these digital forms no longer have
to be concerned with the biological realities and imperfections
of human bodies. The latter are slow, prone to disease and disability,
are idiosyncratic, and have many other limitations. In contrast
the wired body has few such limitations - it can move great distances
instantaneously, it can grow as new data are added, and it is
not limited to biological forms. The new central nervous system
is also electronic, flexible, fast, very perceptive, etc. The
trend then is for technology to take on a life of its own, so
that "technology comes alive as a distinctive species"
In these circumstances the human body becomes a mere prosthetic
(nr. bot. of p. 2) to the electronic forms, a finger punching
a key, a hand moving a mouse, or an arm moving a joystick. Note
that this means control rests with the electronic form, with the
human body becoming the tool of virtual reality. We tend to think
that we control the technology and data, but Kroker here seems
to argue that the direction of such control is reversed. And
it is the electronic body that takes on real life, although still
in its early form (struggling to come alive and deal with the
problems of digital life) so that what it will become is not clear.
Anderson, Karen L., Sociology: A critical introduction, Scarborough, Nelson Canada, 1996.
Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, New York, The Guilford Press, 1991.
Dery, Mark, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, New York, Grove Press, 1996.
Farganis, J., Readings in Social Theory: the Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism, second edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1993.
Gibson, William, Neuromancer, New York, Ace, 1984.
Kroker, Arthur and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: the theory
of the virtual class, Montreal, New World Perspectives, 1994.
Notes from April 2, 1998 class. Last edited on April 2, 1998.
Back to Sociology 304 home page.