Sociology 304

March 30, 1999

Social Environment of Cyberspace

A. Language and Context of Information Technology (IT)

As important as an academic analysis of the new technologies are the images and impressions associated with these technologies and approaches. These are presented by the promoters of the new technologies (the virtual class) using the norms, preferences, wishes and desires of individuals, groups, institutions, and organizations in contemporary society. At the same time, it is each of us as individuals and members of various social groups who participate in this - by adopting the new technologies. Some of us are willing accomplices or leaders in this adoption and others are dragged along, but in general a wide range of individuals and groups have shown themselves willing to participate in the new technological developments. Kroker and others call this "the will to virtuality." Armitage argues that "the division between living bodies and technology is increasingly difficult to maintain" and "we are well on our way to 'becoming machinic'" (Armitage, p. 2).

A sociological examination of the new technologies should attempt to understand the social impact of these new technologies. Part of this is the direction that producers of these new technologies are attempting to push us, but another part of this is how each of us as individuals relates to and uses the new technologies. Many of the claims of the virtual class are misleading and extravagant and are intended to promote their interests and view of society. In many cases, this could increase social inequality and benefit only a few. At the same time, many of the new technologies can be used to improve life for a majority of the population, increase community and democracy, and help promote a progressive future for humanity. In order to promote the progressive aspects of the new technologies, we should attempt to understand the various ways in which these new technologies can be applied and used, and use them in a way that will improve the lot of all members of society, rather than employing for the benefit of only a few.

B. Stone on Cyberspace.

1. Background. In a 1991 article, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" Stone notes that virtuality and cyberspace may not be all that new. Also note the quote by Hess, who argues that techniques have changed but visions have changed very little. Certainly the technologies are digital and electronic, as opposed to the print technologies that formed the basis for some earlier forms of virtual communities. Even the oral tradition, storytelling, drumming, etc. might be considered to have led to earlier virtual communities. While Stone does not deal extensively with print technologies, these are one of the first forms that virtual communities took. Stone notes that

Cyberspace, without its high-tech glitz, is partially the idea of virtual community. The earliest cyberspaces may have been virtual communities, passage points for collections of common beliefs and practices that united people who were physically separated. Virtual communities sustain themselves by constantly circulating those practices. To give some examples of how this works, I'm going to tell an origin story of virtual systems.

There are four epochs in this story. The beginning of each is signaled by a marked change in the character of human communication. Over the years, human communication is increasingly mediated by technology. Because the rate of change in technological innovation increases with time, the more recent epochs are shorter, but roughly the same quantity of information is exchanged in each. Since the basis of virtual communities is communication, this seems like a reasonable way to divide up the field.

Epoch One: Texts. [From the mid-1600s]
Epoch Two: Electronic communication and entertainment media. [1900+]
Epoch Three: Information technology. [1960+]
Epoch Four: Virtual reality and cyberspace. [1984+]

The computer engineers, the people who wrote the programs by means of which the nets exist, just smiled tiredly. They had understood from the beginning the radical changes in social conventions that the nets implied. Young enough in the first days of the net to react and adjust quickly, they had long ago taken for granted that many of the old assumptions about the nature of identity had quietly vanished under the new electronic dispensation. Electronic networks in their myriad kinds, and the mode of interpersonal interaction that they foster, are a new manifestation of a social space that has been better known in its older and more familiar forms in conference calls, communities of letters, and FDR's fireside chats. It can be characterized as "virtual" space - an imaginary locus of interaction created by communal agreement. In its most recent form, concepts like distance, inside/outside, and even the physical body take on new and frequently disturbing meanings.

Source: Stone, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" available at the web site:

From this quote, note:

One of the sports utility vehicle advertisements aired on television on March 28, 1999 showed the SUV going to various scenic locations in the United States. The comment was something like "a good way to access sites that you view on the internet." The woman passenger is shown with a portable laptop computer in which she views the various scenic spots while the couple is actually travelling to and visiting these locations. Sometimes the clips are of the actual scenery and at other times of the images of the same scenery on the computer. In the advertisement, it is difficult to determine the difference between the actual or real in geographic space and the virtual reality images in cyberspace. (During third period of hockey game on Fox, Rochester, around 5 p.m., March 28, 1999).

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" (p. 33). 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 surplus 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's 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.

Introducing the

Pentium® III processor.

Today you have

the power to get into

the Internet,

not just onto it.

The advertisement shows a door labelled "intel inside Pentium® III processor." The door is open with what might be cyberspace on the other side of the door, and we are encouraged to enter.

Intel advertisement, Rolling Stone, #809, April 1, 1999, pp. 14-15. Similar images are contained in Intel's television advertisements.

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 space.

2. 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) and a large part of her focus is on a fourth aspect, that of the forms and nature of community - is there a virtual community and what does this mean.

a. Social environment. With cyberspace as a social environment, many of the old structures and modes of interaction will continue to exist, but new forms will also 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.

b. 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, or cyborg.

c. 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.

d. Community. Return to this next week. Virtual community.

3. 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 other ways.

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. ). Cyborg as "union of nature, society, and technology" (K. Anderson, p. 456, from D. Haraway). Even the computer as prosthetic 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.

What are some of the cyborg forms? Pacemakers, cell phones, hearing aids. These are more tools or protheses but if we can imagine further developments in this direction, these may be cyborg in form. Many advertisements contain cyborgs. The people who can leap to tall buildings or even some of the automobile ads contain suggestions of this. Science fiction movies contain various cyborgs. In terms of cyberspace, the individual does enter cyberspace and in that sense becomes fused with technology. See Kroker on the body below.

Cyborg Envy is discussed by Stone in "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" She argues that the cybernetic mode and cybernetic interaction give a sense of power and

a sense of physical and conceptual mobility that is implied in the sense of exciting, dizzying physical movement within purely conceptual space. ... This sense, which seems to accompany the desire to cross the human/machine boundary, to penetrate and merge ... I characterize as cyborg envy. (p. 17).

This may be a natural desire, or one developed by new forms of technology, but regardless of what is the reason, Stone notes how powerful an impulse this is among some. She argues that the effect of entering cyberspace "is to physically put on cyberspace. ... the intense tactility associated with such a reconceived and refigured body constitutes the seductive quality of what one might call the cybernetic act." As many other postmodern writers have argued, this produces a transformation of the mind and body into a new cyberspace form.


Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origina and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1973.

Anderson, Karen L., Sociology: A critical introduction, Scarborough, Nelson Canada, 1996.

Armitage, John, "Resisting the Neoliberal Discourse of Technology," Ctheory, #68,, March 29, 1999.

Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, New York, The Guilford Press, 1991.

Dasgupta, Satadal, editor, The Community in Canada: Rural and Urban, Lanham, Maryland, University Press of America, 1996.

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.

Fisher, Jeffrey, "The Postmodern Paradiso" in David Porter, editor, Internet Culture, Routledge, New York, 1996, pp. 111-128.

Gibson, William, Neuromancer, New York, Ace, 1984.

Kellner, Douglas, "Popular Culture and the Construction of Postmodern Identities," in Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman, editors, Modernity and Identity, Oxford, Blackwell, 1992, pp. 141-177.

Kroker, Arthur and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: the theory of the virtual class, Montreal, New World Perspectives, 1994.

Leeson, Lynn Hershman, editor, Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture, Seattle, Bay Press, 1996.

Porter, David, Internet Culture, Routledge, New York, 1996.

Stone, Allucquère Rosanne, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?", May 11, 1997.

Williams, Raymond, Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society, London, Fontana, Flamingo edition, 1983.

Notes from March 30, 1999. Last edited on April 1, 1999.

Return to Sociology 304, Winter, 1999.