Sociology 304

Virtual and Cyberspace Definitions and Quotes


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" (Oxford English Dictionary).

Stone. 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. From "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" first published in the anthology Cyberspace: First Steps, ed. Michael Benedikt (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991): 81-118. Available in a web version.


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. Oxford English Dictionary 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).

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).

Cyberspace: 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. (Michael Benedikt, from K. Anderson, p. 458).

"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.

"As a cultural anthropologist, I see more old in the new than do the prophets of technotopia. Virtual reality, for example, strikes me as a high-tech version of shamanism. The idea of producing controlled virtual worlds is as old as hallucinogenic trance voyages and vision quests. The techniques may have changed, but will the visions?" David Hess in Omni, October, 1993.

Several of the above quotes are from Cyberspace - the New Jerusalem.

Last edited on April, 9, 1999.

Return to Sociology 304, Winter, 1999.