Sociology 304

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 space.

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. 95-96).

Example. Grounding in physical bodies. Among academics across Canada and the world, electronic communication in the form of electronic mail and conference calls have become common. These provide a way of keeping in touch, communicating ideas and information, and carrying out administrative tasks, all at relatively low cost and with minimal time and travel involved. It appears that most of the individuals involved in these forms of communication prefer to have these contacts grounded in real people from time to time. That is, a yearly meeting or conference at which people can get to recognize faces and have close to full bandwidth interaction seems to be desired. It may be that younger people or those more heavily involved in the new technologies will take a different approach. Most of the academic individuals who are involved in electronic communications view these as a secondary form of activity, and tend to look on these as tools to assist them in carrying out their tasks more economically, quicker, and efficiently than with earlier technologies.

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, or cyborg.

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 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. 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.

Example. A University of Winnipeg student, Susan Kravis, explained how she obtained information and stories about people who had near-death experiences. SK noted that she had advertised for a couple weeks in the Winnipeg Free Press and obtained only one or two responses. She was much more successful on the internet, where there is a web page about near-death experiences. From this, SK sent out a note asking for information and stories of people who had had near-death experiences. She obtained a lot of these stories. She thought that the anonymity of the situation, and the potential to change names and situations made it easier for people to respond to this request, whereas the same people may felt uncomfortable explaining the near-death experience in a person-to-person situation. In addition, SK thought that writing about the experiences was easier than talking about the experiences.

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" (p. 2).

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.

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