Sociology 304

March 24 and 26, 1998

Introduction to Virtuality and Cyberspace

A. Description in Class Syllabus

In the concluding section of the class, we will discuss some of the social issues related to the new technologies, virtuality, and cyberspace. These will be approached at two levels: (i) through the theory of the virtual class, as laid out by the Canadian postmodern political and social theorist Arthur Kroker, and (ii) through the stories and theoretical approach of Allucquère Rosanne Stone. Kroker presents a broad overall view of the powerful virtual class that has emerged on the basis of new technologies, where the will to virtuality "becomes the primal impulse of pan-capitalism, the mediascape, and post-history." Through a series of stories and theoretical arguments, Stone examines how individuals create new forms of identities as they work and play with the new technologies.

B. Summary of Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age.

Stone's approach is to present some ideas concerning changes in society in the contemporary era, changes associated with the development and application of the new technologies. These ideas are presented in two forms: (i) through conventional discussions of theoretical issues, and (ii) through stories about people involved in the new technologies.

These stories concern the beginnings of some of the new technologies, some unexpected applications of these, and some social issues surrounding the development and use of the new technologies. Most of her analysis is at the micro level, examining how individuals relate to the technologies, and how they interact using these new technologies. Some of the stories concerning these may seem bizarre, but they are presented to explain some of the possible implications and meanings of these technologies.

1. Virtuality and cyberspace. Part of Stone's analysis is as reasonably conventional discussion of some important technological developments and theoretical issues. Stone examines a range of technologies, and sets the new information technologies within the context and history or earlier communication technologies.

Some of the issues that concern Stone are:

The last main paragraph of the book (p. 183) outlines how the future of these may be unclear, but how these developments are important for those involved in them, and for contemporary society.

Part of Stone's aim is to outline the consequences and give examples of the above.

2. Stories. A large part of the book is devoted to five stories that deal with different forms of experience and interaction in the new technologies. Some of the issues are the new ways in which individuals act, new forms of interaction, and new forms of community. An important aspect in this is who interacts, who the individuals is, and the distinction between individuals, the "I", selves, and bodies. We may have assumed that these were all identical, but Stone shows how aspects of these may differ considerably. Note p. 86.

The five major stories in Stone's book are as follows. In addition to these, there are some shorter stories or examples. Each of these stories is intended to illustrate some aspect of the new technologies and the implications for how human interaction and relationships with these technologies in contemporary society.

a. Identity in Oshkosh. (Ch. 2). Multiple personalities and identities and the meaning of rape in these circumstances.

b. Cross-Dressing Psychiatrist. (Ch. 3). This is the story of Julie, a cyberspace character created by a male psychiatrist. Julie developed a considerable following, but was eventually discovered for what she was.

c. CommuniTrees. (Ch. 5). This story describes the development of the first electronic bulletin board, originating in the Bay Area in California. Some of the difficulties of developing a virtual community, and some of the lessons that allow new virtual communities to develop, are described in this chapter.

d. Atari Lab. (Ch. 6). This chapter deals with the Atari lab that was set up when Atari was a very profitable corporation. The programmers hired by Atari were initially allowed great freedom to work and play at their own pace and at whatever they wished. Eventually though, those who controlled the corporation dominated - there was a clash between the creative, freewheeling programmers and the essentially conservative business approach of the corporate executives. The lab was dismantled and all the programmers fired when the corporation began to lose money and was sold.

e. Wellspring Systems. (Ch. 7). This is another hi-tech lab where development of computer games occurs. Stone notes the conventional, authoritarian, and sexist structure of this lab, and the seeming lack of concern with these problems on the part of the programmers there. She notes disappointment in how the young programmers, who have great power in directing the new technologies, do not perceive this power, let alone use it in what she would consider to be a positive direction (p. 164).

3. Themes. Stone raises many issues and themes in her book, and the implications of these are not always clear. That is partly because the conditions which she is describing are not necessarily generalized and because the technologies are continually changing and developing, so that the direction they and human society will go is not always clear. Some of the themes and issues that Stone highlights are as follows.

Interaction. pp. 10-12.

Presence. p. 16.

Public and private space. pp. 18-19.

Selves, bodies, and identities.

Multiple identities, personalities, and selves.

Boundaries and closure.

Tool, prosthetic, or cyborg?


Presence and warranting. p. 16, p. 40, p. 79.

4. Academic approach. In constructing the book in the manner she has, Stone is trying to change the manner in which academic analysis takes place. While she presents conventional academic articles and analyses, her approach may be postmodern in that she juxtaposes "clashing styles, … shifts of mood and voice" (p. 166). Her website provides information concerning her other activities, and she presents her work using a variety of different technologies and approaches.

C. New Technologies

Among the topics and issues in this section are the variety of new technologies, why they might be important in a social sense, and what they might mean in terms of the organization and conduct of contemporary society. Among the types of new technology are computers, the internet, high-speed connections such as fibre optics or satellite, cell phones, software and hardware, chips, data, information, communication, virtual reality simulations or games, robots, and perhaps many more applications of technology. Most or all of these have an electronic base, although some earlier technologies such as telephones, radio, and television also used electronics. Each of these earlier technologies was associated with changes in social organization, and the new technologies will also have an effect on social structure, institutions, and organization.

These new technologies are usually associated with information - the digital organization of information and data, being able to examine and process different data or more data. Many of the technologies are connected with communication - new ways of communicating, increased speed of communication, or new forms of information and data that can be communicated. Some writers and analysts examining the latest technologies argue that these create new forms of space (cyberspace) and new forms of reality (virtual).

Since many of the technologies lead in the direction of communication with others, or transfer of information to others, issues related to how this communication occurs, and what forms of interaction take place with use of these new technologies become important. Within cyberspace and virtual reality, even the question of who the self and the other are is in question. For the individual using the technologies alone, there are also issues such as whether the technology is associated with new cultural outlets (games, internet), saving time (one of the early expectations), more efficient and productive work (allowing the worker to carry out more tasks), new forms of individual-machine interaction (computer games, virtual reality), more problems and stress, and whether or how the machine could change the individual. For this section of the course, think of ways in which individual and group action and interaction may be changed as a result of the new technologies.

For society as a whole, there are also a number of issues associated with the new technologies. On one side are those who look on the new technologies as solutions to our problems, capable of creating a new and better world. The article "The Intercranial Internet" by Bran Ferren, New York Times Magazine, March 15, 1998, p. 28 is an example of this technotopian approach. The television advertisements of the hi-tech companies such as Microsoft and AT&T provide a quick view of the potentially positive effects of the new information technologies - better communication, improved ability to deal with problems, greater precision and accuracy, etc. Next week we will look at some of these ads to see what messages they carry.

On the other side, there are those who consider these extravagant claims to divert attention away from the important issues society faces, or look on the new technologies as creating new problems. Two of the main issues that face society, economic inequality and environmental degradation, may not be at all addressed with the new technologies. One of the implication of Kroker's argument is that economic inequality is likely to increase as the new technologies become more widespread, creating widespread unemployment, poverty, and surplus population, while at the same creating a wealthy and powerful virtual class. That is, these technologies may create unemployment and poverty among those left out of the hi-tech global economy, lead to greater workloads and speedup for some workers in this new society, and generally create new sources of stress and pressure throughout society.

Regardless of which approach is taken, and both approaches may be correct in some sense, there is no doubt that these new technologies are changing the manner in which we communicate, and are creating societies and economies which are more closely tied together at the global level. The implications for the economic, social, and political structure of societies are considerable, although it is not yet clear exactly how all these structures will be changed. The chapter, "Introduction" in Escape Velocity by Mark Dery provides an overview of some of the claims of both the doomsayers and the technophiles. His approach is to note that the computer is both "an engine of liberation and an instrument of repression" (p. 14) and he provides examples of how people can reclaim technology (p. 15).

D. Overview of Cyberculture: Mark Dery

Begin this section by reading Mark Dery, "Introduction: Escape Velocity," from Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, New York, Grove Press, 1996, pp. 3-17. Dery's article provides a quick overview of the what the new technologies are, what some of the claims concerning them are, and how we might approach them.

Notes on Dery, "Introduction" to Esape Velocity.

p. 3 - cyberculture on verge of getting escape velocity.

Speedup as result of computer and information engine.

Postindustrial era. Information economy - reduction in manufacturing.

p. 4 - Circuitry and code control more of world around us.

History of computers to personal computer in 1980s.

p. 5 - Internet. From military and then universities. Now commercial.

p. 6 - Widespread use - cyberspace

imaginary space that exists entirely inside a computer.

Labour ephemeral and commodity evanescent - human disembodied.

More time spent in cyberspace.

Is there a "there" there? Place?

p. 7 - Also alters material lives. Chips in appliances. Cell phones, portable comp.

"intelligent agents"?

Virtual reality futurism? Simulation. (Used in military, industrial design, etc.)

p. 8 - New forms of machinery. (See NY Times article).

Robotic life forms. Do away with weak flesh entirely.

Philosophic - breaking free of limits. Millenarianism.

e.g. human level machine intelligence, controls own destiny, etc.

p. 9 - New age plus physics and metaphysics.

p. 10 - Cybernetic connectedness and ability to deliver manufactured goods and data.

US as fountainhead of the new techno utopia - progress, second coming, prol.

Deliverance from human history and mortality.

We will be witness to greatest change.

Ignore need to confront social, political, economic, and ecological problems.

p. 11 - ATT vision. Machines made of sunshine.

p. 12 - Has it lightened our burden as workers.

Office intrudes on vacation, long workdays, etc.

Leisure - promise has faded.

Ability to locate yourself also means ability of marketers and govt to locate.

p. 13 - Privary invasion, errors, bugs.

Economic inequality and environmental depredation.

p. 14 - Computer as engine of liberation and instrument of repression.

Should attempt to expropriate tech from scientists, CEOs, etc.

p. 15 - Reclaim technology.

p. 16 - Intersection of technology and biology.

Growing irrelevance of body as sensory experience. Digital simulation.

Technophiles vs. Doomsaying technophobes.

No way out of history.

p. 17 - Haraway: fragility of lives, escape velocity is a fantasy.

Rhetoric crosses cyberpunk with Pentecostalism.

But - we are here to stay, in these bodies, and on this planet.

E. Terms associated with the new technologies. One of the ways in which the new technologies can be understood is by noting the terms surrounding these new technologies. These are terms that describe the technologies themselves, and terms that people use to describe some aspects of them and some of their effects. Among the terms are:

Microsoft advertisement. Ad showing a teacher talking about students (perhaps grade 6 through 8) using computers in a classroom. Ad ends with the teacher saying, "They used their computers to gain access to information that they could not get in any other way."

From a Microsoft advertisement, WCCO-TV, Minneapolis, Channel 10 on Cable Regina, 5:08 p.m., March 21, 1998.

Many of these words and advertisements give a sense of power and compulsion to the new technologies. When reading Stone, note some of the language that is used to describe the structure and effects of these technologies. When reading Kroker, note how he develops other words and uses language to present these technologies in a new light. For example, Kroker talks about abuse value (a play on Marx's use value), data trash (title of book), recline of civilization, and possessed individual (instead of the possessive individual of classical liberalism).

F. Virtuality and Cyberspace

1. Background. Part of Stone's analysis is a discussion of some important technological developments and theoretical issues. Stone examines a range of technologies, and sets the new information technologies within the context and history or earlier communication technologies. While she does not deal extensively with print technologies, these are one of the first forms that virtual communities took. In "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?" 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.

Quote from A. R. Stone, "Will the Real Body Please Stand Up."

From this quote, note:

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 the 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" (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" (Oxford English Dictionary).

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 generally 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). 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.

"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.

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.


Anderson, Karen I., Sociology: A Critical Introduction, Scarborough, Nelson Canada, 1996.

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

Dery, Mark, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, New York, Grove Press, 1996.

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

Kellner, Douglas, Media Culture: Cultural Studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern, London and New York, Routledge, 1995.

Cyber References

Two chapters from Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein, Data Trash: the theory of the virtual class (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994) are available on the internet.

Chapter One, "The Theory of the Virtual Class"

Most of Chapter 4, "The Political Economy Of Virtual Reality: Pan-Capitalism"; pp. 66-93 of Data Trash.

"Way New Leftists"; Jean=Hugues Roy interview with Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Wired, 4.02.

Stone's site.

Mark Dery's website

Sarah Zupko's site

University of Iowa, Technology, Postmodernism and Other Stuff

CTHEORY is an international journal of theory, technology and culture. Articles, interviews, and key book reviews in contemporary discourse are published weekly as well as theorisations of major "event-scenes" in the mediascape. Edited by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker.

Notes for March 24 and 26, 1998. Last edited on March 27, 1998.

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