World leaders think of cyberspace as an alternate dimension with a fixed location, albeit a non-physical one. But this metaphor ultimately makes it harder to think through the contingent and grounded ways in which we use the Internet.
I’ve just returned from a conference about Internet unlike any other I’ve been to before. The London Conference on Cyberspace, organised by William Hague and the Foreign Office, was a meeting that attracted huge names (David Cameron, Joe Biden, Helen Clark, Carl Bildt, Jimmy Wales and many others). The ambitious goal of the meeting was “to develop a better collective understanding of how to protect and preserve the tremendous opportunities that the development of cyberspace offers us all.”
The meeting was quite stimulating, and it was interesting to hear people like Cameron and Biden outline their visions for the future of the Internet (even if those visions contradicted some moves by both UK and US governments). But the thing that struck me the most was the constant use of the word ‘cyberspace.’ People just wouldn’t stop saying it.
David Cameron told us that “we can’t leave cyberspace wide open to criminals.” Joe Biden called it “a new realm.” The Russia’s Minister for Communications was worried enough that he asked that the Internet be made to respect borders and state sovereignty. Continuing the use of the spatial metaphor, Carl Bildt, the former Prime Minister of Sweden, speculated that light would be brought to even the most hidden corners of the Internet by asserting that “there will be no dark spaces for dark acts any more.” I could go on with examples, but you probably get the idea.
As I’ve argued before (in my article on “The Spatialities of the Digital Divide”), the ‘cyberspace’ metaphor is an inherently geographical concept. It allows the virtual to take on an ontic role. ‘Cyberspace,’ in this sense, is conceived of as both an ethereal alternate dimension which is simultaneously infinite and everywhere (because everyone with an Internet connection can enter), and as fixed in a distinct location, albeit a non-physical one (because despite being infinitely accessible all willing participants are thought to arrive into the same marketspace, civic forum, and social space). ‘Cyberspace,’ in this sense truly becomes a global village.
The ontic role assigned to cyberspace is likely also reinforced by the grammatical rules associated with the Internet in the English language. Common prepositions associated with Internet use (e.g. to go to a website, or to get on the Internet) imply a certain spatiality associated with the Internet. In other words, the need to move to a cyberspace that is not spatially proximate to the Internet user. Similarly, it is common practice to treat the word “Internet” as proper noun (hence the capitalization of the word). In doing so, the notion of a singular virtual entity or place is reinforced.
Even before the coining of the term, commentators were speculating that synchronous communication technologies like the telegraph would bring humanity together in some sort of shared space. For instance, in 1846, in a proposal to connect European and American cities via an Atlantic telegraph, it was stated that one of the benefits would be the fact that “all of the inhabitants of the earth would be brought into one intellectual neighbourhood and be at the same time perfectly freed from those contaminations which might under other circumstances be received” (Marvin, 1988: 201).
Twelve years later after the completion of the Atlantic telegraph, The Times proclaimed that “the Atlantic is dried up, and we become in reality as well as in wish one country” (quoted in Standage, 1998: 80). In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan’s philosophy of media posited a future not too different from proclamations about the power of communication technologies a century earlier. He noted that “electric circuitry has overthrown the regime of “time” and “space” and pours upon us instantly and continuously concerns of all other men. It has reconstituted dialogue on a global scale…“Time” has ceased, “space” has vanished. We now live in a global village” (McLuhan and Fiore, 1967: 63).
Such ideas were prevalent in the early days of the Internet. John Barlow, for example, in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, boldly asserts that “cyberspace does not lie within your borders” and “ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.”
Most of us have moved beyond such ideas and recognise the hybrid and augmented ways in which the Internet is embedded into our daily lives. We recognise that there is no singular ontic entity of ‘cyberspace’ that we can enter into to transcend our material presences. And that is probably why few of us actually imagine a movement into ‘cyberspace’ when we access Wikipedia, log into Facebook, or watch a video on YouTube. So why do the global leaders present at the London conference insist on using this term that is so rarely used by everyone else? Or more broadly, why do they continue to employ a spatial metaphor to imagine a network?
I suspect that part of the reason lies in the fact that states, and their representatives and leaders, are naturally concerned with unregulated activity that is hard to geographically place. When thinking about warfare, hackers, pornography, fraud, and other threats to the rule of law, it is challenging to fully understand the complex geographies of these processes and practices. It is much easier to imagine that they simply happen ‘out there’ in Carl Bildt’s dark spaces of the Internet.
Another reason is likely the extensive literature on the ‘information revolution’ and the ‘networked society.’ Most national governments have departments, task forces, plan and policies set up to address issues of digital exclusion. Because of the existence of the ‘global village’ ontology of cyberspace, there is often a pollyannish assumption that once the material ‘digital divide’ is bridged, the many problems attributed to ‘digital divides’ will also vanish. Or, in other words, once people are placed in front of connected terminals, the ‘digital divide’ becomes bridged and the previously disconnected are consequently able to enter ‘cyberspace.’
As such, those without access to ‘cyberspace’ and the ‘global village’ are therefore seen to be segregated from the contemporary socio-economic revolution taking place. This idea of exclusion is powerful, and some, such as former US secretary of State Colin Powell, and the chief executive of 3Com, have on separate occasions gone so far as to term this exclusion “digital apartheid.”
In contrast to these imaginations of a digital global village and an ontic entity of ‘cyberspace,’ my talk at the London conference argued that there isn’t some sort of universally accessible cyberspace that we are all brought into once we log onto the Internet. The Internet is not a space, but rather a network that enables selective connections between people and information. It is a network that is characterized by highly uneven geographies and in many ways has simply reinforced global patterns of visibility, representation and voice that we’re used to in the offline world.
Imagining the Internet as a distinct, immaterial, ethereal alternate dimension ultimately makes it more challenging to think through the contingent and grounded ways in which we consume, enact, communicate and create through the Internet. The Internet is characterised by complex spatialities which are challenging to understand and study, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to fall back on unhelpful metaphors which ignore the Internet’s very real, very material, and very grounded geographies.
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