What Is Cyberspace?

January 21, 1997

So here I am, staring into my computer screen again. It must be perplexing to those who really don't understand computers. To them it must seem as if the computer-literate are turning into zombies, losing contact with life. The uninitiated probably parrot that line from the magazine ad for Dewars Scotch Whiskey: "It's not so much the 'chat room' as it is the sitting-home-alone-by-yourself part that concerns us."

When we gaze into those screens with distant stares, we're somewhere else. We're in cyberspace, a realm that resembles the usual atom-filled space only in that both require navigation. It's disconcerting, this split life. As an excited and anxious cybergeek once told me: "It's like we exist in two worlds at once. There is the regular world that we walk around in, but we're also dealing with this entirely new world altogether."

Science-fiction writer William Gibson coined the term "cyberspace" in his 1984 book Neuromancer. More importantly, he understood this dimension as something all its own. As he told Larry McCaffery in an interview on Neural Net:

I was walking down Granville Street, Vancouver's version of 'The Strip,' and I was looking into one of the video arcades. I could see in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt the kids inside were. . . . These kids clearly believed in the space games projected.

Gibson defines cyberspace as a "consensual hallucination." The first consent is to not see the screen as a flat surface, but rather as something with depth and space. Just as a baby first encountering the new world sees only a barrage of colors and shapes, someone who never has used a computer is not cued in to the significance of this blue box or that white arrow. Making that leap is not difficult. Television and movies have been creating the illusion of depth for years, as painters have for centuries. The remarkable quality about computers is that, unlike the television screen or the canvas, they allow the viewer to become a participant-to manipulate and control the illusion itself.

(In a way you could argue that the introduction of Pong-the world's first commercial video game-in 1972 upped the ante on thousands of years of pictorial representations. OK, that's a bit of a stretch, but in light of Pong's relationship to the earliest, non-depth-perceptive paintings, it's interesting to note Bill Gates' fascination with Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. Da Vinci, after all, relentlessly investigated how to represent three- dimensional geometry on two-dimensional surfaces.)

In any case, those new to computers soon learn that moving the "cursor" around to a certain spot on the screen (at first an awkward act, but one that, like the use of any limb-artificial or otherwise-soon becomes second nature) and then "clicking" the mouse will reliably produce something-say a document. Because this document is separate from other documents-which are arrived at by other clicks-that individual begins to conceive of this realm as one of space. Those people finding the quickest routes (the fewest number of clicks) from their office memos to solitaire are doing more than just goofing off; they are making baby steps in cyberspace.

However confusing cyberspace may seem, this is the best way to understand it. A friend bemoans how he doesn't "understand" how computer programs work. He only understands them insofar as they do what he wants them to do (most of the time, anyway). But his is the best approach to cyberspace-learn only what you need to know.

Understanding computers is like moving into a new city. You don't stay home until you've memorized every street and intersection of your new city. You figure out where you want to go and consult a map or ask directions along the way. Eventually you suss out what the main arteries are, and soon enough you're cruising the back roads and shortcuts like a native. You develop an internal map of the city.

This is the way you develop your internal map of cyberspace, and it's the only way to understand the Internet. The Internet consists of countless nooks of cyberspace hooked together so people can travel through them. Even the most in-depth video game has its limits-some point at which the user yawns and says, "Yeah, seen that before." But the Net is so mind-bogglingly large it would be impossible for anyone to experience it all. It's no surprise that most people-even the computer-savvy-who hop on the Net for the first time feel as if the bottom has dropped out from underneath them. It has. Literally.

And cyberspace will only grow. What implications this may have is hard to fathom. William Gibson's latest book takes his "consensual hallucination" idea to its farthest reaches. In Idoru, he depicts quantitative-data analysts as cowboys riding out on the perimeters of digital ranges, where data takes the form of landscapes and even develops personalities: The novel's title character is nothing more than a "data construct."

Sure, it's weird, but weirder stuff has been imagined. By Leonardo da Vinci, for instance.
--Joab Jackson

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