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“Cyberspace” must die. Here’s why

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We’re halfway through the second decade of the 21st century and people are still talking about “cyberspace”. This has to stop. The term has become not only outmoded, but downright dangerous.

Burning Chrome, the short story in which William Gibson introduced the term "cyberspace"
Burning Chrome, the short story in which William Gibson introduced the term “cyberspace”
“Cyberspace” suggests a place other than the real world. Perhaps that’s how things once felt, when online life was still sparkly and anarchic back in the 1980s, but that’s not where we are now. Everything’s going online. When Eric Schmidt said last month that “the internet will disappear”, he was right – the online and offline worlds will merge to such a degree that the connecting infrastructure will no longer be apparent and the split will be meaningless.

But still we constantly hear media and politicians and policy-makers refer to this other realm. Last month the U.K. government talked about keeping businesses “safe in cyberspace”. U.S. president Barack Obama talks about “threats in cyberspace” and “securing cyberspace”. Israel’s National Cyber Bureau “works to promote the national interest in cyberspace”. China has a Cyberspace Affairs Administration that promotes “a peaceful, safe and open and co-operative cyberspace” (i.e. a more heavily censored existence).

The online layer

It’s as if everyone’s talking about a new continent that recently rose up from the sea – uncharted territory or “Neuland”, in the much-mocked phrasing of German chancellor Angela Merkel. In reality, what they’re referring to is an online layer that augments the offline world, thanks to the physical infrastructure that is the internet.

The problem with “cyberspace” is that the word suggests a place where different rules apply, and as such it can be misleading. We all need protection from theft and fraud, whether it takes place online or offline. If we’re tracked and spied upon in the online layer, the effect is similar (though more surreptitious) to being stalked around town and in the living room. Online harassment can be as painful as being menaced in the street. We cannot allow the impact of rights violations to be downplayed because they take place online, and we create such a risk by referring to the online world as another, less immediate place.

The need to abandon the false digital dualism embodied in the term “cyberspace” (hat tip to Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey) becomes more urgent as everyday items become connected to the internet. To appreciate how anachronistic the word has become, consider whether your fitness tracker or smart thermostat exists in cyberspace or the real world. When leaked NSA documents talked about strong decryption capabilities as the “price of admission for the U.S. to maintain unrestricted access to and use of cyberspace,” that wasn’t about mastering Neuland. It was about being able to access and exploit the entire connected world, smart homes and all.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=”” id=”913012″]The problem with “cyberspace” is that the word suggests a place where different rules apply, and as such it can be misleading.[/pullquote]

Of course, the online layer is a deeply complex and occasionally paradoxical concept that requires much philosophical digestion and even more political adjustment. For one thing, it’s a layer that spans discrete jurisdictions while lacking inherent borders, creating a conundrum that’s exemplified in Europe’s “right to be forgotten”. Whether it’s a good idea or not, Europe has the right to tell Google to remove certain links from its results within its territory, but it doesn’t have the right to make Google remove those links outside the EU.

At the same time, the technical reality of the online layer makes it difficult or perhaps impossible for Google to meaningfully enforce its right in Europe without applying it globally, because the layer’s borderless nature makes circumvention far too easy. Is there an easy answer to this? Not without some kind of New World Order. But reality is complex — we’ll probably need carefully drafted international treaties to manage this issue — and the reductiveness of a concept like “cyberspace” won’t help us get where we need to go.

Give and take

“Cyberspace” denotes a place but, if anything, it’s about the elimination of spatial concerns as we socialize, collaborate and work together across the world. As such, it’s an awkwardly-named property of the online layer — related to the shared “internet commons” idea — rather than a good descriptor for the layer itself. It’s only one property among many; the online layer still remains tied to the framework of the nation state, with all its political and legal implications, and so it must for now. Citizens of a particular country can’t live under one set of laws and norms offline, and another online.

Minecraft Reality augmented reality app
Minecraft Reality augmented reality app
The information ethicist Luciano Floridi refers to the “onlife experience” as the state in which we are increasingly living. There’s a lot of value in that concept, though we’re not really there yet. The online and offline layers are inextricably bound, but there’s still a lot of friction that will have to be resolved.

Governments and others whose nature and ideas are rooted in offline structures may want the online layer to conform to those, but its technical properties require the fundamental rethinking of many offline social and legal concepts. What does “theft” mean in the online sense, where the original copy of the “stolen” data remains in place? How do social norms around not listening in on or butting into private conversations in a public space apply on Twitter?

At the same time, the connected world is something that’s being shaped by us, and the technical nature of its online layer will ultimately be tempered by our choices and needs. For example, the corporate spying that funds the current free-services model may have to be reined in to respect our inherent right to privacy, even though our understanding of privacy will inevitably adapt to exploit the potential of pervasive connectivity. There will be a lot of give and take.

We have a long way to go before the online and offline layers coexist in “onlife” harmony, and at that point we may as well just call it “life.” But that’s the end state we’re aiming for, and if we’re going to build it with conceptual clarity, then we need to abandon the idea of “cyberspace” and the baggage it’s accumulated since William Gibson coined it (with little semantic intent) over three decades ago.

It’s all the real world now.

7 Responses to ““Cyberspace” must die. Here’s why”

  1. It is precisely because cyberspace is so different that it should continued to be named as a separate entity. It is true that it can be seen as simply a layer that coats all and therefore should be considered part of that whole. However, cyberspace does transcend political borders in ways we’re only beginning to understand and it is changing how we perceive our interconnectedness. We still call outer space by that moniker–and it is simply a medium we travel through. We have labels for all sorts of segments of the world(s) around us. The term cyberspace serves a useful, conceptual purpose and will for some time to come.

  2. Great article. How about “information superhighway”? Ha.

    It is a dumb term but we have to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the experience. A great word that must have been coined at some point early in the 20th century is “broadcasting.” Someone thought it up and it described something entirely new and it fit and it stuck. So we have to evolve to the point where someone coughs up a new word that really describes the new experience, and until then, I guess we’re stuck on the internets.

  3. Andreas Beer

    Well, the real cyberspace hasn’t even started yet.

    So yes, we should dismiss the abuse of this formidable noun, and wait for the time when our bodies senses will locate us in a “place” that isn’t physical, but digitally invoked. When “up”, “down”, “left”, “right”, “here” have no meaning in the digital world anymore, but are replaced by new terms in the abstract and highly complex structure of data in cyberspace.

    This will take a few more decades, as we need neural interfaces first in order to eliminate the bottleneck of mediated user interfaces. Forget about front end development and ui designers and keyboard layouts and voice recognition – these are just temporary workarounds, celebrated highly in our decade, but laughed upon in the future.

    We have still such a veeeery long to go, it needs more big picture people who can take a step back and think ahead. There’s nothing wrong with using what we’ve got, as it is already much more powerful than what we currently use it for. But the human-machine-gap is one of _the_ biggest challenge of our century, and I am very confident that we’ll tackle it step by step, going faster and faster, until our minds can bloom and explode in the connectedness of the digital space.

    What everyone should do is, to prepare for those changes to come. Be open-minded toward them. Rethink society and economy and personal life again and again. Ask questions that noone dared to ask before. Connect ideas that haven’t been connected before.

    And most of all: enjoy every single step of it. There’ll be hard times, trouble is ahead, because with great power comes great responsibility. So what the world needs is people, who are not afraid to act responsible and who work for the greater good.

    If we can achieve that in the short term, great things will be in for us in the long run. The cyberspace is only the beginning of it. But it will be one of the most important turning points in the history of mankind.

    “There’s treasure everywhere… let’s go exploring” –Calvin & Hobbes

  4. Bice Wilson

    Cyberspace is merely the inchoate space we discovered once we devised to internet. Once it becomes “choate” or developed I refer to it as MediaSpace.

    We go into MediaSpace to do most everything now adays, even practice making babies.. We choose to I to this space like we might choose to spend the afternoon at a nearby museum.

    It’s as real as any other space. It has landmarks, distinct places, scary nooks and crannies, digital highwaymen, digital trollopes, etc..

    What’s not real about it?