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2.3.a-welcome to Cyberspace

2.3.a-welcome to Cyberspace

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Published by: jrynld on Aug 10, 2011
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byPhilip Elmer-DeWittIT STARTED, AS THE BIG IDEAS IN TECHNOLOGY often do, with a science-fictionwriter. William Gibson a young expatriate American living in Canada, was wandering past thevideo arcades on Vancouver's Granville Street in the early 1980s when something about theway the players hunched over their glowing screens struck him as odd. "I could see in thephysical intensity of their postures how
the kids were," he says. "It was like a feedbackloop, with photons coming off the screens into the into the kids' eyes, neurons moving throughtheir bodies and electron moving through the video games. These kids clearly
in thespace the games projected."That image haunted Gibson. He didn't know much about video games or computers-hewrote his breakthrough novel
(1984) on an ancient manual typewriter-but he knewpeople who did. And as near as he could tell, everybody who worked much with the machineseventually came to accept, almost as an article of faith, the reality of that imaginary realm." Theydevelop a belief that there's some kind of 
actual space
behind the screen "he says. "Some placethat you can't see but you know is there."Gibson called that space "cyberspace," and use it as the setting for his early novels andshort stories. In his fiction, cyberspace is a computer-generated landscape that characters enter by "jacking in"- sometimes by plugging electrodes directly into sockets implanted in the brain.What they see when they get there is a three-dimensional representation of all the informationstored in "every computer in the human system"- great warehouses and skyscrapers of data. Hedescribes it in a key passage in
as a place of "unthinkable complexity," with linesof light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters constellations of data. Like city lights,receding..."In the years since, there have been other names given to that shadowy space where our computer data reside: the Net, the Web, the Cloud, the Matrix, the Metaverse, the Datasphere,the Electronic Frontier, the information superhighway. But Gibson's coinage may prove the mostenduring. By 1989 it had been borrowed by the online community to describe not somescience--fiction fantasy but today's increasingly interconnected computer systems--especiallythe millions of computers jacked into the Internet.Now hardly a day goes by without some newspaper article, some political speech, somecorporate press release invoking Gibson's imaginary world. Suddenly, it seems, everybody hasan E-mail address, from Hollywood moguls to the Holy See. Billy Graham has preached onAmerica Online; U.S. Vice President Al Gore has held forth on Compuserve; thousands chooseto celebrate New Year's this year with an online get-together called First Night in Cyberspace. _________________ 
Special Issue: "Welcome to Cyberspace." May 1995.
In Washington cyberspace has become a political hot button of some potency, firstpressed during the 1992 presidential campaign by Al Gore and Bill Clinton, who rode to theWhite House in part on the promise that they would build the so-called information super-highway and route it through every voter's district--if not to his home. But the ClintonAdministration lost the high ground of cyberspace, having, among other transgressions, comeout on the wrong side of the privacy debate when it endorsed the Clipper Chip security devicefavored by its intelligence services. The Republicans were quick to grab the initiative. No sooner had incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich taken office than he made his bid, staging a bigpress conference to unveil a new House of Representatives computer system. At a Washingtonconfab called "Democracy in Virtual America," attended by his old friends, futurists Alvin andHeidi Toffler, the Speaker talked expansively about wiring the world. "Cyberspace is the land of knowledge," proclaimed an information age Magna Carta issued in his name. "And theexploration of that land can be a civilization's truest, highest calling."Corporations, smelling a land rush of another sort, are scrambling to stake out their ownclaims in cyberspace. Every computer company, nearly every publisher; most communicationsfirms, banks, insurance companies and hundreds of mail-order and retail firms are registeringtheir Internet domains and setting up sites on the World Wide Web. They sense that cyberspacewill be one of the driving forces--if not the primary one--for economic growth in the 21st century.All this is being breathlessly reported in the press, which has seized on cyberspace asan all-purpose buzz word that can add sparkle to the most humdrum development or assignment. For working reporters, many of whom have just discovered the pleasures of goingonline, cyber has become the prefix of the day, and they are spawning neologisms as fast asthey can type: cyberphilia, cyberphobia, cyberwonk, cybersex, cyberslut. A Nexis search of newspapers, magazines and television transcripts turned up 1,205 mentions of cyber in themonth of January, up from 464 the previous January and 167 in January 1993.ONE RESULT OF THIS DRUM ROLL IS A growing public appetite for a place mostpeople haven't been to and are often hard-pressed to define. In a TIME/CNN poll of 800Americans conducted in January by Yankelovich Partners, 57% didn't know what cyberspacemeant, yet 85% were certain that information technology had made their life better. They maynot know where it is, but they want desperately to get there. The rush to get online, to avoidbeing "left behind" in the information revolution, is intense. Those who find fulfillment incyberspace often have the religious fervor of the recently converted.These sentiments have been captured brilliantly in an IBM ad on U.S. TV showing aphalanx of Czech nuns discussing--of all things--the latest operating system from Microsoft. Asthey walk briskly through the convent, a young novice mentions IBM's competing system, calledWarp. "I just read about it in
," she gushes. "You get true multitasking . . . easy access tothe Internet." An older sister glances up with obvious interest; the camera cuts to the mother superior, who wistfully confesses, "I'm dying to surf the Net." Fade as the pager tucked under her habit starts to beep.Cybernuns.What is cyberspace? According to John Perry Barlow, a rock-'n'-roll lyricist turnedcomputer activist, it can be defined most succinctly as "that place you are in when you aretalking on the telephone." That's as good a place to start as any. The telephone system, after all, is really a vast, global computer network with a distinctive, audible presence (crackling staticagainst an almost inaudible background hum). By Barlow's definition, just about everybody has
already been to cyberspace. It's marked by the feeling that the person you're talking to is "in thesame room." Most people take the spatial dimension of a phone conversation for granted--untilthey get a really bad connection or a glitchy overseas call. Then they start raising their voice, asif by sheer volume they could propel it to the outer reaches of cyberspace.CYBERSPACE, OF COURSE, IS BIGGER THAN a telephone call. It encompasses themillions of personal computers connected by modems--via the telephone system--to commercialonline services, as well as the millions more with high-speed links to local area networks, officeE-mail systems and the Internet. It includes the rapidly expanding wireless services: microwavetowers that carry great quantities of cellular phone and data traffic; communications satellitesstrung like beads in geosynchronous orbit; low-flying satellites that will soon crisscross the globelike angry bees, connecting folks too far-flung or too much on the go to be tethered by wires.Someday even our television sets may be part of cyberspace, transformed into interactive"teleputers" by so-called full-service networks like the ones several cable-TV companies(including Time Warner) are building along the old cable lines, using fiber optics and high-speedswitches.But these wires and cables and microwaves are not really cyberspace. They are themeans of conveyance, not the destination: the information superhighway, not the bright citylights at the end of the road. Cyberspace, in the sense of being "in the same room," is anexperience, not a wiring system. It is about people using the new technology to do what they aregenetically programmed to do: communicate with one another. It can be found in electronic mailexchanged by lovers who have never met. It emerges from the endless debates on mailing listsand message boards. It's that bond that knits together regulars in electronic chat rooms andnewgroups. It is, like Plato's plane of ideal forms, a metaphorical space, a virtual reality.Buts it is no less real for being so. We live in the age of information, as NicholasNegroponte, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, is fond of pointing out, in which the fundamental particle is not the atom but the bit-the binary digit, a unitof data usually represented as a 0 or 1. Information may still be delivered in magazines andnewspapers (atoms), but the real value is in the contents (bits). We pay for our goods andservices with cash (atoms), but the ebb and flow of capital around the world is carried out-to thetune of several trillion dollars a day-in electronic funds transfers (bits).Bits are different from atoms and obey different laws. They are weightless. They areeasily (and flawlessly) reproduced. There is an infinite supply. And they can shipped at nearlythe speed of light. When you are in the business of moving bits around, barriers of time andspace disappear. For information providers--publishers, for example--cyberspace offers amedium in which distribution costs shrink to zero. Buyers and sellers can find each other incyberspace without the benefit (or the expense) of a marketing campaign. No wonder so manybusinessmen are convinced it will become a powerful engine of economic growth.At this point, however, cyberspace is less about commerce than about community. Thetechnology has unleashed a great rush of direct, person-to-person communications, organizednot in the top-down, one-to-many structure to traditional media but in a many-to-many modelthat may-just may-be a vehicle for revolutionary change. In a world already too divided againstitself-rich against poor, producer against consumer-cyberspace offers the nearest thing to alevel playing field.Take, for example, the Internet. Until something better comes along to replace it, theInternet is cyberspace. It may not reach every computer in the human system, as Gibson

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