WELCOME TO CYBERSPACE
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
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.