Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Origin of Cyberspace

Another great find from our friends at Brain Pickings, a video clip of science fiction writer William Gibson relating how he coined the term cyberspace. Those of us of a certain age may remember how cyberspace became a big buzzword back in the early 90s, and the basis of innumerable other neologisms, such as cyberpunk, cyberculture, cybersociety, cyberart, cybertalk, cybereducation, cybercash, cyberbusiness, cybermall, cyberporn, cybersex, cyberselves, cyberethics, cyberfashion, cybercafé, cybergoth, and my personal favorite, cybertime.

In most discussions of the meaning of cyberspace, there would be some acknowledgement that Gibson was the one who came up with the term. Usually, it was said to have been introduced in his 1984 novel, Neuromancer, although it actually shows up a little earlier, in the short story "Burning Chrome" published in 1982, for example.

In the write up on the Brain Pickings website, How William Gibson Coined “Cyberspace”, Maria Popova implies that the popularity of the term followed immediately after the publication of Neuromancer, which is not entirely accurate. For the most part, the term was ignored during the 80s, only picked up a little bit by folks writing about telecommunications. It wasn't until about 1991 that it started to take off, just as the internet became a popular phenomenon, and because it captured a sense of what that new revolution in communications was all about.

Anyway, it has been fairly well established that Gibson himself was not very up on computers and network technologies, and his vision of cyberspace was a product of his imagination, banged out on a manual typewriter. And it also is well known that his inspiration came from watching teens playing coin-operated video games at arcades. But it is good to hear it in his own words, in this excerpt from an interview at the New York Public Library:

Some points worth adding to this:

  • The term cyberspace is derived from the term cybernetics, which was coined by Norbert Wiener in the late 40s, and defined as the science of control. It was used to refer to computers and information technology through the 50s, as the term computer was not officially settled upon until the end of the 50s. But cybernetics covered more than technology, as it was introduced as a general science of communication, based on the idea of communication as control, with emphasis on feedback and interactivity. As used by Wiener, Gregory Bateson, and many others, notably via the Macy Conferences (1946-1953), it encompassed biology, ecology, and psychology, as well as technology. In this respect, cybernetics eventually evolved into systems theory, and the original term was largely abandoned, and remained for the most part unacknowledged when cyberspace became a buzz word, and cyber- a popular combining form.

  • During the 50s, cyborg was another new coinage, a portmanteau word standing for cybernetic organism, and referring to serious efforts to invent prosthetic devices with electronic feedback mechanisms. During the 70s, bionics became a popular alternative to cyborg, and both terms appeared in science fiction contexts. In the 80s, cyborg also started to be used among cultural theorists, i.e., Donna Haraway. When cyberspace became popular, almost no one made the connection of the common ancestor it shared with cyborg, no doubt because the prefix is cy- instead of cyber-.

  • In addition to Wiener and Bateson, Marshall McLuhan was most certainly an influence on Gibson's vision of cyberspace, which represents a cool medium par excellence, and computers as an extension of the body to the extent that the individual directly jacks into the console through an interface connecting brain/nervous system to the electronic medium.

  • Gibson's vision inspired, and to a significant extent was appropriated by the popular film, The Matrix. This included the idea of plugging into computers via a port installed in the back of the person's skull, the idea of a virtual reality as a "consensual hallucination," of cyberspace inhabitants including artificial intelligences indistinguishable from human beings, of the term matrix used to refer to a future version of the internet, of mirror shades as a stylistic motif, of the cyberpunk genre in general, etc. The film does not, in any way, acknowledge Gibson or his work, which strikes me as unjust. Gibson is acknowledged, however, and actually makes a cameo in the television miniseries, Wild Palms.

  • A significant difference between Gibson's cyberspace and later visions of virtual reality such as The Matrix is that Neuromancer does not present a simulation of anything like the reality we know, but rather more of an abstract, geometric representation of dataspace. It more closely resembles the first generation of video games, and the look of the movie Tron, which also came out in 1982.

  • While cyberspace has faded out from popular parlance, the cyber- combining form persists in various governmental, military, law enforcement, and other institutional and official settings, e.g., cybercrime, cybersecurity, cyberbullying, cyberstalking, cyberthreats, cyberespionage, as well as two-word phrases such as cyber operations, and Cyber Monday. In 2012, President Obama speaking at the U.S. Air Force Academy stated that, "we will maintain our military superiority in all areas—air, land, sea, space and cyber." This brings us back to the spatial connotations of cyberspace, and as language maven Ben Zimmer notes, indicates that cyber has become a stand alone noun.

Is cyber- poised for a comeback, then? A comeback would be only fitting for a term that began in reference to feedback, don't you think? I don't expect it to ever become a buzz word again, not the way it was back in the early 90s, and I am thankful for that, as it was terribly overused at that time. But I do think some members of this family of terms have some utility, and some resonance, and ought to remain a part of our (cyber)vocabulary.

Well, I suppose only (cyber)time will tell. 

So, for now, be cyber-seeing you...

Ah well, heavy sigh, brrrr...

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