Much of what makes the Internet powerful is tied up in the word “cyberspace.” Oddly, much of what makes the Internet dangerous is tied up in that same word. The word was coined by William Gibson and appeared first in his novel Neuromancer. Whatever its original meaning, cyberspace has come to refer to what happens when we interact with one another through our digital devices. The big trick of cyberspace, and what makes it different from every form of media before it, is that it makes us believe we can extend a sense of self beyond the body. The word “cyberspace” and the idea behind it make us believe that when we go online, we actually go somewhere.
Here is how I explain it in my book The Next Story:
Perhaps the heart of this confusion is our insistence that the Internet is a there, that it is a place. We never referred to the space between my mailbox and my friend’s mailbox as a place (letterspace?). Letters were in transit. They were in trucks or on trains, but they were not in a place. When I wrote a letter, I was not entering a “letter world.” Similarly, when I watched TV, an inherently nonparticipatory act, I was still in my living room, not in some strange place between my home and the cable company. But when it comes to the Internet, we talk about entering cyberspace, a space that is really no “place” at all. We insist that when we participate in an online forum or take on a character in an Internet-based video game, we are present somewhere and somehow. We take our sense of self, our sense of presence, and transport it into the ethereal world of bits and bytes. Suddenly we are here and there, at a desk in body but in soul or spirit somehow present in cyberspace. And this is new to us, new to the human experience. When we venture into this world, this mediated world, we leave our bodies behind. And more and more of us are finding that we actually like it this way, that being able to experience a space free from the limitations of real presence brings a kind of joy.
Cyberspace has given us a new way of understanding the relationship of life and being to our flesh-and-blood bodies. We now see cyberspace as a place but also as a state of being. Cyberspace gives us a place to be ourselves apart from our bodies. And in many cases the draw is irresistible. Often, we are led to view this as a superior alternative to the real world. Why? Because it is a place that allows us to break free of the limits of our bodies and our God-given circumstances.
Much of the Internet’s power to build new and healthy relationships came from the belief that we were actually together when we interacted online. This blog is successful at least in part because it gives us a closer kind of community than if I were to write all of these things in a newsletter and send them to your mailbox. Yet many of the Internet’s negatives also owe to cyberspace. Internet pornography is powerful at least in part because we feel more closely tied to the naked people on the screen than we do when we see them on the pages of a magazine. Old flames are quickly kindled through Facebook because we somehow feel that we are together with an old boyfriend when we chat with him. Cyber-church gives the illusion that we are together in a genuine community, even if we are a thousand miles away from one another.
An example drawn from Douglas Groothuis’ excellent little book The Soul in Cyberspace. The story aptly highlights both the benefits and the drawbacks of allowing ourselves to believe that cyberspace is an actual or virtual place.
In The Soul in Cyberspace, Douglas Groothuis writes of a woman who suffers from a serious social phobia that has left her extremely anxious in social situations and, as a consequence, increasingly isolated and alone. But through the Internet she was able to find others who suffered from a similar condition, and together they have been able to interact and form a kind of community. Here they have found the friendship and fellowship that their conditions have denied them in the real world. Here, in a world without her body and all of its limitations, she has found a place to be herself. But has this woman truly found freedom from the limitations of her flesh? There is a sense in which she has—she has been able to find a way of overcoming her inability to communicate. And yet, there is another sense in which she has not really found freedom at all because she is still bound by her condition, a condition that keeps her from finding and experiencing community in the real world. She is still a captive to the four walls that keep her from the world of flesh and blood. Cyberspace has provided a sense of community but has also furthered her captivity by giving her the illusion of freedom. That she believes she is now free from this limitation only shows just how captive she remains to its power.
This world is such that we should not be surprised when both benefits and drawbacks come as we use our technologies.
A recent article in Salon suggests that the idea of cyberspace will soon come an end, and I tend to agree. While there would be some loss, I believe it would be a net gain. Maybe the way to begin is simply to stop using the term. As the author of that article says, “While we can all get smarter merely by dropping the term ‘cyberspace,’ it’s not necessary to get rid of cyberspace itself. There never was any such thing.”