Cyberspace: Two Flavors

CyberSPACE -- cyberMEDIA -- cyberPUNK -- cyberNETICS -- you've heard it all before. But is cyberspace the Internet? Or is it virtual reality? Can it be both? Here's how they come together.

Cybermedia differs from cyberspace, which was first described in the science-fiction novel Neuromancer (Gibson, 1984) as a virtual world, a "graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data" (p. 51).

Leaving one's body behind, "jacked in" to an electronic control deck, one can enter and travel within the "consensual hallucination" of cyberspace, looking at and even stealing chunks of data, many of which belong to huge multinational corporations.

From Gibson's precedent rose a subgenre of science fiction called cyberpunk, characterized by young rebels who embrace technology as a weapon against corporate institutions and dehumanization (Fitting, 1991). In both cyberspace and cyberpunk, the prefix cyber- is consistent with Wiener's usage, denoting the pervasiveness of technological systems and an interaction between humans and those systems.

Gibson's term, cyberspace, has been co-opted as a synonym for a real technology, also called virtual reality (Benedikt, 1991; Rheingold, 1990). A three-dimensional representation of an artificial world, virtual reality so far requires that all its elements be designed by humans as objects specific to a given virtual-reality software program. (In Gibson's fiction, the graphical objects seem to be self-generating.) Available applications include jet-fighter simulations used by the military and architectural simulations used to show clients a 3-D model of a building that they can "walk" through.

Unlike the fictional self-generating cyberspace, virtual reality does not exist independently of graphical software objects created by humans. Neither does it depend on interconnection of the world's databases.

The similarity between the two cyberspaces is in the illusion of a virtual world, a 360-degree surrounding three-dimensional place that does not have the qualities of physical mass or weight. The person who is "within" cyberspace no longer sees the objects and forms of the actual world. Hence the word cyberspace is appropriate.

Cyberspace is a world
made up of pure information
that takes the shape
(though not the physical mass)
of objects.

Cybermedia lacks this encompassing space; when using cybermedia, a person would still see the machine through which cybermedia was accessed, as well as other physical objects in the real world. Cyberspace applications might be included within cybermedia, but cybermedia is not a subset of either type of cyberspace.

The distinction is important; those familiar with Gibson's data world might equate cyberspace and cybermedia because cybermedia consists of interconnected databases (or information spaces) on a massive scale. But cybermedia would not require an out-of-body experience, and its form would not be self-generating. Unlike virtual-reality systems, cybermedia would not require that users immerse themselves in a three-dimensional simulation.

(It is possible, however, to build applications that enable people to examine and collect information inside a cyberspace environment. One such application allows people to look at a collection of 300,000 architectural slides that are stored in virtual filing cabinets [Benedikt, 1991]. Eventually, such a data-gathering environment might become a preferred form within cybermedia.)

Cybermedia does share with both types of cyberspace the requirement of action from the person using it. Cybermedia demands feedback to function. It is an interactive system, like a personal computer; if it receives no input, it does nothing.

The distinction may be moot. The news media have christened the Internet and associated existing systems as "cyberspace," despite the fact that they are merely networks that enable communication. An argument in favor of this usage is that experienced users of the Internet do perceive that environment as a collection of "sites." However, adding a third meaning to "cyberspace" that fails to include the common aspect of the two earlier meanings serves mostly to confuse all three.

Related ideas at other Web sites:

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Changing Media


Cybermedia, by Mindy McAdams
Copyright © 1993, 1995 by Mindy McAdams. All Rights Reserved.
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