Friday, 26 September 2014

Essay: Cyberspace Explored Through the Symbiotic Perspective

Cyberspace has become the quintessential term for describing the vagueness and complexity that surrounds human-computer interaction (Adams & Warf 1997). Many people would have been unprepared for the rapid ascension of technology in daily life, let alone the significance that the Internet and World Wide Web would have on almost every aspect of society (Clark Wroclawski, Sollins, & Braden 2002). When something so significant appears in history, man has the need to define it. This is a necessary thing to do in order to provide frameworks for research, study and understanding, to communicate with consistency, and to build on the creation that has been released upon the world.

This paper will discuss the current literature and commentary attempting to define cyberspace, with the aim of providing clarity to the definition and its potential for future use. First, the nature of cyberspace is briefly discussed, contextualised through the writings of William Gibson. Second, the paper analyses various ways of defining cyberspace by introducing the functionality perspective and experiential perspective. Third, an examination of these perspectives reveal that there is a symbiotic relationship between them, which once recognised, can dilute the often convoluted definition of cyberspace. The essay concludes, that by utilising the symbiotic perspective, the greatest understanding of cyberspace and its future in society can be achieved.

The term ‘cyberspace’ first appeared when William Gibson released his 1984 science-fiction novel, Neuromancer. In the book, Gibson describes cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination”, alluding to the disembodied consciousness projected into a virtual realm by his character ‘jacking in’ to cyberspace (Gibson 1984). Since that time, the evolution of technology, and the way society interacts with technology, has continuously shifted the dialogue of computing (Coyne 1998). Computing was once considered a rival of human intelligence, due to the threat of Artificial Intelligence (Coyne 1998). However, the shift of the contemporary human-computer relationship shows the dissolution of that fear. Computers are now considered an indispensable component of human activity, and have a significant role in the lives of millions of people around the world (Abraham 2000). What relationship do these shifts in technology have to cyberspace? The nature of cyberspace can be described as dynamic and flexible, shifting more endlessly than the technology within which it resides (Cobb 1999). Issues of increasing human cognitive ability have become far less important than the amplification of our vision to observe aesthetically gratifying graphical interfaces for obtaining the information that resides within our technology (Heim 1991). Cyberspace is representative of this change in focus, and has more relevance than ever, as technology becomes increasingly pervasive throughout all aspects of society (Abraham 2000). 

Pralea (2010) makes the point though that “Pervasive as it is, digital technology cannot account for a universal human experience” (p. 2). Using this thought as a foundation, cyberspace can be broadly defined as what humans experience it to be, and what it actually is. This leads to the two perspectives of cyberspace. The experiential perspective, on one hand, relates to how humans experience human-computer interaction, attempting to explain cyberspace through numerous psychological, philosophical and sociocultural approaches. The functionality perspective, on the other hand, relates to the more tangible elements within the human-computer relationship, attempting to explain cyberspace through practicality and logic. The approaches to this perspective are common in fields such as economics, governance, and military applications (Lord 2008; Kobrin 2001). This distinction between perspectives, while initially creating some barriers to understanding, ultimately assist in realising a more complete interpretation of cyberspace. A visualisation of cyberspace becomes clear that it is outside of individual perspectives, and outside of a real or unreal environment. Cyberspace demonstrates it has become an interwoven fabric through both physical spaces and the space between our minds.

The practical elements of cyberspace are deceivingly simple, it’s functionality abundant with opportunity for interaction with any number of applications. The internet was initially a concept for functionality, and like all great inventions could not have realised the true limit of its potential. A recorded description of Licklider’s 1962 vision of a “galactic network” was to have a globally interconnected set of computers, that people could access data and programs from, no matter what their location (Internet Society 2014). Cyberspace was born from this vision over half a century ago, but is no longer confined to it (Cobb 1999). Cyberspace is functionally utilised with limitless purposes throughout individual, business and government spheres.

Kobrin (2001) explores the territoriality and governance of cyberspace, questioning the necessity of cyberspace to be self-regulated. He argues that “cyberspace should not (and will not) remain free from taxation and regulation” (p. 688). The cyber-warfare attacks launched on Estonia in 2007, crippling the country’s information technology infrastructure, provides another example of the functional possibilities of cyberspace (Lord 2008). The analyses of these applications pertain to the functionality perspective of cyberspace. This is the idea that cyberspace by itself, separated in its virtual distinctness, is nothing. Definition’s stemming from this perspective, regard cyberspace as another communication medium and a structure that needs to be controlled in order to achieve strategic objectives. Deibert & Rohozinski (2010) provide an insightful analogy to the condition of cyberspace, likening it to “a gangster-dominated version of New York: a tangled web of rival public and private authorities, civic associations, criminal networks, and underground economies” (p. 44). A single observation of the functionality perspective and its materially developmental priorities may give one the opinion that it is a wasteland for thought, inherently wicked and part only to the institutions of global economics and governance. However, all the complications of our reality, both physical and non-physical are reflected in the world behind the computer screen.

Behind the screens lies a world, but no physical investigation of wires is able to take you there. The paradox of the cyber-world is non-physical space (Adams & Warf 1997). As Pralea (2010) explains it: “[In fact,] there, there is no there… nothing that resembles a world” (p. 61). Cyberspace is something that exists, but only because of human-computer interaction. Heim (1991) considers cyberspace “A metaphysical laboratory, a tool to examine our own sense of reality” (p. 59). This type of analysis of cyberspace can be defined as the experiential perspective. Descriptions through this perspective realise that cyberspace cannot exist in what we consider to be reality, but exists and continues to evolve within the space between our minds (Pralea 2010). This shared space that exists between our minds brings together thoughts, ideas, emotions and information communicated through text and images (Cobb 1999). Gur-Ze’ev (2000) goes to the extent of saying that “Cyberspace is a giant pleasure machine” (p. 227). This kind of perception is further elaborated by Coyne (1999), who notes the high degree of romanticism present in contemporary cyberspace dialogue. People possess a growing disdain for the limits of the body, hoping for an ultimate transcendence through cyberspace, which may lead them to a more promising and truly democratic future (Pralea 2010; GurZe'ev 2000; Coyne 1999). Feldman (2012) also observes the etymology of ‘space’, describing it as a social construct before a geographical territory, underlining the necessity to recognise the social significance of cyberspace. It is the experiential perspective that moves cyberspace from a one-dimensional representation of technology, to a realm of discovery that uncovers the dynamic and flexible nature of its existence, while reflecting upon our own.

The individual analyses of cyberspace, through the functionality perspective or experiential perspective alone, is not sufficient for explicating the complexities of cyberspace. Krueger (2007) alludes to the fact that cyberspace consists of both tangible and abstract foundations. There is a physical existence present between hardware devices and network data flows that is not separate, but interrelated to the ‘experienced’ space where people connect both directly and indirectly (Kruger 2007). It is the holistic approach, the symbiotic relationship between the functionality perspective and the experiential perspective that promotes a higher understanding of cyberspace as both a technological and sociocultural construction. The flexible and dynamic nature of cyberspace requires the continuous construction and development of its parts. Adams & Warf (1997) highlight this continuum of technology and society, articulating that “Computer network communications are not simply passive reiterations of an existing social reality; they are integral to the constitution of society… [a] society [that] constantly constructs and regulates itself” (p. 142). There is no centre of control in cyberspace. It is a collaborative construct of the masses, reflective of our own biological design. Therefore, it is the symbiotic perspective that is necessary to attain a more complete definition of cyberspace.

The elusive answer to defining the entirety of cyberspace, has curiously been within reach, but never entirely attained. The reason for this is that cyberspace resides not only in the virtual dimension of digital technologies, nor the real world in which that technology is exploited. Consequently, attempts at defining cyberspace must encompass the whole. The functionality perspective and experiential perspective are contained within a symbiotic relationship, assisting further understanding and the evolution of cyberspace and its representations. Instead of reducing the definition to an egocentric perception of the impact that technology has on our lives, or the destructive abilities that can be delivered through warfare applications, the answer is found to be that cyberspace is an interwoven and highly pervasive construct.  It is the space between our minds that determines that cyberspace exists, and the space between our screens that enables it to exist. Cyberspace is outside of a real and unreal distinction, its entire representation unavailable to be defined. However, the symbiotic perspective will provide clarity as the presence of cyberspace continues to permeate our lives, and will continue to do so as we move toward the ever-changing future of the human-computer relationship. 


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1 comment:

  1. Excellent and highly original work and well researched. A very solid High Distinction. Thanks for the opportunity to read it.