Law in the Internet Society

There is no cyberspace (anymore)

-- By CamilleFrancois - 24 Oct 2012

I have spent the last four years being literally obsessed with Cyberspace, fantasizing a global community of progressive democrats empowered by powerful technologies shaped by their participatory decisions.

My attempts to understand more about it lead me to one of Eben Moglen’s course where I was confronted to this statement: “Cyberspace is truly a crappy concept. That’s something you can easily figure out if you would consider thinking of such a thing as the Telephonespace”.

Indeed no one would argue that telephonespace stands a chance as a concept. Not because it sounds like a band from the 80’s, rather because if the telephone technology is somewhat the same worldwide, it is used and ruled very differently in all the countries of the world, making it confusing rather than helpful to talk about a “telephonespace”.

These are reasons, but I think the more important reason is that trying to define a "space" crewated by the telephone independent of the rest of society makes no sense to us. The telephone is simply a form of communication in society, not a space apart from it.

This is the primary reason for objecting to "cyberspace." It implies a separation which doesn't exist, and limits our awareness of the deeper interconnection which is the real phenomenon to think about.

Yet the term cyberspace is ubiquitous today. Given the lack of clear definition, the Wikipedia entry on Cyberspace convincingly grasps what people are trying to say these days when using the term:_ “the idea of interconnectedness of human beings through computers and telecommunications, without regard to physical geography”_. But is this the good term for that?

I would argue that Cyberspace is not a crappy concept but rather a political utopia, a short poetical and political experiment from the 1990’s. Our persistence to use it to describe all things digital creates a confusion that prevents the understanding of what is at stake today in Internet politics.

“Cyberspace” comes from cyberpunk literature. It was coined by novelist William Gibson, who later noted that his word was “evocative and essentially meaningless”. In his 1982 short story Burning Chrome, the word Cyberspace makes its first appearance as the name of a machine: the “workaday Ono-Sendai VII, the ‘Cyberspace Seven’”.

In his 1984 novel Neuromancer, it becomes more than a computer’s pet name and is used to describe a “consensual hallucination”:

"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathe- matical concepts . . . (…). Un- thinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data."

In the 1990’s, the word ‘cyberspace’ turns from a vague poetical and literary concept into a concrete political utopia inspired by this literature. John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace (1996) captures its essence:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

Moglen dislikes the term cyberspace because it makes it sounds like Internet is a place: “Internet is not a place – it is not ‘Cyberspace’, it is not a thing – it is not the Internet”.

And indeed Internet today is not a place. But in 1996 this was an aspiration made clear by the terms used by Barlow in 1996: a “home” for the Mind, where some will “gather”. Cyberspace is an alternative to States’ power, a place to build to escape States’ authorities and rules. It is a political utopia, both etymologically (ὐ - τόπος ,“no-place” in Greek) and philosophically (“an imagined place in which everything is perfect” writes the Oxford English Dictionary).

Cyberspace did not happen. This battle was lost. Yet it is important to understand what it stand for, why in 1996 it seemed still possible, and why today it is not.

What did Internet look like in 1996? If considering the development and adoption of TCP/IP as a landmark for the birth of Internet infrastructure (which is disputable), in 1996 Internet was a teenager of fourteen years old. The Web was a six years old child. Internet resembled a forum for like-minded intellectuals over privileged parts of the wired world, an infrastructure mainly used to share academic material. When developed in 1990, the Web was the solution Tim Berners-Lee envisioned for sharing the CERN’s research papers to strengthen academic collaboration with other institutes as publishing this research on paper proved to be very expensive because it needed to be constantly updated.

There was nothing to steal or protect on Internet yet: no political battle was fought there yet, which is why Cyberspace as a political project stood a chance.

This is not what Internet looks like today. It changed a lot with its growth and democratization. Daily bloggers arrests a constant reminder that “Giants of Flesh and Steel” now have strong interests in the material exchanged over the networks, and intend to exert their sovereignty in a very political and concrete way.

Today’s Internet isn’t only “the new home of Mind”, but also a refuge for the more disturbed, a weapon for the more violent.

The cyberspace fantasy assumed that everyone would be connected together, would have the chance to be integrated in a global conversation, and that this would lead to more temperance, and to a greater mutual understanding. Instead, today Internet aggregates people in cluster of like-minded peers. Internet is not a place. It barely connects different places together.

To be literally true, I think, these statements would have to mean "Internet" is a symbol standing for "social" networking and exchanges of opinion. Not business transactions, traffic in scientific data, bilateral personal friendships, professional exchanges among, e.g. computer programmers, lawyers, criminals, etc., none of which groups consist of "like-minded peers."

Today, it has never been more complicated for common users to engage in a truly global conversation on Internet because of the so-called “filter bubble effect”. The main entry gates experienced by these users, Google and all social networking sites, push them closer their towards their “assumed preferences” as computed by algorithms and further away from the ideas that may be less prevalent in their immediate surroundings. Google, Facebook, Twitter, all use algorithms to direct people on Internet. All algorithms are editorial, and those algorithm clusters.

Of these examples, only search biasing in broad websearch seems even to approach the seriousness you 're giving it. Facebook is about people you already know, or know you want to know. And in websearching, the more specific you are the less it matters what fine-tuning the engine might do on more broadly-phrased searches. Which makes the whole "Google keeps you from finding new things" argument seem pretty weak.

These remarks call for a return to the original literary, political and poetic roots of cyberspace, as noted by the cyberpunks: “consensual hallucination”, “Un- thinkable complexity”, and today “evocative” but “essentially meaningless”.

A political project aiming at making Internet a place, when it now ressembles an aggregation of clusters. An project born in science-fiction that is now fantasy.

It seems to me that this essay depends on a narrow definition of both "Cyberspace" and "Internet" as something like "sites or modes of public discourse." You are offering Cass Sunstein's argument from, that our public engagement is narrowed rather than broadened by forms of communication that enable us to locate and amplify the thinking of people we agree with, supplemented by an argument drawn (without much data) from the idea of search algorithm biasing. This argument says, in essence "people look for reinforcement of their views and opinions on the Net, and capitalism causes biasing in advertising-supported search facilities that causes them to get reinforcing information even when they weren't consciously seeking it out."

These arguments have problems on their own terms, which aren't addressed here. But more importantly, this is hardly the whole of the Net. These metaphors, as you rightly say I warned you at the outset, conceal more than they help to reveal. Obviously, to use another metaphor, our own nervous system transmits and makes "actionable" all our compulsions, our obsessions, and our cognitive biases. But it isn't made of or even mostly about those compulsions and obsessions. Mostly its about keeping our heart beating, our digestion working, and—at the highest level of abstraction—coordinating all the relations among all the cells in us that are "us," and also many of the cells in us that are "other." The "space" illusion implicit in "Cyberspace" has caught you too: you are thinking of the Net as "agora," where it is actually merely the fact of connection. Rather than a space, it's a condition of society, which is why I call it the Internet Society, rather than the Internet, or Cyberspace. Everything you want to say can be said, but it will be less confusing and more enabling of others' insights if it isn't put into an envelope that turns thought in these other directions.

Always happy to share:


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r4 - 23 Aug 2014 - 19:31:21 - EbenMoglen
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