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Cyberspace is like the white triangle in the above image, appearing virtually, existing nowhere, while joining computers across the globe

Cyberspace is a domain characterized by the use of electronics and the electromagnetic spectrum to store, modify, and exchange data via networked systems and associated physical infrastructures. The term originates in science fiction, where it also includes various kinds of virtual reality experienced by deeply immersed computer users or by entities who exist inside computer systems.


Origins of the term

The word "cyberspace" (from cybernetics and space) was coined by science fiction novelist and seminal cyberpunk author William Gibson in his 1982 story "Burning Chrome" and popularized by his 1984 novel Neuromancer.[1] The portion of Neuromancer cited in this respect is usually the following:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from 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. Like city lights, receding, (69).

Gibson later commented on the origin of the term in the 2000 documentary No Maps for These Territories:

All I knew about the word "cyberspace" when I coined it, was that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It seemed evocative and essentially meaningless. It was suggestive of something, but had no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.

Gibson also coined the phrase Meatspace for the physical world contrasted with Cyberspace.


The term Cyberspace started to become a de facto synonym for the Internet, and later the World Wide Web, during the 1990s, especially in academic circles[2] and activist communities. Author Bruce Sterling, who popularized this meaning,[3] credits John Perry Barlow as the first to use it to refer to "the present-day nexus of computer and telecommunications networks." Barlow describes it thus in his essay to announce the formation of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (note the spatial metaphor) in June, 1990:[4]

In this silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one forsakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone. You can see what your neighbors are saying (or recently said), but not what either they or their physical surroundings look like. Town meetings are continuous and discussions rage on everything from sexual kinks to depreciation schedules.

Whether by one telephonic tendril or millions, they are all connected to one another. Collectively, they form what their inhabitants call the Net. It extends across that immense region of electron states, microwaves, magnetic fields, light pulses and thought which sci-fi writer William Gibson named Cyberspace.

– John Perry Barlow, "Crime and Puzzlement," 1990-06-08

As Barlow, and the EFF, continued public education efforts to promote the idea of "digital rights," the term was increasingly used during the Internet boom of the late 1990s.

Cyberspace as an Internet metaphor

While cyberspace should not be confused with the real Internet, the term is often used to refer to objects and identities that exist largely within the communication network itself, so that a web site, for example, might be metaphorically said to "exist in cyberspace." According to this interpretation, events taking place on the Internet are not therefore happening in the countries where the participants or the servers are physically located, but "in cyberspace".

Cyberspace is the "place" where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person's phone, in some other city. The place between the phones. the past twenty years, this electrical "space," which was once thin and dark and one-dimensional -- little more than a narrow speaking-tube, stretching from phone to phone -- has flung itself open like a gigantic jack-in the- box. Light has flooded upon it, the eerie light of the glowing computer screen. This dark electric netherworld has become a vast flowering electronic landscape. Since the 1960s, the world of the telephone has cross-bred itself with computers and television, and though there is still no substance to cyberspace, nothing you can handle, it has a strange kind of physicality now. It makes good sense today to talk of cyberspace as a place all its own.

– Bruce Sterling, Introduction to The Hacker Crackdown

The "space" in cyberspace has more in common with the abstract, mathematical meanings of the term (see Space) than physical space. It does not have the duality of positive and negative volume (while in physical space for example a room has the negative volume of usable space delineated by positive volume of walls, Internet users cannot enter the screen and explore the unknown part of the Net as an extension of the space they're in), but spatial meaning can be attributed to the relationship between different pages (of books as well as webservers), considering the unturned pages to be somewhere "out there." The concept of cyberspace therefore refers not to the content being presented to the surfer, but rather to the possibility of surfing among different sites, with feedback loops between the user and the rest of the system creating the potential to always encounter something unknown or unexpected.

Videogames differ from text-based communication in that on-screen images are meant to be figures that actually occupy a space and the animation shows the movement of those figures. Images are supposed to form the positive volume that delineates the empty space. A game adopts the cyberspace metaphor by engaging more players in the game, and then figuratively representing them on the screen as avatars. Games do not have to stop at the avatar-player level, but current implementations aiming for more immersive playing space (i.e. Laser tag) take the form of augmented reality rather than cyberspace, fully immersive virtual realities remaining impractical.

Although the more radical consequences of the global communication network predicted by some cyberspace proponents (i.e. the diminishing of state influence envisioned by John Perry Barlow[5]) failed to materialize and the word lost some of its novelty appeal, it remains current as of 2006.[6][7]

Some virtual communities explicitly refer to the concept of cyberspace, e.g. Linden Lab calling their customers "Residents" of Second Life, while all such communities can be positioned "in cyberspace" for explanatory and comparative purposes (as Sterling did in The Hacker Crackdown and many journalists afterwards), integrating the metaphor into a wider cyber-culture.

The metaphor has been useful in helping a new generation of thought leaders to reason through new military strategies around the world, led largely by the US Department of Defense (DoD). [8] The use of cyberspace as a metaphor has had its limits, however, especially in areas where the metaphor becomes confused with physical infrastructure.

Alternate realities in philosophy and art

Predating computers

Before cyberspace became a technological possibility, many philosophers suggested the possibility of a virtual reality similar to cyberspace. In The Republic, Plato sets out his allegory of the cave, widely cited as one of the first conceptual realities[citation needed]. He suggests that we are already in a form of virtual reality which we are deceived into thinking is true. True reality for Plato is accessible only through mental training and is the reality of the forms. These ideas are central to Platonism and neoplatonism.

Another forerunner of the modern ideas of cyberspace is Descartes' thought that people might be deceived by an evil demon which feeds them a false reality. This argument is the direct predecessor of the modern ideas of brain in a vat and many popular conceptions of cyberspace take Descartes' ideas as their starting point.

Visual arts have a tradition, stretching back to antiquity, of artefacts meant to fool the eye and be mistaken for reality. This questioning of reality occasionally led some philosophers and especially theologians[citation needed] to distrust art as deceiving people into entering a world which was not real (see Aniconism). The artistic challenge was resurrected with increasing ambition as art became more and more realistic with the invention of photography, film (see Arrival of a Train at a Station) and finally immersive computer simulations.

Influenced by computers


American counterculture exponents like William S. Burroughs (whose literary influence on Gibson and cyberpunk in general is widely acknowledged[9][10]) and Timothy Leary[11] were among the first to extoll the potential of computers and computer networks for individual empowerment.[12]

Some contemporary philosophers and scientists (i.e. David Deutsch in The Fabric of Reality) employ virtual reality in various thought experiments. For example Philip Zhai in Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality connects cyberspace to the platonic tradition:

Let us imagine a nation in which everyone is hooked up to a network of VR infrastructure. They have been so hooked up since they left their mother's wombs. Immersed in cyberspace and maintaining their life by teleoperation, they have never imagined that life could be any different from that. The first person that thinks of the possibility of an alternative world like ours would be ridiculed by the majority of these citizens, just like the few enlightened ones in Plato's allegory of the cave.

Note that this brain-in-a-vat argument conflates cyberspace with reality, while the more common descriptions of cyberspace contrast it with the "real world".


Main article: New media art

Having originated among writers, the concept of cyberspace remains most popular in literature and film. Although artists working with other media have expressed some interest in the concept, "cyberspace" in modern art is mostly used as a synonym for "virtual reality" and remains more discussed than enacted.[13]

Popular culture examples

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  • In the math mystery cartoon Cyberchase, the action takes place in Cyberspace, managed by the benevolent ruler, Motherboard. It is used as a conceit to allow storylines to take place in virtual worlds -- "Cybersites" -- on any theme and where specific math concepts can be best explored.
  • The anime Digimon is set in a variant of the cyberspace concept called the "Digital World". The Digital World is a parallel universe made up of data from the Internet. Similar to cyberspace, except that people could physically enter this world instead of merely using a computer.
  • The CGI show, ReBoot, takes place entirely inside cyberspace, which is composed of two worlds: the Net and the Web.
  • In the computer game System Shock, the player can use a neural implant to "jack in" to cyberspace terminals, where they can collect data, fight security programs and trigger certain events in the real world, such as unlocking doors.
  • In the movie Tron, a programmer was physically transferred to the program world, where programs were personalities, resembling the forms of their creators.
  • The idea of "the matrix" in the movie The Matrix resembles a complex form of cyberspace where people are "jacked in" from birth and do not know that the reality they experience is virtual. See Matrix (cyberpunk).
  • In the EXE series of MegaMan, there is a place where A.I. programs called NetNavis can "jack in" to Cyberspace from about any electrical appliance.
  • In the Japanese anime series Lain, the main character begins to learn of a new dimension of reality taking place in cyberspace.
  • Irregular Webcomic!'s Space theme frequently involves the characters going into Cyberspace.
  • In the Xenosaga video game series on the PlayStation 2, there is virtual reality called the U.M.N. ("Unus mundus network") that uses the human collective unconscious as an interstellar, cyberspace network. It is similar to the matrix mentioned above, but also facilitates hyperspace travel for spacecraft and can create a virtual reality representation of human memories.
  • In the Ghost in the Shell fictional universe, there is an extrapolation of the Internet (called "The Net") which a large section of society seems to be able to access. The interface can range from simply visual (through conventional displays or implants) to full-sensory immersion via neural jacks, where (as in William Gibson's Cyberspace) data is shown as visual constructs such as objects that present servers or databases, with graphical depictions of security mechanisms and information stores. Entering and/or traveling The Net is referred to as "net diving", which is an activity with the potential to be physically dangerous.
  • In the video game Shadow the Hedgehog, two cyberspace levels were made: Digital Circuit and Mad Matrix.
  • In the Game Boy Advance game Sonic Advance 3, the sixth zone "Cyber Track" is set in cyberspace.
  • The Air Force Cyber Command (Provisional) (AFCYBER) is the newest United States Air Force major command whose development was announced by the Secretary of the Air Force on November 2, 2006

See also

Look up cyberspace in
Wiktionary, the free dictionary.


  1. ^ Po-Mo SF "William Gibson's Neuromancer and Post-Modern Science Fiction"
  2. ^ Vanderbilt University, "Postmodernism and the Culture of Cyberspace", Fall 1996 course syllabus
  3. ^ Principia Cybernetica "Cyberspace"
  4. ^ John Perry Barlow, "Crime and Puzzlement," June 8, 1990
  5. ^ John Perry Barlow, "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," February 8, 1996
  6. ^ White House, "The National Strategy To Secure Cyberspace"
  7. ^ FindLaw Legal News site, Tech and IP: Cyberspace section, retrieved November 14, 2006.
  8. ^ Cyber Conflict Studies Association, "CCSA"
  9. ^ Alexander Laurence, An Interview with John Shirley, 1994
  10. ^ "Burroughs/Gysin/Throbbing Gristle", retrieved December 31, 2006
  11. ^ "Internet will be the LSD of the 90's", quoted by an on-line biography
  12. ^ Douglas Rushkoff, "Godfathers of Cyberspace"
  13. ^ Eduardo Kac, "Telepresence Art"


  • Gibson, William. Neuromancer:20th Anniversary Edition. New York:Ace Books, 2004.
  • Ippolito, Jon (December 1998 – January 1999). "Cross Talk: Is Cyberspace Really a Space?". Artbyte: 12 – 24. 
  • Irvine, Martin. "Postmodern Science Fiction and Cyberpunk", retrieved 2006-07-19.
  • Oliver Grau : Virtual Art. From Illusion to Immersion, MIT-Press, Cambridge 2003. (4 Auflagen).
  • Sterling, Bruce. The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder On the Electronic Frontier. Spectra Books, 1992.
  • Zhai, Philip. Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998.

External links

v • d • eThe worksof William GibsonThe Sprawl trilogy: Neuromancer · Count Zero · Mona Lisa OverdriveThe Bridge trilogy: Virtual Light · Idoru · All Tomorrow's PartiesOther novels: The Difference Engine(with Bruce Sterling) · Pattern Recognition · Spook CountryBurning Chrome
collection Johnny Mnemonic · The Gernsback Continuum · Fragments of a Hologram Rose · The Belonging Kind · Hinterlands · Red Star, Winter Orbit · New Rose Hotel · The Winter Market · Burning Chrome · DogfightOther short stories: Skinner's RoomMiscellanea: Neuromancer video game · Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) · Johnny Mnemonic film · New Rose Hotel film · No Maps for These Territories · Node Magazine · The X-Files episodesStory elements: Molly Millions · Cyberspace · Megacorporation · Tessier-Ashpool · Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics · The Sprawl · Raygun Gothic · Gender-bait · Hubertus Bigend Categories: Cyberspace | Internet history | Virtual reality | William GibsonHidden categories: All articles with unsourced statements | Articles with unsourced statements since December 2007 | Articles with too many examples

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