Posts Tagged ‘Cyberspace’

Virtual reality vs. real reality

August 25, 2011

During the past generation or two, we Americans have gotten more interested in virtual reality than in real reality.  At the same time virtual reality has gotten better and better, and real reality has gotten worse and worse.

College teacher friends of mine complain about how their students shut out the world as they immerse themselves in their text messaging and social networking.  But is the world they shut out all that great?  They may have understandable reasons for trying to shut out the reality of a bad economy and crushing student loan debt.

Players of World of Warcraft can, if they pay attention and apply themselves, are certain to acquire points, powers, status and treasure.  This isn’t necessarily so of players in the world of reality.

Science fiction is a bellwether in this, as in other things.  The original Star Trek TV series may have been escapist, but it was an escape into strange new worlds, into encounter with new life and new civilizations, of boldly going where no one had gone before.  In The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, some of the most interesting episodes take place in the artificial worlds of the Holodeck and Holosuite, where the characters explore realities they created for themselves.

The word “cyberspace” was coined by the SF writer William Gibson.  I heard a talk once, in which he said he observed people so mentally immersed in their TV and computer screens that their minds were disconnected from where they were.  This inspired him to write  Neuromancer, a novel in which the characters’ minds could literally enter the information networks.

He intended Neuromancer, published in 1984,  as a kind of satire, but some engineers and computer scientists saw it as a vision, which, in a way, they have made into a reality.

The Russian-American doomsayer, Dimitry Orlov, described the result on his web log.

What these new gadgets offer is, simply put, escapism.  In a world of dwindling resources, where each person’s share of the physical realm decreases over time, it is no wonder that physical reality fails to satisfy.  But thanks to the new, intimate, glowing handheld mobile computing devices, the unsatisfactory real world can be blotted out, and replaced with a cleansed, bouncy, shiny version of society in which little avatars utter terse little messages.  In the cyber-realm there are no sweaty bodies, no cacophony of voices to suffer through—just a smooth, polished, expertly branded user experience.

While riding the subway through the Boston rush hour, I have been able to observe just how well these personal electronic mental life support units work in shielding people from the sight of their fellow-passengers, who are becoming a rougher and rougher-looking crew, with more and more people in obvious distress.  By focusing all of their attentions on the tiny screen, they are also spared the sight of our well-worn and crumbling urban infrastructure.  It is as if the physical world doesn’t really exist for them, or at least doesn’t matter.

via Dead Souls.


Cyberspace’s war of independence

December 12, 2010

In 1996 John Perry Barlow famously issued  A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Barlow was, among other things, a founder of the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), one of the first on-line discussion groups, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet civil liberties union.

He believed that the Internet had created a new kind of non-material realm beyond the control of governments, like the Western U.S. frontier of old.

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.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.

via A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.

The idea of cyberspace as a parallel non-material reality was in the air – not just among science fiction writers such as Vernor Vinge in True Names (1981) and Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash (1992), but business visionaries such as George Gilder in Microcosm (1989) and Telecosm (2000).  Gilder said the electronics revolution created a new economy based on “bits,” or pure information, which was intellectually and morally superior to the old economy based on “atoms,” or mere material objects.  People spoke of how “meat space” had been superseded by “cyberspace.”

More soberly, Barlow’s EFF co-founder John Gilmore (the third was Mitchell Kapor of Lotus) said that information circulated over the Internet could not be suppressed because of the Internet’s distributed nature.  A newspaper has its offices and presses in buildings with known street addresses, but Internet sites – interacting with other sites – can’t be so easily pinned down.  As he put it, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

This idea, too was in the air.  Some people credited the Internet for the fall of Communism.  One writer – I forget his name – ridiculed George Orwell for fearing totalitarianism and wrote an alternate ending to Nineteen Eighty-Four in which the power of Big Brother crumbled because the citizens of Oceania had learned to network their telescreens.

The business and political world embraced the idea of Internet freedom.  Rupert Murdoch said, “Advances in the technology of communications have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarianism everywhere.”  And Bill Gates said, “You cannot control the Internet.”

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., Bill Gates’ Microsoft Corp., along with Google, Yahoo and other corporations, went along with Internet censorship in China, but supposedly that was all right.  The mere presence of the Internet and networked communication were supposed to be a liberating force in and of themselves.

Ronald Reagan said, “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” Bill Clinton said that Internet censorship would be like “nailing Jello to the wall.”

“Imagine if the Internet took hold in China,” George W. Bush said. “Imagine how freedom would spread.” And Barack Obama told the Chinese, “I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free Internet – an unrestricted Internet access – is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged.”

Now we have a test case for John Gilmore’s thesis.  The test case is Wikileaks.