The face of Thomas Paine, rendered in yellow and pink, graces the cover of the first British edition of Wired,footnote1 a successful magazine from the United States devoted to proselytizing the benefits of computer networking.footnote For the technophile devotees of this subject, it is far more than a tool; rather it will usher in a complete transformation of every facet of our lives, no less than a mental and eventually a material revolution. On the cover, too, appear the words, ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again’, the recast ‘digital revolutionary’ being summoned up to defend the global Net from threats of restriction, governmental and commercial. Yet networking alone is an insufficient peg on which to hang a visionary future in which all human relations are forever changed. The environment in which all digitized media promise to combine and be exchanged has been called cyberspace. It is a curious subject for discussion, because as yet it hardly exists, but this has not hindered previews of its concepts and ideals being constantly played out in theory and fiction. These writings, which look to an unbridled technology to fulfil their wishes, visions and nightmares, can tell us much about attitudes to information, identity and the future.

The component parts of cyberspace—virtual reality and computer networking—are already with us; the first, in a crude form, can already be seen in the video arcades, while the second forms a rapidly growing global infrastructure. Until now, however, the heady marriage of the two, which is the ideal of cyberspace, has only been described in theory and science fiction. The typical vision is as follows:

From vast databases that constitute the culture’s deposited wealth, every document is available, every recording is playable, and every picture is viewable. Around this: a laboratory, an instrumental bridge; taking no space, a home presiding over a world. . .footnote2

The user is immersed in a world of data which is present either as we would normally see it (perhaps a simulation of a printed page), or represented graphically (a dynamic three-dimensional graph of financial movements on the stock exchange). The massive number of sites or specialisms which this data comprises could be presented as different geographical areas between which the user would virtually travel. A number of old bourgeois dreams are encompassed in the promise of this technology: to survey the world from one’s living room, to grasp the totality of all data within a single frame, and to recapture a unified knowledge and experience. It also holds out the vision of a total and eternal archive which will persist long after the physical objects from which it was taken have crumbled; paintings may crack and photographs fade but digital records permit their colours and surfaces to remain forever pristine, while the exact trajectory of the actual object’s decline is plotted. Artifacts and even species which have been lost may be reconstructed; in a computer simulation, at least, we can wander about the Acropolis in its prime, or see dinosaurs stamp the virtual earth. Of course to write about the culture’s ‘wealth’ assumes a community of interest among users before this process starts, and that cultural riches are simply out there to be grasped and codified. Yet this is in fact widely assumed: to the renewed liaison between technology and culture, the developers of cyberspace bring both a charming naivety and much commercial acumen. Microsoft is buying up the digital rights to what its founder, Bill Gates, calls the million most fascinating images in the world.footnote3

The ideal of cyberspace takes in more than just the sum of all human knowledge. It is also an electronic agora in which isolated, anomic but presumably rather well-informed individuals may once more come together, without risk of violence or infection, to engage in debate, exchange information or merely chew the fat. Both data and conversation are potentially accessible from anywhere; to be able to ‘chat’ instantaneously with a neighbour on the other side of the world certainly changes notions of distance and locality. Cyberspace seems to offer simultaneously the advantages of privacy and cultural wealth, self-sufficiency and opportunities for sociability.