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.

Yet despite all the attention it has been receiving, cyberspace as a technological development has a strange status, not only because it has not yet been realized, but also because it is a concept which has its origins in fiction, particularly in the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson. Programmers and engineers are acting on fictional blueprints and, since these are naturally extremely vague, the very concept and the details of its implementation are up for grabs. The whole affair is even more curious because the fictional vision of cyberspace and the world which surrounds it is hardly positive: what has been taken up so enthusiastically is not so much a technical proposal as a dystopian vision of the future. Of the very term itself, Gibson admits that he: ‘Assembled word cyberspace from small and readily available components of language. Neologic spasm: the primal act of pop poetics. Preceded any concept whatever. Slick and hollow—awaiting received meaning.’footnote4 In Gibson’s books cyberspace is a dizzying, dangerous ‘place’, where such intense experiences may be had that they exceed anything likely to be encountered in real life. It is dominated by leviathan corporations for whose operations it exists, but the system has exceeded them, producing mysterious creatures of mythical abilities, and encompassing such enormous complexity that there are many opportunities for daring Net frontiersmen, who make money by breaking security systems and copying confidential information. Above all, cyberspace is a visual environment in which, while deception is occasionally a feature, things generally look much like what they are: large databases look large, corporations look powerful, military complexes look remote and dangerous, electronic countermeasures look threatening and as they operate their workings are graphically represented. There is, as we shall see, some sense to this. The transparency of meaning in cyberspace, the absolute match between concept and appearance, is a utopian feature which stands in marked contrast to the real world, of meaningless detail and redundant matter.

These descriptions should be contrasted with the reality of computer networking today where there are certainly opportunities for hackers, but where the interface is largely text-based and highly technical. Visceral experiences and reactions are absent. If computer networks are eventually to present themselves through graphical systems, there is no particular rule to say that there will be any resemblance between ‘what they are’ and what they look like (although there will no doubt be a tendency to link looks and the image an entity wishes to project). Yet links between data and its representation cannot be entirely arbitrary, because the major advantage of cyberspace is that everyday perceptual skills are employed in understanding and manipulating complex information; people are generally much better at picking up an anomaly in a visual representation of data than from a raw mass of figures. The development of computer systems is also certainly running in the direction of Gibson’s vision: as Michael Benedikt points out, the ‘evolution’ of systems, from typed command to menu to Graphical User Interface (for instance the Macintosh operating system copied in Windows) is that of making implicit navigation data visible and marrying it to content.footnote5 The idea of an apparently immersive, three-dimensional cyberspace is another step in this direction.