A Historian In Cyberspace

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I AM WRITING HERE ABOUT AN AMERICAN PLACE, BUT NOT ABOUT Thomas Jefferson’s town, where I live, or about the South, to which I have devoted my working life. Rather, I am writing about that new American place we cannot see but whose effects we increasingly feel, Cyberspace. That place, simultaneously metaphorical and tangible, has touched every part of the United States. As information surges along networks of copper and glass, weaving ever-tighter webs across the country and the world, those networks define a space at once empty and densely populated, desolate and hopeful. By its very nature, Cyberspace is space amid other places. It touches them all but is possessed by none. At one level, Cyberspace is merely bits of electronic information, zeros and ones, stored on computers and networks. At another level, it is more concrete, addresses and linkages whose names people know and can read. And at the sites where people interact with one another, Cyberspace becomes physical, filled with color, sound, and image.

Even though those places are merely projected on screens, people have fallen in love there, have cooperated, conspired, traded, and raged there.

So powerful has this new kind of space become that some observers worry that Cyberspace may efface the country it is colonizing with such speed. The portals of Cyberspace, critics charge, pull people into basements and bedrooms, encapsulate them in lonely fantasies of sex, greed, and violence, and replace real communities with virtual ones. Other commentators hold out the hope that Cyberspace will unite people by affinity and passion rather than by the mere accident of physical locale. These optimists believe that the fabric of American society can be strengthened by the new networks. Either way, the stakes are high.

CYBERSPACE IS NOT A PURELY AMERICAN INVENTION; like the railroad, automobile, cinema, radio, and television, Cyberspace grew out of international collaboration. But like those innovations, it has been absorbed and dominated by the United States and claimed as an American contribution to the world. The conceit is not baseless, for not only did U.S. military spending and engineering ingenuity undergird the creation of much of the original network, but American business has taken up where defense spending left off. Two-thirds of Web traffic originates in the United States, and two-thirds of Web users speak English, the native language and lingua franca of Cyberspace.

This historian came to Cyberspace with no intention of staying. I arrived several years after engineers and scientists had constructed the Internet for their own purposes. When I first used computers, in the 1970s, they seemed isolated behemoths, ensconced behind glass and presided over by priestlike figures; when I returned to computing in the early 1980s, everything had changed. Machine connected to machine with hidden protocols, moving information instantly and invisibly, ignoring distance. Networks tied people and machines together in a new kind of intimacy.

No one spoke in the early years of Cyberspace. The descriptive and prosaic Net served as the term of choice until an influential, if unlikely, book appeared in 1984: Neuromancer by William Gibson. An American living in Canada, Gibson wrote in an American idiom of science fiction and dystopia, of fascination with and dread of the future. Fittingly enough for this pioneering era, he composed his book on a manual typewriter, extrapolating the implications of Cyberspace from the merest glimpses of the new technology. Discovering a portable cassette player in a shop a few years earlier, Gibson had slipped the headphones on. “For the first time I was able to move my nervous system through a landscape with my choice of soundtrack,” he recalled. Gibson imagined Cyberspace when he saw an ad for an early Apple computer and connected it with the experience of the cassette player: “I thought, if there is an imaginary point of convergence where the information this machine handles could be accessed with the under-the-skin intimacy of the Walkman, what would that be like?” He envisioned Cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination,” with people at their computers weaving their imaginations into vast metaphors of information and disembodied energy, power and wealth taking immaterial but potent form. It did not take long in Gibson’s novel for the hallucination to become all too real, for the longing for Cyberspace to become so strong that the characters “jacked in” to the network directly with their brains and bodies.

Gibson’s vision resonated with those who logged on to the early Net. People in the 1980s experienced Cyberspace only through words and symbols glowing on a monochromatic screen. No images, no sounds intruded; imagination confronted limitless space. Across that immense void, mere typed conversation became appealing in a way few would have foreseen. Words, devalued by movies and television, took on a new life. In the absence of ready-made entertainment, people filled the vacuum with role-playing games, dramas of mutual creation. Solitary people sought out comrades; enthusiasts sought out fellow enthusiasts; people of many sorts sought out titillation of one form or another. The Net appeared, paradoxically, both empty and intimate. People rushed to its lists and groups, to its virtual chat rooms, dungeons, and bordellos, yet the place still felt like a secret sanctuary for the few hundred thousand people who occupied it.