In 1984 William Gibson wrote his breakthrough novel Neuromancer, stating that "there is some kind of actual space behind the screen". Gibson called this place of "unthinkable complexity" cyberspace, a three-dimensional representation of all the information stored in every computer.
In the years since, there have been other names given to that space: the Net, the Web, the Cloud, the Matrix, the Datasphere or the information superhighway.
By 1989 a new label had been added - to describe today's interconnected computer systems, especially the millions of computer jacked into the Internet.
In Washington, cyberspace has become a hot issue during the 1992 presidential campaign by Al Gore and Bill Clinton. Their promise was to built the so-called information superhighway.
But the political opponents, the Republicans were quick to grab this initiative: "Cyberspace is the land of knowledge", proclaimed their Magna Charta on the information age.
Also the business community tried to stake out its own claims in cyberspace, setting up sites on the World Wide Web (WWW). They hope that cyberspace will be one of the driving forces for economic growth in the 21st century.
One result of this drum roll is a growing public appetite to participate. People may not know where it is, but they want desperately to get there.
But what is cyberspace? According to John Perry Barlow it can be defined as "that place you are in when you are talking on the telephone".
Actually, Cyberspace is bigger than a telephone call. It encompasses the millions of personal computers connected by modems, as well as the millions more with high-speed links to local area networks, office E-mail systems and the Internet. All these wires and cables and microwaves are not really cyberspace.
Cyberspace is an experience, not a wiring system. It is about people communicating with one another. It is a virtual reality.
to Nicholas Negroponte we live in the age of information, in which the
fundamental particle is not atom but the bit - the binary digit, a unit
of data usually represented as a 0 or 1. Information may still be
delivered in magazines and newspapers (atoms), but the real value is in
the contents (bits). These bits are weightless, easily reproduced, and
they can be shipped at nearly the speed of light. For information
providers (publishers, for example) cyberspace offers a medium in which
distribution costs shrink to zero../2
Cyberspace is less about commerce than about community. This technology offers person-to-person communications and thus can be vehicle for revolutionary change. In a world already too divided against itself (rich against poor, producer against consumer) cyberspace offers the nearest thing to a level playing field.
So one can say: The Internet is cyberspace. Starting more than 20 years ago as a U.S. Defense Department experiment, the Internet escaped from the Pentagon in 1984 - nearly doubling every year from the mid-1980s on. The substantial factor is the grass-roots structure of the Internet. Most conventional computer systems are hierarchical. The Internet, by contrast is open and democratic. No one owns it. No single organisation controls it. It crosses national boundaries.
Anybody can play (provided he or she has the appropriate equipment and access), and everybody is afforded the same level of respect. People tend to be judged in the cyberspace of the Internet only by their ideas and their ability to get them across.
This becomes apparent on Usenet - a bunch of discussion groups distributed over the Internet and devoted to every conceivable subject. Usenet is considered for wielding political power. The Usenet use groups represent narrowcasting - content created by consumers for consumers.
The Internet is changing rapidly and is far from perfect. Largely unedited, its content is often tasteless, foolish, uninteresting or just wrong. And because it requires access to both a computer and a high-speed telecommunications link, it is out of reach for millions of people too poor or too far from a major communications hub to participate.
A most recent shift is to more passive and consumer-oriented "home pages" of the World Wide Web. The Net, many old-timers complain, is turning into a shopping mall.
And even more fundamental changes are taking place, since over the next decade the telecommunication system will be rebuilt from the ground up as copper wires are ripped up and replaced by hair-thin fiber-optic strands.
There is a broad consensus in U.S. government and industry that the National Information Infrastructure (NII) will be a broadband, switched network that could deliver movies and television shows, video games and even the videophone.
But how all this will be structured and how it will be deployed is not so clear. An even trickier question has to do with the so-called upstream capacity of the network. That means that consumers will some day need as much bandwidth going out to the home as they have coming in. These design issues will change the shape of cyberspace.The results of technological innovation always take longer than predicted. But when change finally comes, its effect is likely to be more profound and powerful than anyone imagined. 10/97