Goodbye cyberspace!

What should one make of cybercultural utopianism today? John Perry Barlow’s famous 1996 description of cyberspace as a “new Home of Mind” seems quaint now, as perhaps do visions of egalitarian virtual community and emancipatory virtual identity. The decline of a utopian notion of cyberspace may be sensed, for example, in the term’s near disappearance from the pages of Wired magazine, generally understood to be the most important source of digital utopianism.*
The decline of cyberspace in Wired magazine
Similarly, one might note that the most prominent uses of the term today involve issues of security, and thus represent a deflation (if not displacement) of the promise of cyberspace. Where Barlow had envisaged a sovereign space of individual liberty, by 2003 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security called cyberspace a strategic asset and “the control system of our country.”

What I argue in my dissertation is that while this decline in utopianism surrounding the notion of cyberspace is real, it must be contextualized with reference to cyberutopianism’s pre-history as well its legacies.

On the one hand, as scholars such as N. Katherine Hayles and Fred Turner have shown, the kind of utopian information space envisioned by Barlow is embedded in a conceptual and historical lineage that extends back to the development of cybernetics in World War II research laboratories. The notion of cyberspace as a separate realm in which identity, community and society might be made anew only seems possible with an extrapolation of a basic assumption in cybernetics - that psychological and social phenomena can be represented and explained as (formalizable) information flows and systems of communication and feedback. Given this lineage, it is not so surprising that cyberspace - as Wendy Chun argues - is tied to both dreams of perfect freedom and perfect control.

On the other, it is this same basic assumption - what I would summarize as the computational metaphor - that fuels more recent visions of the web’s exceptional status. This can be seen in the increasingly generalized sense that the web makes social and cultural life visible and mappable, and specifically in the notion of a universal social graph, or a formalized system that would allow for a global mapping of everyone and their relations. My argument is thus that cyberutopianism was grounded in the computational metaphor, and that even though it has declined a key underlying assumption continues to characterize (unrealistic) expectations attached to the web.

* This data was gathered by querying the Wired magazine archives (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/) in March 2013, using the Google Scraper  (see http://tools.digitalmethods.net/). Wired published six issues in 1993 and monthly from January 1994. Because of how Wired’s archives are structured, data for after 2006 was not readily accessible; however, the trend in terms of cyberspace’s decline seems to be clear.