Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Cyberspace Metaphor

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Cyberspace Metaphor

Article excerpt

EACH DAY AT WORK, I buy my lunch with the help of a computer network. Rather than pay cash, I use a card with a magnetic strip. After the cashier has entered my culinary choices into her computer-cash register, she "swipes" my card through a special card "reader." In a second or so, the network, in its omnipotence, checks the amount of money in my prepaid account, deducts the cost of today's lunch, makes a record of where and when I used the card, and then grants me the fight to eat this lunch by sending a message to the cashier.

When I think about it, I find few words to describe this process of a computer network acting as a gatekeeper to my lunch. Where, for example, does the information about my purchases go? I actually took my classes on a "field trip" to find out. The information goes through special wires to a computer in the campus ID office, which is the hub of this system. There, a very nice woman whom we had never seen before can tell us when and where we had lunch each day of the semester, and how much we paid.

As computer networks spread into more and more areas of our lives, our language has to struggle to keep pace. We are faced with a new and unfamiliar situation, unsure of its potentials or implications. The situation cries out for metaphors.

In order to comprehend any new technology, we routinely describe it in terms already familiar to us. For example, we call the calculating power of the electronic computer intelligence. This is a metaphor, one which leads to a whole set of language-guided inferences about what these smart machines can do. I think many of the consequences of this metaphorical identification of human intelligence with machine calculation are unfortunate, leading to a devaluation of what is genuinely human.(1) But the metaphor is powerful. It has captured the imaginations of specialists and laypersons alike, and it is here to stay.

We do not yet have a similarly powerful and widely accepted metaphor to describe what is created when these intelligent computers link up over telephone lines into vast networks. But there is a strong candidate in the semantic field: the term cyberspace.

Cyberspace is the "space" behind your computer screen. Cyberspace is where telephone conversations occur -- somewhere between the phones.(2) The term was coined in the early 1980s by science fiction writer William Gibson, in his trilogy of novels about computer users in the near future who are able to leave their bodies and ride through cyberspace. How they did this was not quite clear, but the imagery was sharp and powerful, as users floated by towering computer systems of the mega-corporations, protected by shimmering walls of "ice," or computer security. Cyberspace in the Gibson novels was also populated by disembodied Artificial Intelligence systems, which had agendas of their own.(3)

Cyberspace is a metaphor because it identifies the region where electronic communication occurs as being a kind of space. We can analyze it using the terminology of I. A. Richards: "vehicle" and "tenor." The vehicle, or actual term used for the metaphor, is a combination of the morphemes "Cyber" (a trade name for computers which has become generalizable to all things computer related) and "space" (which covers a lot of territory: outer-space, inner-space, euclidean-space, non-euclidean-space, and others). The tenor, or underlying situation referred to in the metaphor, is the strange but real region created within an electric network of telephones and computers.(4)

Author Bruce Sterling refers to cyberspace as not exactly "real," but being a genuine place where things happen with actual consequences.(5) Careers are made in cyberspace, thieves prowl in cyberspace, increasingly complete records of our lives are stored in cyberspace.

The legal system is struggling to apply our notions of property and privacy -- developed in the space of the external world -- to the new world of cyberspace. …

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