Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Introduction: Cyberspace and Geographical Space

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Introduction: Cyberspace and Geographical Space

Article excerpt

There can only be disaster arising from unawareness of the causalities and effects inherent in our own technologies.

- Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962

Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.

- Arthur C. Clarke, Ascent to Orbit, 1984

The invention and diffusion of the computer are arguably the defining social, economic, and geographical processes of the late twentieth century. The technical developments are many, but four are crucial: more computers; more computer power evident in processor speed, graphic capabilities, and memory; an increasing interconnection of computers into networks that make possible communication, data acquisition, software sharing, information processing, and remote storage; and an ever more placelike interface that lets users command iconic and graphic representations that feel natural or self-evident (at least to those who are comfortable with digital technology). In the aftermath of the microelectronics revolution, the current trend is toward a society that is dependent on computers across the realms of commerce, cultural production, politics, education, and even friendship and sexuality. The pervasiveness of computers can create a feeling of living in a digital environment, and terms such as cyberspace and electronic cafe imply an environment that may be understood in geographically resonant terms.

Although concepts of cyberspace and electronic virtual place have been explored from the perspectives of media theory, architecture, sociology, literary theory, popular culture, and law, geographers have written relatively little on these topics (Lanham 1993; Rheingold 1993; Cavazos and Morin 1995; Mitchell 1995; Rushkoff 1995; Turkle 1995; Shields 1996). A growing and important literature on geography and mass communication examines film, television, and the news media (Gould 1984; Brooker-Gross 1985; Burgess 1985, 1987; Gold 1985; Smith 1985; Youngs 1985; Monmonier 1989; Adams 1992; Aitken and Zonn 1994).

Geographers have studied other kinds of media, including telephone, photography, and geographical information systems (Abler 1977; Martin 1991; Cosgrove 1994; Pickles 1995). Others delve into commercial connections (Langdale 1989; Hepworth 1990; Sack 1992; Warf 1995). And there is growing interest in the reconstruction of urban space around communication systems (Castells 1996-1998; Graham and Marvin 1996). Manuel Castells has played a particularly important role in situating communication technologies within contemporary capitalism, which, he argues, has created a dominant "space of flows" (Castells 1996-1998). David Harvey conjoins capitalism and communication media to the "annihilation of space through time" (1989, 1990). Although geographers have, for the most part, shied away from the ebullient technological determinism and utopian views of cultural evolution that pervade so much literature on this topic, the discipline has paid insufficient attention to the cultural and political dimensions of computer networking. The collection of articles in this special issue of the Geographical Review begins to fill that void.


In 1969 a U.S. Department of Defense project founded under the auspices of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) created Arpanet, the first computer network (Hafner and Lyon 1996). Originally the system connected only four computers, situated at the University of California, Los Angeles; Stanford Research Institute; the University of California, Santa Barbara; and the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City. Arpanet was supported by an innovative technique of data transmission called packet switching, which allowed a communications system to operate with no central control: "each packet and the entire network of routers all know how to get information around" (Rheingold 1993, 75). If one route between locations was eliminated by the loss of a computer or telephone line, packet-switched messages were automatically rerouted along another. …

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