Theories and Metaphors of Cyberspace- Abstracts


By Stephen Bates

  • Senior Fellow
  • Annenberg Washington Program
  • 1455 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
  • Washington, DC 20004, USA
  • Phone: 202/393-7100
  • fax: 202/393-2818
  • Abstract:

    May 1995

    "Geography blended with time equals destiny," the poet Joseph Brodsky once wrote. Indisputably, geography has sculpted human destiny. Proximity once circumscribed awareness. People knew, and knew about, only what was close to them; a village fifty miles away might as well have been a continent away. Technology gradually stretched the fetters of geography, enabling people to cast themselves and their ideas over wider and wider areas. Knowledge and culture spread. People migrated. State authority expanded, from village to city-state to nation to empire. Even so, geography has continued to regulate people's lives. It has shaped options in employment, housing, education, and relationships. It has molded political institutions, national aspirations, culture, knowledge, and identity.

    But for how much longer? New information technologies--today's Internet, tomorrow's Global Information Infrastructure--trivialize geography. The technologies let us learn, almost instantly, the thoughts of someone on the other side of the globe; his whereabouts becomes as immaterial as his shoe size. Just as important, the technologies let us talk back. Like broadcasting, the Internet delivers the world to us; unlike broadcasting, it also delivers us to the world.

    Using the technologies, we join so-called virtual communities, forged out of common interests rather than common geographic space. The phenomenon isn't new--we've long had special-interest magazines, newsletters, cable programs, and conferences--but the technologies make virtual communities more numerous, more participatory, less expensive, and, as a result, more alluring. Increasingly they are winning our time and attention. Soon we will find out which of our geographic-based allegiances are unshakable, and which thrive only in the absence of alternatives. It won't mark the literal end of geography (just as we haven't yet, strictly speaking, seen the ends of ideology and history, Daniel Bell and Francis Fukuyama notwithstanding), but it will be a leap in that direction.

    As our loyalties shift to virtual communities, a problem arises, one that underlies the disorientation of journalists, lawyers, educators, and others as they confront the new media. We live in a world whose social institutions are rooted, historically and functionally, in geography. They pull us one way; the new technologies yank us in the opposite direction.

    Consider the news media. Journalism has helped define and strengthen communities--cities, states, nations. Journalists routinely accord heavier play to nearby events than to faraway ones. A local dogfight, a Denver reporter once said, merits a bigger headline than an overseas war. News and editorial pages often boost the fortunes of their localities. Newspaper titles include the city's name, and radio and TV stations boast of their rootedness in the community. On a larger scale, nationwide media nurture a sense of national community.

    To be sure, even these old technologies sometimes clash with conceptions of geographic communities. Newspapers in large cities must serve the downtown as well as the suburbs, often multiple suburbs. Broadcast stations' coverage is rarely coextensive with electoral districts, to the dismay of candidates. Cable TV sometimes gives viewers the option of watching local news from distant cities.

    The Internet, though, creates far more numerous and appealing nongeographic options. Distance has no bearing on price; viewing a Web site from another hemisphere is no more costly than viewing one from a block away. As geography loses its potency, what happens to our interest in local or even national news? Moreover, people are using the Net to assemble information tailored to their interests. (Not always accurate information; the Usenet group talk.rumors recently outed Dan Quayle as gay.) Tomorrow's editor may have less in common with Ben Bradlee than with Mitch Kapor, whose frequently updated Web homepage highlights Net resources of interest to Kapor and those like him. More prosaically, the hours that people spend online are being subtracted from some other activity--in many cases, from time with mass media.

    Like journalism, law is rooted in geography. The legality of an act often depends on its location. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writings are in the public domain in the United Kingdom, but some remain under copyright in the United States. A New Yorker can fly to London, photocopy a Sherlock Holmes story, and fly back with the copy; copyright law permits people to enter the country with infringing items so long as they are not for distribution. What if instead of air travel, the New Yorker reaches London via the Internet, finds the story on a publicly accessible file site, and downloads it to his PC? Under current law, he has infringed the copyright.

    In this respect, law constrains technology. The law refuses to extend the travel defense ("I flew to London") to virtual travel ("I modemed to London"). William Gibson has described cyberspace as "lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind"; the law, however, remains anchored in the real space of the physical world.

    Geographic concepts also illuminate a topic that touches on both journalism and law, the availability of books and periodicals in public libraries. Assume, as many futurists do, that people will someday read on handheld computers. By selecting certain screen icons, a user can electronically borrow a publication from the library. The work is downloaded via wireless communication. It erases itself after two weeks unless it is renewed, and encryption makes copying impossible, or nearly so. Alternatively, by selecting different icons, the user can purchase the work from a bookstore or newsstand. It too will be encrypted and instantly downloaded. As the buyer makes the purchase, his bank account will be debited.

    The difference, then, is that the free copy disappears after two weeks, whereas the paid-for copy does not. But is this significant? If we unleash the technology, a library work is never more than a few keystrokes away. Even if only one user can borrow a work at a time, interlibrary-loan software can scour the country until it finds and downloads an available copy. If the difference between borrowing and purchasing is negligible, then, as systems designer Raymond Kurzweil has written, who will buy books and periodicals?

    We can count on publishers to block the convergence of borrowing and buying. They will use the law to retain the geographic hindrances of today's library--requiring that users travel there to get and return material, for instance--even as bookstores shake off their geographic shackles and go online. Publishers will, in other words, exploit the technology fully for paying customers but hobble it for library patrons.

    Finally, consider an aspect that troubles parents and educators, the pornography that the Net makes accessible to children. Here too, geographic concepts help clarify the issue. We traditionally restrict pornography by space. City officials create adult entertainment districts--Times Square, the Combat Zone. In bookstores and newsstands, pornography is kept behind the counter or on a high shelf. Many video stores put X-rated titles in a separate room, open only to adults. Such zoning, though, is impossible on the Internet. Viewing material on the Net's public spaces-- including Usenet, mailing lists, file transfer sites, and the Web-- doesn't require a user to expose his appearance, and thereby his age.

    The facelessness of the medium also helps explain the appeal that online pornography holds for many adults. At an X-rated theater, a patron must both acquire and consume pornography in public, risking that someone who knows him may spot this stigmatized act. At a video store, the patron acquires material in public but consumes it in private, reducing the risk--hence home video's rejuvenation of the pornographic film industry. Through the Internet, pornography can now be both acquired and consumed without leaving home, which helps account for the prevalence and popularity of pornographic images on the Net. People do things behind the mask of the modem that they would not do (at least not do as often) in the real world: stockpile pornography, sexually harass other users, flame people for voicing contrary views, and make outrageous assertions to see how people respond.

    In these and other respects, I believe that "the end of geography" is a metaphor that can help us understand the new technologies and their effects.