Recreating the Imaginary
If I were to ask another human being (not ChatGPT) for directions on how to get to Cyberspace, most would probably think I am joking. Others might consider me an imbecile or conclude I must be flying high on drugs. Finally, a selected few might quickly flash their super smartphones and try to explain in the time it takes to write a classic 140-character Tweet. So pay close attention or else. “You see, Cyberspace is ethereal or virtual,” I would be told emphatically, respondents unknowingly deploying a metaphor to describe it. That is what I call the Cyberspace Imaginary that positions such space as the exact opposite of the Real. And such Imaginary now rules the world.
One of its key features is the split between being (I am) and being somewhere ( I am here!), a feat we cannot replicate in the poor and miserable analog world. Indeed, in such a virtual world, no one knows who you really are (let us leave innocent canines out of the script, please) or your exact location. I can thus develop my own alter-egos claiming to live anywhere or constantly traveling the world for free. Moreover, I can also circumvent the accepted Symbolic world and break existing rules left and right. By the way, such separation is a feature, not a bug, of Cyberspace’s original design targetting broader (geopolitical) objectives. In any event, such a divorce seems to undoubtedly demonstrate Cyberspace’s immateriality.
Cracks in this Cyberspace Imaginary start to pop up once we put such a feature in motion. I can actually enact parts of my vast Imaginary world and usually get away with it, no questions asked. However, complex issues emerge when some of these enactments cause Real harm, sometimes irreparable, to other Cyberspace inhabitants. Here, the virtual becomes hyperreal. The same can be said about all those doing business in Cyberspace, transacting tangible goods and services. So the question is, how does the virtual “talk” to the Real?
In the mid-2000, a U.S. Senator tried to explain why some of his emails were delayed. He indicated the Internet was comprised of a “series of tubes,” or pipes if you prefer, with limited capacity. Heavy traffic could thus jam the darn tubes. The reaction of the Internet crowd was swift and scornful. The fact that the Senator opposed Net Neutrality did not help his cause. On the contrary, the tube metaphor proved that he did not understand how the Internet worked and thus disqualified him from promoting related policies. Some even suggested he was providing a caveman’s explanation of Cyberspace. I am sure cave people will take exception here. And while I think the Senator was on the wrong side of the neutrality debate, can we say the tubes metaphor is inadequate?
After all, I recently experienced a “tubes” jam when I started playing with ChatGPT in early December. Issues I have not seen in a long time, such as network errors, slow responses and trouble login in, were rampant. And let us not forget that most people in the developing world have similar experiences daily as fixed broadband and 5G are either missing in action or plainly unaffordable. So the tubes metaphor seems more plausible for them than the prevailing Cyberspace Imaginary. Moreover, they are continuously reminded of how poor the local infrastructure is.
And yet, we can find more Cyberspace metaphors. For example, in 1993 and piggybacking on the so-called Gore Bill of 1991, the National Information Infrastructure (NII) idea saw the light of day with staunch support from the Clinton Administration. So what was the big idea? Let us hear it from the horse’s mouth.
“One helpful way is to think of the National Information Infrastructure as a network of highways — much like the Interstates begun in the ’50s. These are highways carrying information rather than people or goods. And I’m not talking about just one eight-lane turnpike. I mean a collection of Interstates and feeder roads made up of different materials in the same way that roads can be concrete or macadam — or gravel. Some highways will be made up of fiber optics. Others will be built out of coaxial or wireless.“
In other words, we encounter here the Information Superhighway, defined as a network of networks of turnpikes (as in toll roads, not free rides allowed). Indeed, this accurately describes the Internet but uses roads, not tubes, as the core metaphor. And highways, super or not, can also get jammed. Note also that information, not data, was at the core of this proposition. The superhighway soon morphed into the Global Information Superhighway, which was instrumental in leading concerted efforts from public, private and development sectors to tackle the obviously gigantic “digital divide” for the rest of the decade and beyond.
In any case, highways and tubes are tangible infrastructures that seem totally disconnected from the current Cyberspace Imaginary. So how did we transition from such tangibles to “virtual” and, more recently, “meta” Imaginaries?
For starters, it goes without saying that metaphors are insufficient to explain the complexities of Cyberspace, no matter how illustrative and valuable they are. From the perspective of mass media (digital included), they can surely help people grasp some of its core features. But they do not make any difference when operating in such space and enacting selected components of our Imaginary world. Tackling such complexities requires a lot of blog real estate, so I will deal with that in an upcoming post – although I have already provided some key insights on the subject.
Secondly, the seemingly antagonistic Cyberspace metaphors can actually be brought together. Indeed, one could make the case they describe different aspects of the digital space. Highways, turnpikes, tubes and pipes are essentially focused on the infrastructure and devices required to access Cyberspace. Without either, it would be impossible to enter such a paradisiacal realm, no matter how hard we try. That is precisely what the few kind respondents flashing their smartphones were trying to tell me. You cannot walk into Cyberspace. Instead, you need to use unique gateways to cross the frontier.
Something similar happens when we watch a 3D film in a theater. First, the infrastructure, a building customized as a movie theater, must be available near my location. Second, I must buy a ticket to secure access to the theater. And third, I need 3D glasses to watch the film. These are usually provided for free by the theater. In the case of Cyberspace, we have the “information superhighway” that provides the core infrastructure. Then we find the ISPs that sell me access to such infrastructure. And finally, I need to have access to or own a device that can adequately interact with the infrastructure. Unlike theaters, ISPs are not in the business of providing me the gadgets required to successfully navigate Cyberspace’s vast seas.
But once I enter wonderful Cyberspace, the “tubes” metaphor is of little help. At this point, the ethereal or virtual metaphor takes over, and I found myself enjoying the benefits of the Cyberspace Imaginary. While I can still keep doing many things I did before entering, I can now undertake actions I could not do outside of the digital space. On the other hand, the Cyberspace Imaginary has little to say about the tubes metaphor. But bringing them together gives a much-improved overview of Cyberspace. And yet it is still a partial one. After all, metaphors are figures of speech, not analytical tools.