Systems Theory
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The Myth of Cyberspace – The New Inquiry

The Myth of Cyberspace – The New Inquiry | Systems Theory | Scoop.it

In the early 1980s, when personal computing first became a reality, the faces of glowing terminals had an almost magical aura, transubstantiating arcane passages of 1s and 0s into sensory experience. In fact, the seemingly impenetrable complexity of what was unfolding behind the screen created a sense of mystery and wonderment. We were in awe of the hackers who could unlock the code and conjure various illusions from it; they were modern magicians who seemed to travel between two worlds: reality and cyberspace. One day, we imagined, these sages of cyberspace would leave their bodies behind and fully immerse themselves in the secret world behind the screen. Such images manifested themselves through the decades in films like Tron, Hackers, and The Matrix and in the fiction narratives of the cyberpunk genre. When the public internet first emerged, images of cyberspace were already deeply embedded in our collective imagination; these images have become the primary lens through which we view and evaluate our online activity. For this reason, tracing the genealogy of the cyberspace concept reveals much about present cultural assumptions regarding our relationship with information technology.


Via luiy
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luiy's curator insight, March 18, 2013 1:38 PM

The great irony of the cyberspace concept is that, though we embraced it to resolve cognitive dissonance, it has come to cause only more of it. As Facebook, Twitter, and other social-networking sites have grown more popular, it has become undeniable that they play an important role in organizing our social lives. Our presence on these sites arguably has become so important that we begin to experience the world differently, tailoring our behavior toward producing desirable sorts of things to share on them. We all know intuitively that what we do online affects us offline and vice versa — that both comprise the same friends, the same conversations, the same events. Yet the collective fantasy of cyberspace and all its related vocabulary are so deeply embedded in our cultural logic that we cannot help but lapse into denial of these obvious truths. Our language betrays us; it obfuscates the truth of our experience.

Western culture has a long history of creating such dualisms when confronted with crises of meaning or identity. For example, we have long evaded questions regarding our mortality by conceptually separating matter and form, body and soul. As with cyberspace, this age-old dualism generated a subsequent need to imagine a space where soul could exist apart from body, so we imagined heaven and hell. Our uncritical acceptance of the cyberspace fantasy has imbued it with a similar sacredness; it has become part of a new secular religion, built on faith in something that is imagined but never experienced.

Religion, as Emile Durkheim famously defined it, “is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions — beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community.” Cyberspace is exactly the sort of thing that we have set apart conceptually and subjected to ceaseless moralizing: It has become almost second nature to claim that “the virtual” is less intimate, authentic, or natural than “the real.” Despite its failure to compellingly describe the world we inhabit, cyberspace nevertheless thrives as a framework for making moral judgments about that same world. Cyberspace has become our Mount Olympus, the founding myth of the Internet Age. It is an article of faith, not the product of lived experience.

Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with fantasy. Speculative fiction provides an important opportunity to anticipate and prepare for techno-cultural change. The problem arises when we begin to prioritize that fictional narrative over actual experience, when we let these speculations control the reality that emerges. We have allowed the myth of cyberspace to usurp reason and to shape perception in our increasingly digitally-mediated lives. Perhaps, this realization should not come as too much of a surprise. Gibson himself recognized that the creative capacities of human beings predispose us to supplanting concrete observation with abstract concepts. A passage from Memory Palace can be read almost as claiming that the cyberspace myth fulfills some broader human teleology:

You see, so we’ve always been on our way to this new place — that is no place, really — but it is real. It’s our nature to represent. We’re the animal that represents — the sole and only maker of maps. And, if our weakness has been to confuse the bright and bloody colors of our calendars with the true weather of days, and the parchment’s territory of our maps with the land spread out before us—never mind. We have always been on our way to this new place — that is no place, really — but it is real.

Support The New Inquiry. Subscribe to TNI Magazine for $2Cyberspace is not real per se but real in the sense of the Thomas theorem: “If [wo]men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Real reality is not characterized by such dualisms; it is equally made of atoms and bits. The cost of upholding this mythical separation is that we have become disassociated with many aspects of our lives. If we hope to make ourselves whole again, we first need a new vocabulary, new myths, and new representations for the Web.

Systems Theory
theoretical aspects of (social) systems theory
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