“Cyberspace” must die. Here’s why

We’re halfway through the second decade of the 21st century and people are still talking about “cyberspace”. This has to stop. The term has become not only outmoded, but downright dangerous.

Burning Chrome, the short story in which William Gibson introduced the term "cyberspace"

Burning Chrome, the short story in which William Gibson introduced the term “cyberspace”

“Cyberspace” suggests a place other than the real world. Perhaps that’s how things once felt, when online life was still sparkly and anarchic back in the 1980s, but that’s not where we are now. Everything’s going online. When Eric Schmidt said last month that “the internet will disappear”, he was right – the online and offline worlds will merge to such a degree that the connecting infrastructure will no longer be apparent and the split will be meaningless.

But still we constantly hear media and politicians and policy-makers refer to this other realm. Last month the U.K. government talked about keeping businesses “safe in cyberspace”. U.S. president Barack Obama talks about “threats in cyberspace” and “securing cyberspace”. Israel’s National Cyber Bureau “works to promote the national interest in cyberspace”. China has a Cyberspace Affairs Administration that promotes “a peaceful, safe and open and co-operative cyberspace” (i.e. a more heavily censored existence).

The online layer

It’s as if everyone’s talking about a new continent that recently rose up from the sea – uncharted territory or “Neuland”, in the much-mocked phrasing of German chancellor Angela Merkel. In reality, what they’re referring to is an online layer that augments the offline world, thanks to the physical infrastructure that is the internet.

The problem with “cyberspace” is that the word suggests a place where different rules apply, and as such it can be misleading. We all need protection from theft and fraud, whether it takes place online or offline. If we’re tracked and spied upon in the online layer, the effect is similar (though more surreptitious) to being stalked around town and in the living room. Online harassment can be as painful as being menaced in the street. We cannot allow the impact of rights violations to be downplayed because they take place online, and we create such a risk by referring to the online world as another, less immediate place.

The need to abandon the false digital dualism embodied in the term “cyberspace” (hat tip to Nathan Jurgenson and PJ Rey) becomes more urgent as everyday items become connected to the internet. To appreciate how anachronistic the word has become, consider whether your fitness tracker or smart thermostat exists in cyberspace or the real world. When leaked NSA documents talked about strong decryption capabilities as the “price of admission for the U.S. to maintain unrestricted access to and use of cyberspace,” that wasn’t about mastering Neuland. It was about being able to access and exploit the entire connected world, smart homes and all.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=”” id=”913012″]The problem with “cyberspace” is that the word suggests a place where different rules apply, and as such it can be misleading.[/pullquote]

Of course, the online layer is a deeply complex and occasionally paradoxical concept that requires much philosophical digestion and even more political adjustment. For one thing, it’s a layer that spans discrete jurisdictions while lacking inherent borders, creating a conundrum that’s exemplified in Europe’s “right to be forgotten”. Whether it’s a good idea or not, Europe has the right to tell Google to remove certain links from its results within its territory, but it doesn’t have the right to make Google remove those links outside the EU.

At the same time, the technical reality of the online layer makes it difficult or perhaps impossible for Google to meaningfully enforce its right in Europe without applying it globally, because the layer’s borderless nature makes circumvention far too easy. Is there an easy answer to this? Not without some kind of New World Order. But reality is complex — we’ll probably need carefully drafted international treaties to manage this issue — and the reductiveness of a concept like “cyberspace” won’t help us get where we need to go.

Give and take

“Cyberspace” denotes a place but, if anything, it’s about the elimination of spatial concerns as we socialize, collaborate and work together across the world. As such, it’s an awkwardly-named property of the online layer — related to the shared “internet commons” idea — rather than a good descriptor for the layer itself. It’s only one property among many; the online layer still remains tied to the framework of the nation state, with all its political and legal implications, and so it must for now. Citizens of a particular country can’t live under one set of laws and norms offline, and another online.

Minecraft Reality augmented reality app

Minecraft Reality augmented reality app

The information ethicist Luciano Floridi refers to the “onlife experience” as the state in which we are increasingly living. There’s a lot of value in that concept, though we’re not really there yet. The online and offline layers are inextricably bound, but there’s still a lot of friction that will have to be resolved.

Governments and others whose nature and ideas are rooted in offline structures may want the online layer to conform to those, but its technical properties require the fundamental rethinking of many offline social and legal concepts. What does “theft” mean in the online sense, where the original copy of the “stolen” data remains in place? How do social norms around not listening in on or butting into private conversations in a public space apply on Twitter?

At the same time, the connected world is something that’s being shaped by us, and the technical nature of its online layer will ultimately be tempered by our choices and needs. For example, the corporate spying that funds the current free-services model may have to be reined in to respect our inherent right to privacy, even though our understanding of privacy will inevitably adapt to exploit the potential of pervasive connectivity. There will be a lot of give and take.

We have a long way to go before the online and offline layers coexist in “onlife” harmony, and at that point we may as well just call it “life.” But that’s the end state we’re aiming for, and if we’re going to build it with conceptual clarity, then we need to abandon the idea of “cyberspace” and the baggage it’s accumulated since William Gibson coined it (with little semantic intent) over three decades ago.

It’s all the real world now.