Metaphorically Speaking

Is the concept of

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The term 'cyberspace' has attained a ubiquity in cultural parlance unmatched since 'TV' started tripping off people's tongues in the 50s. Coined by William Gibson in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, cyberspace has entered our daily lexicon, describing our relationship to computer networks and each other. But what does the metaphor really mean?

In an essay in Resisting the Virtual Life, an anthology of critical essays on computer technologies, Laura Miller contends that cyberspace borrows from the macho Wild West mythos. Updated for the 1990s, this means the digital wilderness must be tamed by daring men who protect their women folk from rapacious scoundrels out to lure them into sex chat sessions or to browbeat them out of conversations. Wired women need to 'refuse to acquiesce in these roles,' she argues, which means that they have to change the way online technologies are talked about in the media. Rooted in these precepts of ownership and order, the cyberspace metaphor will lead to centralized regulation and even censorship, says Miller. As she asks: 'When an Electronic Frontier Foundation member compares the Clipper chip to barbed wire encroaching on the prairie, doesn't he realize the surrender implied in his metaphor?'

On the edge of an even more dramatic frontier, there are other ready-made alternatives to 'cyberspace' that are drawn from science fiction. In an essay in the anthology Flame Wars, Erik Davis explores many of them from Vernor Vinge's description of a Dungeons and Dragons-like form of imaginative projection in his novella True Names, to Philip K. Dick's Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS), a Gnostic hypertext drawn from Christian theology that imagines an information space as an 'organic' three-dimensional cosmos.' According to Davis, these metaphors have never gained the kind of audience necessary to challenge the image of cyberspace in popular imagination and are themselves derived from traditions that are fraught with gender stereotypes. The discourses that are used to describe computer technologies will play an important role in shaping what they become, argues Miller. While the cyberspace metaphor has helped us to understand our relationship to this communications medium, perhaps its time to give up the term and address the social and economic forces that are converging to define our online world.

Original to Utne Reader Online, September 1995.

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