Metaphorically Speaking

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

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

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