Monday, November 15, 2010

What We Talk About When We Talk About Cyberspace

by Bob Schapiro

Words conjure images – we think in images and symbols.  Any good taxonomy of cyberspace must begin with that reality, or else it will likely join the junk pile of history.  At best, its terms would enter the ranks of words that people know but never use.  (Elementary school is nearly a universal experience, but when was the last time you said “tardy” or “lavatory” out loud?  For that matter, “taxonomy” always makes me think of April 15th…or a stuffed beaver.)

As SENDS develops the foundations of a Science of Cyberspace, we invite your contributions to a new, hopefully universally accepted vocabulary that builds on what works today.  We’ll give you the email address at the bottom of this column, along with our hidden agenda.  (Please excuse me, but I used to produce television newscasts; I have to tease what’s coming up, it’s in my DNA.)

On television, I confront the need to visualize the concept of cyberspace.  I mean, how many images of fingers on a keyboard can you stand?  Fortunately there are many stock animations available on the topic.  You’ve seen them.  Usually you are zooming into some abstract space, sometimes with zeroes and ones flashing past you.  The concept is clear:  In order to deal with cyberspace, you have to move through space.

This is not the best definition, but certainly understandable.  “Space” is right there in the term.  For that reason, some people use the term “cyber realm” or “cyber domain.”  I’ve heard more than one theorist ask if cyberspace existed before we had computers to see it.  Hmmm…in outer space, Saturn had moons before we had telescopes to see them.  Amoebas existed before we had microscopes.  Did my email exist when I was still using a typewriter?  Somehow I don’t think that this is what the theorists meant…

Email is perhaps a better place to begin.  Cyberspace is a big, heavy-duty concept.  Email has obvious analogies to other experiences; these may offer insight and solutions.  For example, is spam just junk mail on steroids?  If so, solutions that mitigate junk mail might reduce the problem.  But what exactly is spam?

An inclusive definition might be “unwanted and unsolicited messages.”  This would include unwanted tweets and Facebook messages...and exclude emails from a magazine to which we actually subscribe.  After all, by subscribing, aren’t we just asking for it?

There are certainly similarities between spam and traditional junk mail.  Both often masquerade as official business, on the theory that if they can just get me to open it, I won’t mind discovering that they tried to mislead me.  (Well, if I open it, they succeeded in misleading me, but I don’t like to admit that.)

Of course, none of the junk mail that the postal carrier brings to my door ever causes my toaster to burn the bagels…or ransacks the address book in my desk drawer.  Obviously there are categories of spam, but there is no similarly accepted four-letter word for “email messages that contain malware” – well, none that we can print in a family blog.  We need a word.  Words are symbols and we think using symbols.  Cognition improves when we have precise, well-understood definitions.

I promised you a hidden agenda.  We actually have two.  The first is that a wide cross-section of folks should come up with these terms or else the lawyers will.  Yes, the scientists will try, but if the words don’t feel right to a lot of people, the lawyers will prevail.  Probably federal lawyers.  Probably committees of federal lawyers.  Do the users of cyberspace really deserve that?

The second is that we’re going to try to make the Internet a more hospitable place with a voluntary “SENDS Seal of Approval” early effort to ensure our “Science of Cyberspace” is truly open-source science as we've said in other blogs.  Pardon the hubris, but someone needs to say it: cyberspace belongs to all of us and we all need a say.  If we succeed, you and I will not have to create “accounts” every time we buy something and we won’t confront an unfathomable array of cookies after an hour on the web.

Yes, we are that optimistic.  But we know it will only work if we have a precise and popular terminology, with words that we all can easily understand and remember.  Just send us your suggestions at

Don’t be shy.  Remember that the term “cyberspace” itself was only coined in 1982.  The science-fiction author William Gibson created it as an “evocative and essentially meaningless” buzzword, as any student of Wikipedia knows.  In fact, Wikipedia needs cyberspace to even have an audience.

There’s an emerging, rich history out there and cyberspace—despite its humble origins—is a concept that is coming to define much of our lives.  You can help define cyberspace.  Send us your thoughts at

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