Gibsonian Concept of Cyberspace is Silly and Outdated

In the early 80’s William Gibson imagined that the young and still developing Internet will one day bloom into Cyberspace. He envisioned it as an abstract plane where your disembodied mind can wander, surfing on the streams of data, and traveling down the information highways:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding

This imaginative vision has sort of became a Cyberpunk staple, and nearly all novels and movies that aspire to belong to that genre try to include some sort of reiteration of Gibson’s idea. Almost without fail, your average cyberpunk story will include some sort of abstract datum plane, with ZX Spectrum era visuals, city like landscapes of glimmering semi-transparent text and scary looking spiky viruses, rigid geometric security programs and force-field like firewalls. With small variations your average Cyberspace session should look something like this:


In the 80’s Cyberspace seemed… Plausible. And if not plausible then at least not very far fetched. Most of us could imagine the technology escalating to the point where this sort of virtual reality interface would be possible to achieve. Of course today it looks a bit silly and anachronistic – a bit like Steam-Punk genre which is laughable unless you buy into it’s specific distortion of reality.

Let’s face it, browsing the web on your iPhone is about 100 times more convenient than obtaining data the way Gibsonian cyber-jockeys and netrunners did. First of all, they needed to strap themselves into an expensive cyber-deck usually using a neural shunt. While surfing they were pretty much a vegetable strapped to some electronics. You on the other hand have almost ubiquitous Wifi coverage, and Edge/3G networks all over the place so you can browse while driving or walking your dog in the park. Your average netrunner has to navigate through a labyrinthine glowing maze to find what he is looking for. You just fucking google it. And so on, and so forth.

There were many attempts to make 3 dimensional, more Cyberspace like interfaces for our computers but none ever caught on. Every once in a while someone comes up with a new, innovative way of visualizing search results, or organizing data on a web page. But nothing beats the simplicity and usability of a flat HTML page with links and perhaps some embedded multimedia. Why on earth would anyone want to jack in, and float in a world of abstract data visualization crap if they could just pull up a regular web page and read it. Gibsonian cyberspace fails the Ockham’s Razor test. It’s complexity does not translate into utility or usability.

I believe there will never be a virtual reality representation of the web. While we might one day be able to build VR simulations that will be nearly indistinguishable from reality (like out own Matrix) I highly doubt that the same VR technology will be used for something as trivial as browsing the web. The future Cyberspace is much different and probably not so much unlike what we have right now. I envision that one day browsing the web will look a bit more like a HUD display you have in many FPS video games.

You will be walking down the street while browsing the web and looking up directions on your internal HUD display, enjoying a ubiquitous free high speed Wifi blanketing most of the civilized world. There will be no neural shunts, or ugly Matrix/Ghost in the Shell like ports in the back of your neck. Your neural implant will be a tiny speck of silicone tucked beneath your skin and muscle with no physical ports – purely wireless bio-powered device with a biological hardware switch allowing you to switch it off or reboot it via muscle reflex or something equally simple.

I don’t envision a radical shift in the way data will be displayed or presented to us. Your typical website layout will probably change slightly because your HUD will have almost limitless adjustable resolution. Your average user interface design will probably change a bit too, seeing how we will no longer be using a mouse as our primary input device. So stuff like sidebars and tool bars may morph into more intuitive and organic elements since we will now click by thinking and won’t need to actually move any sorts of pointers (I hope).

Most of the web will still be text, because that is the medium that is so far easiest to parse, skim along, catalog and organize. Many SF and Cyberpunk movies and novels assume that we will at some point shift towards other media – that for some reason we will return to oral traditions and record our data on holographic displays (holocorns?) and etc. But let’s face it – text is just more convenient. Think about it – what would you rather have – a short one paragraph written summary which you can skim over in seconds clicking on relevant links in the text, or a 3 minute video of some dude explaining the same thing? When I just want facts or information and I need it fast I will take the textual representation every time.

IM and traditional Cell Phone may get replaced by sub-vocal VOIP like communication that will bypass your vocal cords and let you converse over the net without actually making any sounds. Then again it may not considering that texting and IM’ing is still much faster and more direct form of communication.

Future viruses and spyware won’t explode your head or make you go mad. They will simply fuck up your software and steal your identity the same way they do it today. I imagine that reinstalling the OS and software on your wetware implant won’t be terribly difficult. In fact, such devices will probably come with a pristine image of the OS encased in firmware so that you can roll back to a clean slate at any time.

All in all, we will be much more connected than Gibson could ever dream of without all the silly limitations and real-world abstraction he built into his vision of Cyberspace. Then again, in 20 my vision of the near future may be as silly and short sighted as Gibson’s Cyberspace seems right now.

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16 Responses to Gibsonian Concept of Cyberspace is Silly and Outdated

  1. Petr UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    All in all, we will be much more connected than Gibson could ever dream of without all the silly limitations and real-world abstraction he built into his vision of Cyberspace. Then again, in 20 my vision of the near future may be as silly and short sighted as Gibson’s Cyberspace seems right now.

    I think the main, indeed the only, problem with Gibsons view of ‘cyberspace’ is an abstraction of ‘travel’… the idea that you’ll have to go to the data, rather than have the data come to you. As an organizing principle, it maps cleanly to our present (physical) manner of data acquisition. I think the problem is that it complicates things immensely and is, absent some psycho-social need to have a sense of motion attached to data acquisition, (perhaps) largely superflous.

    But no prevailing idiom presents itself as an alternative: do you sit and take it all in… how’s that going to work? How do you ‘grok’ that? A rush of data to the head? How do you organize it? Can you give up this physical plane, even for a short time, and still derive meaning from the data? How much of our daily input of data is context with respect to place and space? Do we need a concept of ‘cyberstate’ to replace ‘cyberspace’?

    Luke, you seem to be recognizing that data comes to you via cell phone, IM , etc… rather than, like Gibson, making an effort go to the data… It is this representation of travel that adds so much to the ‘cyberspace’ picture. However, Gibsons vision includes not just data, but meta-data and infra-data: information that includes content and delivery specifications as well as security information and infrastructure visualizations. It is this holistic vision, I believe that makes Gibson relevant.

    Imagine, if you will, a pizza delivery guy. Now, all you might see/do at present is the phone number (or increasingly, the web page), the call you make and the guy showing up at your door with the pizza. Suppose, however, you could see the entire telephone infrastructure, the call routing to the proper pizza joint, the total wattage of the transaction, the process of making the pizza, cooking it, the carbon footprint of the car the guy drives, his route with precise speeds and engine revs, speed limits on the roads, traffic conditions, etc, etc. etc… that’s data, meta-data and infra-data and I think that might be part of what Gibson was getting at.

    I don’t particularly think it’s useful to know all that stuff when I order a pizza. But when you think about the sheer amount of stuff (meaning information) that happens between when you place the call and when the pizza arrives… it’s a little overwhelming. Now, multiply that by the size of the evergrowing global network and you’ll start to feel overwhelmingly overwhelmed (if that makes sense…) and so attempting to get an handle on all the data, meta- infra- and otherwise, as Gibson, I think tries, is a means of putting the stuff into perspective… if only fictionally.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @Petr: But we are getting better and better at sifting through data which is relevant. I really don’t see a reason to have the meta and infra data flooding down the line to you because it is largely irrelevant to the task at hand. You order a pizza and you get estimated arrival time in return. If you want to look up more info you query it. So you would hit Google Maps (or whatever we use by then) to see the delivery route, the traffic situation and etc..

    The problem I have with meta and infra data is that someone has to create it, tag items with it and etc. Chances are that your local pizza place won’t ever have any of the information above handy. Would the pizza place publish the delivery route? After all it is largely dependent on the delivery guy which way he takes. Would they really publish the up-to-date temperature of their pizza oven online knowing full well that this information would be meaningless to 99.9% of their clients?

    This sort of mindset is sort of reminiscent of the .com boom era where people actually did these sort of things for publicity or just the fun of it. We already have all the data and meta data available – albeit from different sources. Integrating all this information in a way which would make the meta and infra data available is a problem that may never get solved in a satisfying way. I mean look at how the “semantic web” is coming along. Lots of great ideas there but it is largely an academic effort. Real world applications mostly ignore that stuff because it does nothing for their bottom line.

    How do you grok it? I’d imagine you would either have a visual interface that would interact with optical nerves and display data in your field of vision so that you can “read it”. Either that or it would simply have some sort of memory buffer which could be accessible to you just like regular short term memories. But instead of memory it would be more like a total recall of say a wikipedia page on pizza making. At that instant you know everything wikipedia says about Pizza and you can skim and browse it at will. Some info will get moved to your long term memory, the rest will be flushed out – exactly as if you read the page yourself.

    My point is that there is no need to have Cyberspace at all. There is no reason to leave the physical plane of existence. In fact it would be extremely inconvenient solution if each time you wanted to browse the web you would have to enter some sort of semi-conscious state with your body going limp. Your average internet user wants to browse the web while sitting on the couch watching TV and talking to his girlfriend or while driving his car. People are good at multitasking and we love to do it.

    I predict that in the future you will be able to browse the web or “hack” away simply by sitting on a park bench watching pigeons or sitting at some lake with a fishing rod. You might be concentrating on browsing, searching or whatever but if anything happens in the real world you can immediately shift your attention to it and get back to your work at a later time.

    There is no need for a separate abstract cyber “space” we already have a model which is adequate.

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  3. I wish the web was more like that… or like the world in Tom Clancys: Net Force

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  4. BobCFC UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Re: efficiency of text verses video for information.

    It depends on the material. Some subjects lend themselves to visual media such as desktop-recorders/screencasts.

    I don’t know If you have every seen any of the professional e-learning video tutorials such the CBT or VTC series? They can cut through a dry subject such as SSH security or learning Apache config buy showing you step by step someone type at the terminal and click the mouse while giving a voice commentary at the same time.

    I found it easier than many books for certain situations. ( I don’t think it is just my temperament as I am a self taught C++ programmer)

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Travis McCrea: I haven’t read Net Force – which type of net is it? Is it the one where you fly around in some abstract information plane, or the one where you are connected wirelesly at all times?

    @BobCFC: True, stuff like tutorials can be better as screencasts. But then again, tutorial is something you want to go through from the begging to the end. Text is just faster for immediate lookup stuff – when you want to find something really fast, you don’t want a video or audio source.

    Let’s say you have an hour to kill and you want to learn how to install and configure Apache. A video tutorial would be a perfect place to start.

    On the other hand, if you already know Apache but you just want to quickly look up information how to for example do simple redirects using .htaccess files then you want text and nothing but text because:

    1. you can scan through it really quickly, and more accurately than through a video
    2. you can use a textual search for specific key words
    3. you can copy and paste the configuration or code snippets from the page to avoid mistakes

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  6. you need the mobile plugin.
    Net force is an awesome read although it does use the vr vision of the web not wireless. It’s very well explained and I think a vr interweb would be much more successful. If I need a quick stat I can fire up my iPhone, if I want to learn about golf what better than to ‘go’ to a course and learn than take a trip to the manufactures. Wikipedia for the iPhone only goes so far (although its my new favorite toy…hitch hikers guide)… Sometimes you have to be there and with the success of “there” and “second life” it’s needless to say that’s what the people want.

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  7. James Heaver UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I think that there will be a spatial element to the future web, however this won’t be a physical representation.

    I’m absolutely with you with the HUD idea, and think that the future of computing is going to move back to rich-CLI such as ubiquity, quicksilver et al

    The UI is going to fade away, rather than become more pronounced such as with VR.

    People are not interested in the interface, your purpose isn’t interface – your purpose is the information displayed. Future interfaces will get in your way less and ultimately – as in your HUD – all you will have left is information.

    I think that the spatial element will come in the form of a Zooming User Interface – but zooming through a space constructed purely for you, not zooming through the structure of web8.0. You are right – information will come to you, we already pull information to us, and this is only going to get better.

    CLI is a far more intuitive and linear interaction, the real missing piece of the puzzle is that of focus – how to tell the computer what bit of information to act upon. With a HUD system, this would presumably become trivial and this will really allow linear computer interfaces to flourish.

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  8. BobCFC UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    RE: text search

    The google juice is a fair comment. Hopefully in the next ten years google will be able to search the content of video too, especially the voice part.

    Just recently the new version Picassa web albums has facial recognition for automatic tagging. Next step search.

    ps why does my post say Linux instead of Ubuntu? is it because I am x86_64?

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  9. feeshy Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    The picture you included reminded me of the hacking minigame in the original System Shock. Now thats a Cyberspace representation I can live with :)

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  10. feeshy Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:


    I get that too and I’m using Ubuntu32

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @BobCFC and @feeshy: I believe that this happens when you use a firefox package which came from some of the backports repositories or the generic linux binary from Mozilla.

    To “fix” this try to add few keys to your about:config. This is what I have there right now:

    general.useragent.vendor: Ubuntu
    general.useragent.vendorComment: gutsy
    general.useragent.vendorSub: 7.10

    If you are running hardy simply adjust for your release.

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  12. Mobile Plugin…

    Twitterverse just gave me devunity and I still think all and all this is the future… Us creating our sites and a merge… Instead of going to different websites they will eventally be one page and it all comes to that… Like plaxio meets wiki… Everything all at your fingers. However that will eventually become boringand you still have to physically go to your computer… In the future the network will be around us at all times and we will superimpose virtua on top of reality… And it’s not that far off or crazy. We will be the ones all constantly flowing information to eachother… We all want to say bills diner was great but pricy for the next guy… We just don’t all knowthe same sites or check them which is why we will also have more standards.. I wish we already did ->I would love to always have my google cal talking with my other calendars

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  13. Tanja NETHERLANDS OmniWeb Mac OS says:

    I haven’t seen it in a while, but from what I remember ‘Minority Report’ had a pretty nice UI. Tom Cruise would literally grab files and put them next to eachother, toss some out, flip through others, all with his hands and not with a mouse.
    I liked that, but don’t know if we’ll ever get that.

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  14. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Tanja: Yeah, I actually liked the Minority Report UI. It was cool, but at no point it gave it’s users some magical hacking abilities.

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  15. That image reminds me of Tron, which sort of fits into the genre as well.

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  16. Pingback: Cyberspace: A space at all? (Week 4) | Happy Hunting UNITED STATES PHP

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