What happened to “cyberspace”?

I used Google’s Ngram Viewer to investigate a hunch that the word “cyberspace” is falling out of use:

Of course, Google Ngram only represents usage of words in books that Google has indexed, and only goes through 2008, but this trend line is not surprising.

I think about my own usage of the web, and if anything I dwell in places not cyberspace. But I remember the cyberspace metaphor being quite fitting — especially in the late 90s, but even through the 00s — and not just because I had read Stephenson and Gibson.

In fact, the bulk of my activity online nowadays is actually more akin to listening to the radio — a purer connection to the information. I find myself “tuning in” to different “stations” depending on my mood/interest, or even just to see what they have to offer right now. If I’m looking for baroque I hit the classical station and my odds are good, just as if I’m looking for current insights from colleagues I hit Twitter; when I need punk rock I find the local high school-run indie station or I search on my iPhone, just as when I need a Dr Who fix I turn to Netflix, or I check my media folder.
I don’t pretend to have anything more than anecdotes (yet). But speaking of anecdotes, I did ask my 11-year-old son whether it makes sense to think about the internet as a space or place that he “visits”. He answered, no. “It’s just what I do,” he said. “When I want to find something I just get it.”

The loss of meaning of the cyberspace analogy is likely due to a combination of factors, including (1) the more task-centric nature of modern web behavior, (2) the modern web’s more reliable ability to serve up what we need without “surfing”, or (3) the congregation of social networks by niches into services like LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Feedly, etc.

Before they published great books on web dev, New Riders published the WWW Yellow Pages. FRD.

Before they published great books on web dev, New Riders published the WWW Yellow Pages. 1997.

But by in large I think we don’t use the word “cyberspace” because we no longer think of the interwebs as a “space”. It’s not that cyberspace has collapsed on itself, but rather our conception of the web is more fluid, blended with the everyday activities that we engage in regardless of place. The physical place we are at is the place we are at; the activities we do — physical or virtual — are no longer dependent on that place. Mobility and API-driven mobile apps have removed not only the walls, but even the metaphorical act of traveling to cyberspace: No longer must we boot the computer, connect to the internet, open a browser, go to a website, login, and browse. Now our mobile devices tell us when there is something to pay attention to and delivers that information to us unfettered. Connections are formed by way of people, circuited through social network services, regardless or even in spite of place.

At any given moment our proximal place blends with cyberspace, to the point that cyberspace becomes invisible, and the invisible is ignored.

3 thoughts on “What happened to “cyberspace”?

  1. Scott Dennis

    I recently watched a programmer give a presentation on a technique that allows him to manipulate code without having to take his fingers off the keyboard to use a mouse and allowing him to perform many functions quickly using a language of keyboard shortcuts. What I realized he was struggling to explain was really the mental space he inhabits while programming and how what is happening in his mind gets translated into the code. When I think about the cyberspace the Gibson described in the nineties or the code in the Matrix I think of someone delving into a non-visual/literal space that envelopes them in a way that they lose touch with the here and now. That future obviously never happened for most of us, thankfully. You are right. What I want from the web I usually get immediately and without having to disrupt what else is happening in my life (walking, eating, doing dishes). Instead of us going into the web, the web has become a part of our daily existence, taking the form of a hand held device, a song, or a bank statement.

  2. Luke Fernandez

    Definitely an interesting observation. There are of course a lot of people who make clear distinctions between their physical corporeal lives and their online lives. Sherry Turkle and Nicholas Carr exemplify that position in their books. On the other hand people like Nathan Jurgenson take issue with Turkle et al as forwarding a “false ontology” and your ngram would probably lend credence to Jurgenson’s argument. For Jurgenson Turkle and Carr are guilty of “digital dualism.” His best take-down of the digital dualists can probably be found in his piece The Disconnectionists (c.f http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-disconnectionists/ ). But before buying Jurgenson wholesale do read Carr’s rejoinder in “Digital Dualism Denialism:” http://www.roughtype.com/?p=2090

    1. jaredstein Post author

      Yes, that’s a very interesting way to extend this conversation: Should we deliberately separate our connected activity with traditionally disconnected activities? Or do we let them blend entirely and invest in connected practices of mindfulness as suggested by Rheingold and others?

      I’ll read those articles; thanks!

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