Myth #33: Cyberspace is totally separate from ‘the real world’.
Myth: Founded on a logic of Internet exceptionalism, ‘the Internet’ represents a space that is distinct from the ‘real world’. ‘Cyberspace’ and ‘meatspace’ are two different worlds and they are, or at least should be, governed by different logics, structures, norms and actors.
Busted: Artistic renderings of cyberspace depict it as a singular space with its own topography and boundaries, maybe as a continent, a subway grid or a network cloud. (#35; #37) Implicit in these depictions is the assumption that cyberspace – as a space – is distinct from the ‘real world’. Nowhere has this been more forcefully expressed than in the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (Barlow 1996), which boldly intones: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.” The techno-utopians liked to refer to cyberspace as the ‘electronic frontier’, deliberately invoking the imagery of the settling of the American Frontier as a land of opportunity, free from governmental interference. Such spatial metaphors are still very common. Angela Merkel famously referred to the Internet as “Neuland” (“uncharted territory”). With our cognition centered around three-dimensional vision, spatial metaphors come to us naturally. Certainly, spatial ways of imagining cyberspace clash with the Internet’s network structure although they are no less powerful because of that (Lambach 2019).
But such a way of thinking cyberspace has two important flaws. First, cyberspace is not a singular place, a flat expanse of electronic terrain. Instead, it is a complex set of ‘cyber-territories’ constructed by states, corporations and users. States create ‘national segments’ of the Internet through e.g. data localization laws, parallel addressing infrastructures and robust cyberdefense doctrines. (#38). Corporations create walled gardens or ecosystems wherein they sell their product or sell users’ attention to advertisers under their internal standards and content management policies. Users create small and adaptable territories through online communities or chat groups. These territories overlap, conflict and shift. Normative conflicts abound: there are, for instance, many ways to approach legal liability for online speech at the intersection of state and corporate online ‘territories’ (#6).
Second, the distinction between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ space is breaking down, if it ever was true. Cyberspace can be brought into the ‘real world’ through smartphones, optical displays, IoT devices and other ever more ubiquitous artefacts. Social communication becomes an ever more entangled complex of technologically mediated contacts and face-to-face interaction. The ‘real world’ is brought into cyberspace through geolocation technologies which are fundamentally changing the character of the Internet. These trends are integrating physical location and online spaces into one emerging, hybridized whole, further undercutting the premise of Internet exceptionalism.
Truth: Cyberspace is not a singular space but a set of overlapping, conflicting and shifting ‘cyber-territories’. Furthermore, the division of cyberspace and the “real”/offline world is becoming less and less tenable as computing becomes more ubiquitous. The Internet is not an exceptional space after all.
Source: John Perry Barlow, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (1996), https://projects.eff.org/~barlow/Declaration-Final.html; Daniel Lambach, The Territorialization of Cyberspace, International Studies Review (2019), https://doi.org/10.1093/isr/viz022 or https://www.researchgate.net/publication/308720083_The_Territorialization_of_Cyberspace (ungated preprint).