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Cyberculture: Hackers, Bots and Datascape

In his 1984 novel “Neuromancer”, cyberpunk novelist William Gibson famously coined the term “cyberspace” to describe the fictional “datascape” that his characters entered by “jacking in” – connecting their consciousness directly to networked computers. “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by millions of legitimate operators. . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.” In the 1990s, cyberspace became a hot topic in a variety of academic disciplines as more and more researchers focused on the many ways that the Internet was transforming ever more aspects of people’s lives.

During the 1990s, cyberspace research and writing branched out and became more specialized, and there was a publishing boom. A large body of work emerged that focused on the social and cultural aspects of cyberspace, in addition to computer science research. These “cyberspace studies” have evolved over time, particularly as scholars have combined ideas and theories from various disciplines – such as psychology, sociology, cultural studies, and geography – with the Internet and related technologies. In terms of what we might refer to as “cyberculture studies,” David Silver (2000) identified three distinct phases in the development of cyberculture as a field of study during the 1990s.  

Phase I. Popular Cyberculture

Phase one begins with a collection of essays, columns, and books written by journalists and early adopters known as popular cyberculture. These cultural critics began filing stories for major American newspapers and magazines on the Internet, cyberspace, and the “information superhighway” in the early 1990s. Time magazine, for example, published two cover stories on the Internet, while Newsweek published “Men, Women, and Computers.” In addition, the second editions of the popular how-to books The Internet for Dummies and The Whole Internet were bestsellers in 1994.   The majority of popular cyberculture writings were descriptive. These journalists had the unenviable task of introducing non-technical readers to the largely technical, pre-World Wide Web version of cyberspace. They were usually required to follow the term Internet with the parenthetical phrase the global computer network system. As a result, much of this work included thorough description, explanations, and applications of early Internet technologies like FTP, Gopher, Lynx, UNIX configurations, telnet, and Usenet.

On the other hand, a vocal group of writers, investors, and politicians known as the technofuturists declared cyberspace to be a new frontier of civilization, a digital domain that could and would bring down big business, foster democratic participation, and eliminate economic and social inequities. Their primary pulpit was a new line of technozines, glossy, visually-impairing magazines with names like Mondo 2000, bOing bOing, and Wired. They found platforms within major American newspapers and popular magazines, among nascent organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and throughout newsgroups, listservs, and Web sites. These highways — or, to be more precise, networks of distributed intelligence — will enable us to share data, connect, and communicate as a global community. We will achieve robust and sustainable economic progress, strong democracies, better solutions to global and local environmental challenges, improved health care, and a greater sense of shared stewardship of our small planet as a result of these connections.

Phase II. Cyberculture Studies

Howard Rheingold is one of the earliest and most widely cited proponents of the virtual communities concept. He’s been dubbed “The Internet’s First Citizen.” He takes readers on a tour of the “virtual community” of online networking in his book. He describes a community that is as real and as diverse as any physical community, with people talking, arguing, seeking information, organizing politically, falling in love, and deceiving others. If The Virtual Community by Rheingold is the first pillar of cyberculture studies, Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet is the second (1995). Turkle explores ethnographically a number of virtual environments, including Multi-User Domains, or MUDs, to address the concept of online identities. While some users use cyberspace to repress a less-than-functional “real” or offline life, she discovers that the majority of users use the digital domain to exercise a more true identity, or a multiplicity of identities. Within what Bruckman (1992) refers to as a “identity workshop,” users are free to choose genders, sexualities, and personalities. Linguists began to examine the writing styles, etiquettes, and (inter)textual codes employed in online contexts about the same time (Danet et al 1997; Herring 1996a, 1996b, 1996c). Textual analysis and feminist theory have also been employed by feminist and women’s studies researchers to locate, construct, and deconstruct gender within cyberspace.

III. Critical Cyberculture Studies

By the late 1990s, many academic and popular presses have published dozens of monographs, edited volumes, and anthologies devoted to the growing field of cyberculture. Reflecting this growth, recent scholars take a broader view of what constitutes cyberculture. No longer limiting the field to merely virtual communities and online identities, a third generation of scholarship has emerged. As with all emerging fields of study, the landscape and contours of critical cyberculture studies are difficult to map. The first and second generations of cyberculture experts have quite different perspectives and priorities. Rather than addressing cyberspace as a thing to describe, today’s cyberculture researchers see it as a place to contextualize and present more complicated, problematized discoveries. In general, four major focal areas have evolved.

These areas, taken together, form the foundation for critical cyberculture studies:

– Critical cyberculture research focuses on the social, cultural, and economic interactions that occur online.

– The stories we tell about such interactions are unraveled and examined in critical cyberculture studies.

– Critical cyberculture studies examines a variety of social, cultural, political, and economic factors that encourage, facilitate, and/or obstruct individual and group participation in such interactions.

– The deliberate, accidental, and alternative technological decision- and design-processes that, when implemented, form the interface between the network and its users are assessed in critical cyberculture.

Scholars of critical cyberculture studies acknowledge the importance of virtual communities and online identities, but they take a step back to put their subjects in context.

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