“See, the world is full of things more powerful than us. But if you know how to catch a ride, you can go places,”
― Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
Cyberspace was described by William Gibson as a“consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators…” It is a new reality, built on top of our current one – a virtual space allowing us to do and experience things that may be impossible in the physical world, at least under current circumstances and in our current physical bodies.
Cyberpunk and sci-fi authors have presented various methods of entering cyberspace: special glasses, direct connection to the brain through cables and holes in the skull, usage of special drugs, etc. The important aspect is that linking into cyberspace results in a kind of disembodiment and entry into another world wholly through one’s consciousness.
The user entering cyberspace forgets his physical body and its daily needs, fails to perceive his body’s physical surroundings, and is completely immersed in the world “behind the mirror” – for hours or even days.
“This was it. This was what he was, who he was, his being. He forgot to eat. Molly left cartons of rice and foam trays of sushi on the corner of the long table. Sometimes he resented having to leave the deck to use the chemical toilet they’d set up in a corner of the loft. Ice patterns formed and reformed on the screen as he probed for gaps, skirted the most obvious traps, and mapped the route he’d take through Sense/Net’s ice. It was good ice. Wonderful ice. Its patterns burned there while he lay with his arm under Molly’s shoulders, watching the red dawn through the steel grid of the skylight. Its rainbow pixel maze was the first thing he saw when he woke. He’d go straight to the deck, not bothering to dress, and jack in. He was cutting it. He was working. He lost track of days.”
– William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
The basics of cyberspace already exist in today’s world: internet communities and social networks, cloud data storage, MMO games, e-shops – all of these phenomena were anticipated in some way by Gibson’s cyberspace or, even more so, by Stephenson’s metaverse. The only difference is that the fictional forms of hallucination mentioned above are typically full-sensory experiences independent of physical reality. Once we real-world humans manage to get into the computer network not only through a screening device, but with all of our senses and our whole consciousness, then we will be entering true cyberspace.
Cyberspace and Consciousness
When entering cyberspace the user immerses himself in an environment formed from visual representations of information, data streams, and other users. These user avatars may visually resemble the physical appearance of the user (as in the case of Snow Crash’s protagonist) or may acquire any form imaginable: a perfected version of the physical user, an animal, an imaginary creature, and so on. Sometimes one can even encounter users without avatars, traversing cyberspace as pure data without form.
The world of cyberspace bears many dangers for human users. For example, the virtual world may come to seem more real than its physical counterpart. In the movie Inception (2010) the protagonists are always in danger of mistaking the real world for the virtual one and becoming stuck forever in the world of dreams.
There is also the danger of mixing the data of different users. The “ghost” in Ghost in the Shell is the essence of a human consciousness – a person’s core ability to feel emotions and experience thoughts – and it differentiates man from machine. Direct contact of two ghosts can lead to an altering of the minds of the owners. Hacking another user’s ghost can reprogram his character or alter his memories. Even indirect interaction of users can lead to the sharing of thoughts. People may consider these thoughts to be their own, but they may, in fact, come from external sources – possibly due to purposeful manipulation.
Ghost in the Shell and other cyberpunk works raise the question of whether the sum of data in cyberspace can give birth to something completely new and create an artificial intelligence with its own living ghost.
Section 9 Department Chief Aramaki: What is it? Artificial intelligence?
Puppet Master: Incorrect. I am not AI. My codename is project two-five-zero-one. I am a living, thinking entity that was created in the sea of information.
Section 6 Department Chief Nakamura: Nonsense! There’s no proof at all that you are a living, thinking life form!
Puppet Master: And can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you, when neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is?
Major Motoko Kusanagi: I mean, have you ever actually seen your brain?
Puppet Master: I refer to myself as an intelligent life form because I am sentient and I am able to recognize my own existence, but in my present state I am still incomplete. I lack the most basic processes inherent in all living organisms: reproducing and dying.
- Ghost in the Shell, 1995
Cyberspace and Social Interaction
Already today the internet is a place where anonymity and a sense of freedom from the normal rules of social interaction can lead to serious problems. How will it be once social interaction within the net becomes direct and sensory?
In the sci-fi adventure series Sword Art Online (2009), a group of people is trapped in the virtual space of an MMO game. A bug in the network connection results in the death of the physical user when the virtual avatar dies. Some players abuse this glitch and become serial killers – convinced that under these conditions, they are not committed to a moral code and that in fact they are not committing murders.
Cyberspace as Information Source
One of the most useful features of today’s smartphones is the ability to connect anytime and anywhere to the internet and search for information. What if, however, one day the internet and cyberspace become our sole sources of information? What if schools become redundant and all information can be gathered from a common data source? And even worse, what if this data source is controlled and censored by someone?
Cyberspace can be a dangerous place, where only a fool trusts unverified sources. This is especially true in the case of “official” sources, which may contain layers upon layers of misleading and false data covering the real truth. Here is where hackers come into play, breaking through firewalls, stealing valuable data, and revealing the truth to the public – or selling corporate secrets to those willing to pay.
Cyberspace, Surveillance and Privacy
In dystopian cyberpunk worlds there is always someone or something with the power and technology to monitor ordinary people – whether we’re talking about corporations, criminal syndicates, totalitarian governments, or freelance hackers. Acts that take place within the anonymous environment of the network turn out not to be private and anonymous at all.
The American sci-fi series Person of Interest (2011) tells a story involving “The Machine,” which constantly monitors all camera systems and recordings, phone calls, internet discussions, etc., and predicts potential crimes and acts of violence. The protagonists try to prevent these crimes from happening.
And then there are those who strive to control this system for their own benefit…
Cyberspace as Utopia
In many cyberpunk works, cyberspace offers an attractive alternative reality. It presents itself as a sort of utopia where the dreams, desires, and visions of its users are fulfilled.
“Rydell had a theory about virtual real estate. The smaller and cheaper the physical site of a given operation, the bigger and cheesier the web site. According to this theory Selwyn F.X. Tong, notary public, of Kowloon, was probably operating out of a rolled-up newspaper.“
- W. Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999)
Cyberspace can be a place for everyone – even those at the bottom of society – to live out their dreams and desires. A large, modern flat full of luxurious possessions, an aesthetically perfected version of one’s own body – in cyberspace, these are easy to achieve, while in dystopian physical reality, only the highest classes can afford them.
Cyberspace can also be the source of all the information and technology one might need. It can allow for unrestricted creativity and self-realization. It can serve as the digital infosphere of humanity. Even a man without education and finances can become a user or a hacker and drink from the collective treasury of knowledge – learn, travel, and even create new content.
Here again we find cyberspace in contrast with the dystopian reality of physical world. Is cyberspace the forthcoming utopia?