O World invisible, we view thee,
o world intangible, we touch thee,
o world unknowable, we know thee,
inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's Ladder
Pitched between Heaven and Charing Cross
(Thompson 1937, p.349)
Cyberspace, in both the Gibsonian sense of a fictional world, and the Barlovian sense of the space constructed through computer-mediated networks (Jordan 1999, p. 20) is an illuminating environment for the disentanglement and interpretation of those parts of the social world described as urban. Neither cyberspace nor the 'urban', however, are obvious or essential classifications of the social world. Similarly, the 'social world' and 'society' are imprecise coverall descriptions for a complex range of phenomenon, experiences and interpretations. Despite this, both 'cyberspace' and the 'urban' are legitimated through discourses which order them as binary singularities within the framework of an amorphous 'society' (cf. Wirth 1964, 61; Mumford 1987, 13). The ‘urban’ is monolithically distinguished from the rural and traditional, while cyberspace is presented in opposition to an ostensibly physical 'reality' that is constituted through tangible artefacts (Soja 1996, 5; Nunes 1995, 320; Jacobs 1972, 13). However, the continued articulation of cyberspace — particularly its experience through the conduit of the ‘Web’ (see Gauntlett 2000) — has done much to problematise the tendency to hypostatise the urban and cyberspace. Recent analyses of the specific historical and cultural complexities of computer-mediated space have cautioned against theoretical over-generalisations (Crang 2000, 312; Dean 1999, 1070). This prudent setting of boundaries is particularly relevant to discussions that consider the 'intersections' of 'cyberspace' and 'urban space'. Analyses that speak for generalised spatial categories in a 'whole' sense endanger any definition of cyberspace or the 'urban' as temporally specific. Cyberspace, or any space, is a flexible and dense socio-technical complex that does not readily assume simplistic or temporally insensitive definitions. Rather than seeking absolute explanations, perspectives that aid interpretation of specific 'avenues', and the rapidly shifting dynamics, of cyberspace are the most viable for this discussion.
In an emic accounting of cyberspace - "seeing things from the actor's point of view" (Geertz 1973, 14) - those with electronic identities define and 'build' cyberspace as an urban environment. By calling for an emic perspective, and understanding how the "natives define 'things'" (Pelto and Pelto 1978, 62), emphasis is placed on the particular and immediate day-to-day experiences of cyberspace. This position also mirrors the manner in which other spaces of social action are interpreted. Boas (in Pelto & Pelto 1978, 55) argues for an emic perspective by claiming that, "if it is our serious purpose to understand the thoughts of a people, the whole analysis of experience must be based on their concepts, not ours." Cyberspace is human-orientated space; it is both manufactured and 'full' of people. This density is actively encouraged - in a Web-based sense, at least - by designers who seek to make their small part of cyberspace more 'sticky' and by users who seek out the busiest, most active sites in which to interact, although in many cases this interaction is restricted to voyeuristic 'lurking'. Increasingly, traditional institutions such as government recognise the significance of this dense human geography with claims that "the primary resource of the Information Economy is people - people with skills and knowledge, people with global networks of connections with others, people connecting with each other at a community level to share skills and work together to benefit from the online world." (Government of South Australia 2000, 18).
Cyberspace - in an idealised sense - represents hyper-convenience; goods and services are not just 'locally' accessible but also immediately available. Baudrillard (1994, 76) claims for the society of simulation that "the hypermarket cannot be separated from the highways that surround and feed it, from the parking lots blanketed in automobiles, from the computer terminal…" The most recent disappointment of the Web-as-cyberspace is its inability to satisfy these particular expectations (Nieuwenhuizen 1997, 23) with only 'purely' information-orientated 'products', such as electronic journals, immune to this criticism. This failure is a consequence of the complex interconnections that hyper-convenience requires between urban spaces, the centralised structures of warehousing and transport infrastructures and the inability of contemporary cyberspace to overcome the separation of urban environments. Many decades ago, Rose observed that "new devices have merely lowered the barriers rather than eliminated the fact of distance as a significant force in human affairs." (1967, 41). In the current dot.com driven socio-technical environment, the combination of globe-spanning telecommunications networks, sophisticated electronic networking software and massively powerful personal computer hardware enable the initiation of orders for human services and consumer goods that are finalised with transportation 'devices' that must still navigate physical streets and negotiate the vagaries of the urban environment. Cyberspace then, is also identified by its differentiated but globalised 'parts' that produce and shape different interactions; from the urbanity of online banking and the localised relevance of government administration to global forms of creative expression such as those found in the "World's Longest Sentence" (formerley hosted by the Lehman College of CUNY).
At its outer limits cyberspace is not 'simply' the World Wide Web. However, the development of this specific technology complex increasingly partakes of a social imaginary which conforms to Gibsonian expressions of cyberspace (see Burrows 1997, 240; Jordan 1999, 20). In other words, the highly interactive and immersive qualities and capabilities fictionalised by William Gibson as cyberspace are rapidly being enabled through the conduit of this technology. This can be seen in the way the understanding of cyberspace that the Web engenders is increasingly enmeshed in the machinations of corporate capitalism to the extent that Web orientated businesses are commonly described as being part of the 'new economy'. The social imagining of future - and to a degree, present - virtual urbanity intersects with the development of these 'Web' technologies, globalised capitalism and various fictional imaginings of 'other' spaces. Certainly, the mobility afforded by the Web for facilitating virtual travel is an apposite mirror to the mobility of global capital that is suggested by Microsoft's appeal to consumer utopianism - 'where do you want to go today'.
The cyberspace that is perceived in the increasing blurring of fiction and technical development could superficially be contrasted with Ostwald's position, who, in reiterating Benedikt, claims that, "a city may exist in cyberspace, but only as a function of the actions of its inhabitants" (1997, 132). Rather than being an assertion of binary difference, Ostwald emphasises the commonality of virtual and ‘real’ urbanities as socially constructed complexes of experience to the extent that "all" cities can equally be reduced in a similar manner. Urban spaces are as much socially and phenomenologically contructed 'states of mind' as they are architectures (see Nottridge 1972, 2). Simmel (1969, 48) foreshadowed these claims regarding the significance of the imagining of the city when he said that, "the metropolitan type of man [sic] - which, of course, exists in a thousand different variants - develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart." Invariably, these claims for a socially constructed constitution of urban space in the context of virtual space returns appropriately to Gibson’s often quoted definition of cyberspace as a "consensual hallucination" (Burrows 1997, 24; Ostwald 1997, 131; Wertheim 1999, 235).
The problematisation of the certainty and solidity of urban 'reality' that cyberspace introduces presents a disjuncture, although not a break with, previous structures of late capitalism and modernity. These fragmentations are among the harbingers of globalisation and increasingly homogenised cultural formations. The 'reality' of cyberspace presents a challenge to the apparent necessity of collapsing the conceptual 'urban' with physical presence or location. The existence of cyberspace also problematises the relationship between 'real' and 'imagined' as necessarily dichotomous. This is an association that has already been questioned to such an extent that any particular 'reality' is more readily understood in relationship to other 'realities' than as a whole 'reality' in itself. Baudrillard (1994, 3) in presenting an argument for the simulatory basis of contemporary culture claims that "simulation threatens the difference between the 'true' and the 'false', the 'real' and the 'imaginary'." In a similar vein, and specifically in the context of cyberspace, Wertheim (1999, 231) claims that "just because something is not material does not mean it is unreal, as the oft-cited distinction between 'cyberspace' and 'real space' implies…I am there - whatever that statement may ultimately turn out to mean." 'Realities' in cyberspace are defined and redfined from moment to moment and are understood in relation to one's own spatial position.
Urban environments have seldom been identified at any level beyond that of the gauge of population density and the location of hallmark urban features (Sudjic 1992, 295; Nottridge 1972, 1-2, 37). While Wirth acknowledges that "within the city … persons become segregated more by virtue of differences in race, language, income and social status than through choice or attraction to people like themselves" (1969, 157) he also points out that "in the rich literature on the city we look in vain for a theory systematising the available knowledge concerning the city as a social entity" (Wirth 1969, 149). The homogeneity and globe-spanning comparability that these quantifiable criteria impart allows specific urban environments to become identified as 'world cities'. Such cities are characterised by a relative ranking of size in combination with spectacle features of human manufacture that become indicative hallmarks of their identity: a bridge, a tower, a monument or an opera house. The monumental features that these cities envelop, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Hollywood sign, produce both distinguishable and conceptual distances. These icons reduce the urban environment to an interconnected series of experiences which creates a condition in which they have more to do with each other than they do with the state or nation in which they are situated geographically. However, there is a counterpoint to the iconic distinctions of urban landscapes that is produced by the similarities of daily experience among the inhabitants of these cities of the spectacle (Sudjic 1995, 5). Mumford (1987, 620) is even more telelogical regarding urban life when he claims that, "it's inhabitants live in a self-annihilating moment-to-moment continuum". Such cities share a tendency to expand their perimeters and presence in direct proportion to improvements in communication and transport technologies (Sudjic 1995, 9). Mumford observes that visually, "the original container has completely disappeared: the sharp division between city and country no longer exists" (1987, 618). Instead of any clear distinction between the rural and the urban, Mumford perceives a patchwork of built environment and greenery. No clear demarcation separates city from country. This ever-expanding, albeit patchy, perimeter of 'city' reinforces the necessity for iconic symbols of centrality, unity and urban identity to define civic, regional or national difference. Debord, too, asserts that, "this society eliminates geographical distance only to reap distance internally in the form of spectacular separation" (1994, Thesis 167). The city is increasingly proven as a primarily conceptual 'thing' - imagined in practice but never experienced in toto. In this light, it can be claimed that shared aspects of identity - not geographic residence, in itself - provide the sense of spatial proximity that constructs the urban environment. Such a thorough and multiple effacing of these particular boundaries leads to the observation that, "there is often little or no gap between the so-called ‘real world’ and the ‘virtual world’" (Ostwald 1997, 128).
Social complexity, including the configuration of power structures, and cultural diversity are as much definable features of urban space and urbanity as they are observable indicators of increased population density. The 'urban', however, also incorporates an accumulated and dominant series of perspectives, knowledges and discourses of power which complement and support the artefactual and material foundations of observed 'reality'.
Cyberspace as Urban Space
The social significance of cyberspace remakes the urban from the certainty of physical location and proximity to the uncertainties of identity, locality and spatiality which mirrors, perhaps unsurprisingly, the movement from labour intensive industrial mass production and the solidity of modernity to heterogenous consumption practices, global awareness and the plurality of experience (Boyer 1996, 14). What is accentuated in this shift is the fluid and continuous bifurcation of perspective and understanding into different meanings and associations. Where space and location were previously conflated with physicality and materiality they are now the arbitrary, culturally-specific and socially constructed linkages between individual, institutions and corporations. The coupling of these cultural practices with specific technological developments 'builds' an urban complex that incorporates cyberspace and integrates it into the socio-politico-economic system of late capitalism. Physical proximity, such as that found in the near-random connections of street, building and shopping mall, is replaced in cyberspace with contextualised locality. The absence of physicality does not shift the types of associations and social interactions that are being sought by individuals but, rather, provides a global range of choice. Cyberspace does not reduce or impoverish 'other' spaces as spaces. Wertheim (1999, 229) sees, "ourselves with a material realm described by science, and an immaterial realm that operates as a different plane of the real." However, neither are individual spaces of social interaction and exchange isolated 'islands' from one another. The presence of the Web-as-cyberspace as a facet of contemporary urban life is increasingly evident in its representation as a destination - for shopping, finding a job, matchmaking, work, recreation and entertainment. The rise of cyberspace does, however, compete with more 'conventional' spaces in a commercial and social sense for participants and consumers. Individually, the response to a globalised cyberspace may be to pursue and assert the myth of local 'community' at a physical level. Robertson (1995, 40) claims that this relationship between the micro and macro arrangements of contemporary culture may even be necessarily "complementary and interpenetrative".
Regardless of physical proximity or spatial distance, interaction on the Web - and elsewhere in cyberspace - is undertaken through socially visible and articulated dimensions which are not premised or reliant upon direct physical connections (Mitchell 1995, 23). Analysing cyberspace from 'outside' its boundaries - and outside the framework of emic interpretations - introduces complexities and conundrums that are not so readily sought in the examination of 'other' urban spaces. The capacity to determine the direction of electronic, but social, pathways beyond the constraints of 'real-life' geography has prompted the suggestion that these 'networks' of association represent communities of common interest (McBeath & Webb 1997, 255). In effect, it is claimed that because cyberspace is a different 'type' of space it generates specific social configurations. However, the automatic association of a particular spatial form to social structure represents a overly utopian generalisation for what is a heterogeneous social space (Rheingold 1995, 3). "Once society has lost the community that myth was formerly able to ensure, it must inevitably lose all the reference points of a truly common language until such time as the divided character of an inactive community is superseded by the inauguration of a real historical community." (Debord 1994, Thesis 186). The notion that the formation of community within cyberspace is an inevitable conclusion misinterprets changes in the forms of social relations that are developing in response to new social and technical environments with a nostalgia for romanticised pre-industrial institutions of close, if not kin-based, affiliation (cf. Sudjic 1992, 281). This situation is predicted by Baudrillard (1994, 6): "when the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a plethora of truth, of secondary objectivity, and authenticity." The purposeful paths of context that are constructed by the 'builders' of cyberspace - through web pages and reciprocated linkages - can be misinterpreted, under the influence of this nostalgia, as representations of the identities of those who utilise these linkages. Understanding the presence of identities within a discussion forum on the Internet - or anywhere in cyberspace - needs to be done with the same forms of consideration that are employed for other social spaces - electronically mediated or otherwise. Presence cannot be equated with complicity, to do so would be to construct those with electronic identities as cultural 'dupes' who are socially defined by the 'builders' of the contextual links. Sudjic’s critique of the myth of communities within cities similarly suggests that these arguments fail "to deal with nuances that are involved in the continual movement that is an essential part of urban life..." (Sudjic 1992, 281). The flânerie of cyberspace emphasises the individual, rather than communal or corporate aspects of identity (McBeath & Webb 1997, 250). It is too simplistic, however, to equate flâneurism with the contemporary cyber-'surfer' identity (Soja 1996, 21; cf. Featherstone 1998, 910). These identities represent the ‘information gap’ between the poet-geographer of nineteenth century modernity and the experientially focussed consumer of this century.
The sociality of previous urbanities are, nonetheless, readily transposed, or de-materialised, into indefinite electronically-mediated space. As Barlow suggests the computer "is taking material and making it immaterial" (Slouka 1996, 6). The movement that is suggested by the transition does not necessarily diminish the locus of power away from pre-existent institutional power structures, rather, they may add to their reproduction. As Ostwald (1997, 130) observes, "the urban spaces of the physical world and the virtual world are intricately connected through the notion of community interaction and social formation."
Just as "part of the image is the history of the image", (Boulding in Pocock and Hudson 1978, 23) so too does the artefact of space itself have political and historical meanings. This continued connection to existent forms of power contrasts with the popular emancipatory visions of cyberspace which construct it as a virtual utopia of personal freedoms and individual choice unencumbered by 'real-life'. These visions have primarily been the domain of white middle class men of a privileged generation who can congratulate themselves for profiting from the liberation of (some of) the world from their claimed oppression (Boyer 1996, 18; Stipp 1996, 159; Woolley 1997, 133). As a realm of popular culture, the discourse of dot.com marketing coarsely dichotomises the participants of cyberspace into traditional broadcast media roles of audience member or producer. In the growing sociological and even journalistic literature surrounding this topic this definition is being refined with an examination of the user's engagement with particular tools. The most common perspectives on contemporary cyberspace involve examinations of the Web, ICQ, IRC or email. Much rarer is the consideration of specific cultural or social groups' engagement with each other in cyberspace, an approach that in 'other' spaces might be described as ethnographic. These current understandings of cyberspace are, rather, primarily artefactual. The audience-member is positioned in a relationship with the space of cyberspace through their software, their hardware or both. In the most extreme reductionist analysis, users are reduced to an ontological existence as the "servo-mechanisms of the technology" (Kroker 1992, 69). Human presence is merely required, in this context, to manipulate software and to shift essential data between individual computers. It is not a coincidence that Mumford (1987, 624) also observed of city life that, "in this disordered environment only machines retain some of the attributes of life, while human beings are progressively reduced to a bundle of reflexes, without self-starting impulses or autonomous goals." Cyberspace within these perspectives is reduced to a technology of new media and perhaps little more than a complex phone system. It also prohibits the consideration of any social practices that are conducted 'inside' cyberspace. These analytical perspectives are formed as a consequence of the current level of technological development that enables the construction of the Web-as-cyberspace and are clearly historically and culturally specific. However, while the Web-as-cyberspace continues to generally fascinate and seduce educational technologists - through, for example, the encouragement and implementation of 'flexible learning' strategies - more critical engagements are discouraged or even trivialised. Slouka (1996, 25) observes a similar evangelical theme in Michael Benedikt's earlier cyberspace work by claiming that "communication was not his aim. Conversion was." Wertheim (1999, 285-286) charts a history for the utopianism of cyberspace that precedes the development of recent technologies and draws heavily upon the Judeo-Christian worldview, "but if techno-utopianism is by no means a new phenomenon, among cyberspace enthusiasts it reaches a new crescendo."
The utopianism which continues to surround the articulation of cyberspace demonstrates that the hold of Gibsonian over Barlovian cyberspace still persists today. The redemptive and emancipatory claims which are made about the future of cyberspace are of an intensity that cannot currently be experienced or described except as a development of fiction and in the social imaginary. Inklings, however, of this future cyberspace also found in the semi-detached encapsulating 'realities' of video game arcades and shopping malls. Baudrillard's comment on the rise of simulation over 'reality' can be directly applied to all these efforts. "It is the map that precedes the territory...that engenders the territory" (Baudrillard 1994, 1). This position supports an artefactual sense of cyberspace that is demarcated, bounded and a locus for differentiated experiences.
A dramatic example of this increasing blurring of reality and simulation and of the urban qualities of cyberspace occurred at everquest.com. As a multi-player fantasy game it does not distinguish itself from similar offerings in this genre. What has become controversial for the players and creators of Everquest is the rise of 'item farming'. As with many fantasy games, a player's journey through the Everquest continent is about acquiring useful items and building up their characters' skill. Individual areas that have been cleared of items and opponents eventually regenerate their offerings. It is this aspect of the gameplay that has allowed individual players to conduct 'item farming' - continually returning to the same area within the game to collect the same regenerated items. More entrepreneurial players have then taken their farmed items and reportedly offered them for sale through on-line auction sites such as ebay.com. This made it possible for other - usually less experienced - players to buy their way into higher levels of the game with 'real' rather than 'symbolic' dollars. In extreme cases, whole characters - which encapsulate the accumulated skills of the seller - were available from auction sites. This trading of identities and their role in a particular space of social interaction problematises many of the conventional relationships between individuals and the spaces they meet in - "You are information, you are the social, you are the event, you are involved…" (Baudrillard 1994, 29).
The novelty of these activities lies in the fact that the game does not restrict its players to merely symbolic exchanges but enables the attribution of 'conventional' economic exchange value to virtual artefacts. This is not just an 'e-commerce' extension of physical commodity exchange by virtual means but a method for enabling objects which have utility only in a virtual world to become real-world commodities.
A more planned interaction between simulation and 'reality' is also available at heat.net. In this multi-player game players gain 'degrees' for their participation within various games. In a cyberspace echo of 'frequent flyer points', heat.net players can exchange their degrees for heat.net products. However, the possibility to exchange 'degrees' for goods is not restricted to the heat.net website. Other site's also recognise heat.net degrees as tokens of exchange and will accept them in return for their own merchandise. This wider acceptability effectively makes the heat.net 'degree' a form of currency.
The evidence of two gaming sites, everquest and heat.net, do not represent a contemporary exchange 'reality' that is acknowledged in parallel consequence with the fluctuations of national and international currencies. They are, however, indicators of a cyberspace future that must be considered possible. Irrespective of these futures, the capacity to move transparently from the gameplay of medieval fantasy to an ebay.com auction highlights the extent to which simulated 'publicness' and other kinds of market or image-mediated 'publicness' become contiguous. What becomes emphasised, is not the 'type' of space in which activities occur, but the nature of the interactions that occur within that space. What does however, separate the two environments of exchange is convenience. Were these domains to be be commensurated Everquest users could take their farmed items to a more conventional auction house and heat.net 'degrees' could potentially be accepted at the neighbourhood grocery store but without the hyper-convenience that cyberspace brings this seems unlikely.
Electronically-mediated spaces as cultural imperialism
As a technology of globalisation, computer-mediated communication is central to the 'cultural logic' of late capitalism. The protocols, software, hardware, architectures and languages of the Internet reproduce forms of cultural standardisation which abjure less mediated constructions of culture. The Internet purveys its own peculiar forms of cultural production, which relate to ideals of mobility, global reach and cross-contextuality which, by their mere existence, reduce the impact of other cultural heritages upon the development of the Internet.
As cultural constructions, these standards adjudicate on the range of acceptable technical interpretations within a specific social framework which, in turn, support specific cultural frameworks and experiences of cyberspace. This support maintains the existent beneficial relationships that late capitalism and institutions of power have with contemporary cyberspace. Such an intimate relationship promotes cultural homogeneity and presents barriers to the harbouring of difference. Cyberspace, in this way, perpetuates the governance of cultural practices. Reducing cultural practices to technical standards allows transgression to be excised through the inability of a computer to accommodate a 'foreign' format. Differences, where they can occur, are readily assimilable in this model providing only momentary glimpses of ‘otherness’. A reading of the Internet that pursues these issues would position technical standards, de facto or otherwise, which have been primarily advanced by United States-based commercial interests and standards organisations as global colonising agents. These standards confirm the privilege of particular interest groups to the exclusion of others. As an example of this development, the US-based Netscape was applauded for providing Japanese, German and Spanish versions of its Web browser. Little consideration was made for the possibility that indigenous Japanese, German or Spanish information technology companies may have already produced Web browsers that not only use the appropriate language but also do so in a more culturally sensitive manner.
In a similar manner, many of the Web's largest search engines/portals offer the capacity to query the Web on a country-by-country basis. These sites' capacity for self-promotion has seen them applauded for supposedly widening the scope of, and access to, the Web. As with the Netscape example, however, this largely self-congratulatory fervour completely disregards local efforts, of which there are many examples, that offer more thorough databases, better interfaces and faster (for those in the country in question) access. These usually poorly funded efforts, however, increasingly compete with major US portal data providers such as Inktomi and Google, as well as the Norwegian company - Fast, who franchise their databases for use on other websites internationally. The parallel bid-for-position trend in the development of search engine technology further restricts the cultural diversity of contemporary cyberspace that is visible from a Web search engine. As the highest bidder for search terms is promoted to the top of the search results other sites that cannot sustain this type of commercial competition - including education institutions - fall off the end of the results. This system effectively promotes larger corporations with large pools of accessible 'data' and healthy marketing budgets to the top of the results list. Searching for 'green technology', for example, is more likely to produce links to the newest Ford or Nissan that employs the latest engine design rather than a link to a local conservation group. Bid-for-position solidifies the corporate aspects and corporatisation of the contemporary Web-as-cyberspace.
The cultural imperialism of contemporary cyberspace extends beyond its specific implementation to the assumptions built into the founding principles of the available services. The World Wide Web, for example, is premised upon a universal, or at least commonly understood, use of hypertext. Yet, even for a speaker of English as a first language, hypertext breaks the flow of a specific text into smaller - but potentially meaningless - idea chunks (cf. Cubitt 1998, 6; Featherstone 1998, 909). The concept of hypertext is clearly suited to specific types of technical documents that are neither widely read nor popularly understood. The majority of services currently utilised through the Internet were originally developed to facilitate the dissemination and exchange of 'professional' communication. This heritage impacts on the experience of the Web-as-cyberspace in a variety of ways. Email was never intended to have attachments, the easiest web page to create is a formal report. The system that allows one computer on the Internet to locate another one could never scale to handle 'everyone' being on the Web and none of these services were ever designed for the multi-megabyte transfer of digitised movies.
Each Internet service is an artefact of the contemporary culture that both developed and requires it. Inevitably, these are urban cultures. Hyper-convenient communications - as is offered by email - is a requirement of 'urban' lifestyles and workplaces where both the size and number of daily communications cannot be handled solely through 'face-to-face' methods. Similarly, interactive 'entertainment' on the internet is shaped by urban metaphors and methods of interaction as well as the practicality of necessarily limiting the number of players from a potentially global range of participants. Increasingly specific game scenarios - and entertainment options more generally - are needed in order to differentiate one 'generic' game from its competitors. Yet with this differentiation the audience for any particular game is potentially narrowed to the extent that a global circuit of players is necessary to provide sufficient competition opportunities.
Perhaps one of the most interesting responses to this perceived imperialism has occurred in the claimed sovereign state of Sealand (Markoff 2000). The ailing prince of this small former defence installation located seven miles off the coast of England recently passed control of the government - and all of the available real estate - to a privacy-orientated data storage provider called HavenCo. The company claims that they are only subject to the laws of Sealand and, as a consequence, are able to offer high security data encryption services to their clients. HavenCo's approach is, at least in part, a response to the attempts by various Western governments - including the United States and Australia - and multinational corporations to exert traditional forms of control over cyberspace in a broad and ad hoc manner. It is somewhat of an ironic counter-factual to the argument that cyberspace has a role in constituting urban space that its 'reliability' as a place of identification needs to be underwritten in such a remote and barren venue.
The various additions to older services, such as email attachments, and the introduction of newer ones, such as ICQ, do not alter the internet-as-cyberspace but, rather, intensify the experience of this space. While the imperialism experienced through the use of a particular internet service may appear subtle, it needs to be considered as part of the entire complex of cultural factors that delineate cyberspace as urban or otherwise.
Cyberspace as Social Space
The suggestion that cyberspace is a consensual hallucination reflects a social understanding and cultural basis for it that is not premised upon a particular 'brand' of high-technology. Similarly, the development of cyberspace is not solely, as is suggested in Cyberspace for Beginners (Buick & Jevtic 1995), the history of computer technology but is, instead, found in the development and interpretation of the social imaginary and the responses that this generates to current social and cultural conditions. The changing form of these socially imagined constructions and continually shifting social and political climates chart the 'invention' of cyberspace. Community is also described in discussions of urban change and urbanisation, such as those of Wirth, as an identity lost among 'impersonal, superficial, transitory' social relationships and which, for some, must be reasserted in this urban terrain (Wirth 1969, 153; Nottridge 1972, 38; McBeath & Webb 1997, 249). The assertion and claim for a unifying community in these early nodes of electronic interaction presented an ideology that stressed 'their' cyberspace as a wild and unexplored place. The language was of homesteading and it perhaps not surprising that John Perry Barlow's cyber-rights organisation is called the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The emphasis upon community was drawn from American white settlement history and, particularly, the settlement of the American West (Adams 1997, 160; Mitchell 1995, 109). The theorisation was almost as rough as the space, "Cyberspace...is presently inhabited almost exclusively by mountain men, desperados and vigilantes, kind of a rough bunch...to make it inhabitable by ordinary settlers. You know, move the homesteaders in." (Barlow in Woolley 1992, p.123). In such a sparsely populated and under-articulated space there was a need for co-operation and mutual support which outweighed the consideration of specific identities (Rheingold 1995, p.13). Mitch Kapor, the other founder of the EFF, has driven these associations further with a political call-to-arms by claiming that, "...cyberspace seems to be shaping up exactly like Thomas Jefferson would have wanted: founded on the primacy of individual liberty and a commitment to pluralism, diversity and community." (Kapor in Nunes 1995, p.323). However, just as a rising population in the United States and the arrival of urbanity permitted the reassertion of identities beyond that of the coverall and covering 'homesteader', so too 'cyberspace' has become more politically and socially diverse. Inward looking and affinal intranet technologies and the prevalence of passworded and privileged access regimes on the Web all reassert bound identities that are defined by the forms of exclusion that are practiced. In the majority of cases, the ability to enter an intranet and share the available information affirms a corporate, work-place identity.
The analogy of the uncharted space of settlement also reflects the technological spacelessness of cyberspace. The task of electronic homesteading was to explore and occupy unclaimed machine space that existed infinitely. However, "looking in" on these claims provides a contraposition to these cultural constructions. Cyberspace and the "Internet collapse space into one 'hyperpotential point,' which implodes all concept of distance, spacing and separation." (Nunes 1995, p.316). The expanses of unoccupied territory 'seen' by early electronic homesteaders were consequent upon the social shaping of the space in a process similar to the one that constructed the Australian continent in the eighteenth century as terra nullius. Cyberspace is devoid of indigenous inhabitants but the construction of space as a particular type of place is a consequence of the prevailing understandings of the social world of the discoverers, who are also numbered among its creators. The impact and power of colonialism in the development of industrial capitalism presents an historical precedent that mirrors many of the actions and claims for these latter-day discoveries. The focus of discovery has however shifted during the intervening periods of colonialism. The discoverers and creators of cyberspace now start with a map that becomes the territory for occupation.
Cyberspace is ‘Real’
Relating cyberspace to the 'urban' is not simply a clever language game of analogy and signification. Instead the two concepts and experiences present the increasingly intertwined development of late capitalism and modernity. This development, which emphasises the contradictions and complexities of modernity, is a harbinger of globalisation and the homogenisation of cultures. Cyberspace is 'built' around existing conceptualisations of the social world - of urban space and the social imaginary. The development of cyberspace is not premised solely upon the achievement of a particular techno-economic level of social development but also requires a previous articulation in the social imaginary of what can be described, with the benefit of hindsight, as pre-cyberspaces. Pre-cyberspaces that are found in literature, mythology, science, religion or language shape the manner by which cyberspace is mapped and consequently made a 'reality' (Wertheim 1999, 30). The homesteading visions found in the early descriptions of cyberspace developed as critiques to the perceived loss of community engendered by urbanism. They were however, only brief precursors to subsequent urban development in cyberspace itself. Increasingly, with the persistence of cyberspace and its significance as a place in which identity can be constructed, it has been brought into a relationship of reciprocal feedback with other urban space (Burrows 1997, p.238). Baudrillard’s charting of simulacra emphasises the complexity of this relationship,
The imaginary was the alibi for the real, in a world dominated by the reality principle. Today it is the real that has become the alibi of the model, in a world controlled by the principle of simulation. And paradoxically, it is the real that has become our true utopia - but a utopia that is no longer in the realm of the possible, that can only be dreamt of as one would dream of a lost object. (Baudrillard 1994, 122-123).
The practices, exchanges and artefacts, however, that are found in cyberspace cannot be construed as representative or meaningful of a generalised provenance, or a single space, requiring instead more sensitive, particular and differentiated readings. The suggestion that all urban space or cyberspace can be described with ‘meta-narratives’ and generalisations should also be treated cautiously. To do so in the context of cyberspace is to fetishise the artefacts of technology and ignore the variety and versions of human dimension in what is a socially constructed and culturally diverse space.
Contemporary cyberspace is a particular 'moment' in the lengthy history of urban space. Its current constitution is quite particularly defined as a consequence of the multiple influences that shaped, and continue to shape, it. We currently experience a largely corporatised web-based cyberspace that has been driven by speculative business models and visions of urban utopia. This produces a heavily populated environment that alludes to, but does not quite achieve, the promise of hyper-convenience. More significantly, contemporary cyberspace contributes to the shifting and realignment of social boundaries. The importance assigned to physical and geographic boundaries in traditional accounts of the social world must increasingly share their priority with the contextual role of specific spaces themselves. It is human activity, not space that is important in any contemporary urban environment.
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