Cyberculture




A neologism derived from a neologism, cyberculture welds together the ‘‘cyber ’’ from cyberspace with ‘‘culture.’’ It is important to understand what happens when cyber and culture are brought together, and in order to work toward that understanding we need to begin by saying a few words about cyberspace (and some related things). The term cyberspace was famously coined by cyberpunk novelist William Gibson in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, to describe the imaginary ‘‘datascape’’ which his characters entered by ‘‘jacking in’’ – connecting their consciousness directly to networked computers. The well known and often quoted formulation in Neuromancer runs like this:




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. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding. (Gibson 1984: 67)

This vivid description offered a powerful fictional portent for the future, a future of unthinkable complexity and constellations of data. However, the computing science realities of what was then emerging as cyberspace were little known to Gibson; nevertheless, the term and the way cyberspace was depicted in Neuromancer have had a profound influence upon its development and its representation – an influence Gibson did not foresee when he cobbled the word together. As he put it:

Assembled word cyberspace from small and readily available components of language. Neologic spasm: the primal act of pop poetics. Preceded any concept whatever. Slick and hollow awaiting received meaning. All I did: folded words as taught. Now other words accrete in the interstices. (Gibson 1991: 27)

Other words have indeed accreted in the interstices of Gibson’s cyberspace – including cyberculture. Moreover, cyberspace came to be the preferred term for scholars writing about particular configurations of media and communications technologies, most especially the Internet (though others prefer an expanded definition that encompasses other realms of digital technology and digital culture; see Bell 2001). Cyberspace became a hot topic across a range of academic disciplines in the 1990s, as more and more researchers turned their attention to the many ways that the Internet was transforming ever greater parts of people’s lives. Through the course of the 1990s, research and writing on cyberspace began to branch and specialize, and there was something of a publishing boom. Aside from computer science research, a large body of work emerged which focused on the social and cultural aspects of cyberspace. These ‘‘cyberspace studies’’ have morphed over time, particularly as scholars have brought ideas and theories from other disciplines – psychology, sociology, cultural studies, or geography, for instance – into con tact with the Internet and related technologies.

In terms of the subject area we might call ‘‘cyberculture studies,’’ David Silver (2000) has tracked the development of cyberculture as a field of study across the 1990s, identifying three distinct phases. His typology offers a useful way of introducing the trajectory of these diverse studies in this important decade, during which the foundations of cyberculture studies were solidified. Silver names the first substantive phase ‘‘popular cyberculture,’’ characterized by journalistic writing, personal accounts of being online, popular history publications about the development of the Internet, and large numbers of ‘‘how to’’ books helping people make use of computers and networks. Accounts from this phase tend to be descriptive, often experiential, but are split in terms of how their authors view the impacts that the Internet is having on people’s lives. At the most extreme ends of this divide are what Silver calls techno futurist writings, which tend to be overwhelmingly optimistic, even utopian, about the promises of online life. Journalists writing in new US magazines like Wired or Mondo 2000 typify technofuturism for Silver, as do writers describing cyberspace as a new frontier ripe for pioneers to colonize (see, e.g., Rheingold 1993). Writing from a polar opposite, profoundly dystopian, perspective are the ‘‘Neo Luddites,’’ who see in cyberspace multiple threats to human existence (see, e.g., Sale 1995). Of course, most writing during this phase falls somewhere in between these ‘‘dystopian rants or utopian raves’’ (Silver 2000: 20). Nevertheless, this fundamental binary divide – is cyberspace good or bad? – continues to structure many scholars’ thinking; indeed, later periods in the development of cyberculture studies revisit this in their own terms, and rants and raves continue to appear from both sides. However, as the field of study has evolved, it has refined both the theoretical and methodological tools brought to analyze the Internet, as well as focusing in on more specific domains and effects of cyberspace.

The second phase of cyberculture scholar ship is called by Silver simply ‘‘cyberculture studies,’’ in recognition of a shift away from populist accounts (though these continue to be published) toward a more scholarly approach to understanding the Internet. Crucially, two major focuses were brought center stage in this phase, both of which are concerned with the relationship between online and offline life: studies of community and studies of identity. Here we see one way in which cyber and culture are brought together: by exploring how some of the key concerns of cultural studies (such as identity or community) are transformed in cyberspace. Silver rightly identifies the texts here as Rheingold’s The Virtual Community (1993) and Turkle’s Life on the Screen (1995) – these are the ‘‘twin pillars’’ of second phase cyberculture studies (Silver 2000: 23), hugely influential books whose impact can be felt to this day. Turkle’s book is an important illustration of the second way that cyber and culture are brought together in this phase: the use of cultural theory to think about cyberspace. In her exploration of online identity, Turkle draws heavily on psychoanalytic, poststructuralist, and postmodern theories of self identity, which help her to understand how online identities are fractured and multiple. Other scholars also began to bring their own favorite theories and theorists into cyber space, leading to a productive period in which cyberculture studies diversified: sociologists brought social network approaches to understanding online communities, for example, while geographers brought theories of space and place into contact with cyberspace and feminist scholars introduced ideas of cyberfeminism (see, e.g., Plant 1997; Crang et al. 1999; Smith & Kollock 1999). At the same time, there was also a diversification in terms of research methods used to study cyberculture, as researchers brought their own methodological traditions and innovations into cyberspace: qualitative and quantitative methods, linguistic and textual techniques, and so on.

Silver notes that studies produced in this phase tend to be more positive and optimistic about cyberspace, seeing productive new possibilities for identity and community online. However, many accounts rest on a problematic separation of online and offline (sometimes called ‘‘real life’’ or ‘‘real world’’) experiences – another dualism which continues to haunt many studies of cyberculture to this day. Never theless, this second phase marks a consolidation of academic cyberculture studies marked by diverse theories and methods, intersections with diverse disciplines, and a gathering momentum in terms of both volume and growing sophistication of published material. We could say that this phase marks the beginning of something of a discipline of cyberculture studies itself, in fact, as degree courses, conferences, and networks blossomed in academia.

In the latter part of the 1990s, a third phase is identified by Silver. This he labels ‘‘critical cyberculture studies.’’ Marked by continuing growth and diversification, Silver tracks four themes which rose to dominance in this period (for an overview of the breadth of this phase, see Bell & Kennedy 2000). The first is in part a counter to the problematic online/offline split of phase two, and is concerned with contextualizing cyberspace and cyberculture, in terms of how economic, social, and cultural interactions occur simultaneously in cyberspace and in ‘‘real life.’’ Empirical work bridging online and off line field sites – such as Miller and Slater’s (2000) ethnographic study of Internet use in Trinidad – has been particularly important in bringing back together the two worlds split apart in earlier studies. Detailed empirical work has also performed a valuable hype busting function, replacing the rants and raves of earlier phases with more balanced, empirically grounded studies.

The second theme of critical cyberculture studies picked out by Silver focuses on discursive constructions of cyberspace – the stories we tell about it. This means unpacking the ways that cyberspace is imagined and represented across a wide range of cultural texts, from cyberpunk novels and movies to Internet service providers’ adverts or pop songs (see Bell 2001). It also involves exploring the dominant discourses via which the Internet is talked about, whether the frontier mythology mentioned earlier or the ‘‘gold rush’’ discourse that provoked and sustained the dot.com explosion. Thirdly, Silver notes an increasing emphasis on questions of access and inequality – another valuable dose of hype busting, since it replaces the discourse of information freedom and the Internet’s democratic ‘‘worldwideness’’ with studies highlighting patterns of uneven development, issues of marginalization, and barriers to access to technology at all levels, from the global to the individual. Access questions bring into focus the extent to which axes of social identity such as race, class, gender, and sexuality are either reproduced or challenged in cyberspace, with studies concluding both that cyberspace reinforces existing divides as well as bringing in new ones, and that it can provide space for new and productive kinds of identity work to take place (see, e.g., Nakamura 2002).

Finally, Silver notes an increase in studies exploring design and visual culture aspects of cyberspace, particularly around the idea of the interface: how cyberspace is represented to us on the screens of our computers – a neat return to Gibson’s original formulation. Work on interfaces has also returned to themes introduced in earlier phases, such as the role of web pages in expressing self identity, and the role of participatory design in facilitating online com munities. Crucially for Silver, critical cyberculture studies finally acknowledges the messy commingling of online and offline life and experience: ‘‘cyberculture is best comprehended as a series of negotiations that take place both online and off. . . . In the new millennium, it is the task of cyberculture scholars to acknowledge, reveal and critique these negotiations to better understand what takes place within the wires’’ (Silver 2000: 30).

Having described Silver’s useful brief history of cyberculture studies, attention can now be turned to an essay which attempts to define a program for cultural studies of the Internet, Jonathan Sterne’s ‘‘Thinking the Internet: Cultural Studies versus the Millennium’’ (1999). This is an important article in that it attempts to lay out a specifically cultural studies approach to cyberspace, therefore productively exemplifying Silver’s critical cyberculture phase. It provides a road map of what cultural studies as a discipline uniquely brings to analysis of cyberspace, urging scholars to ‘‘move beyond the commonplaces and cliches of Internet scholarship and [to] reconceptualize it in intellectually challenging and politically vital terms’’ (Sterne 1999: 260). It is, perhaps, in the last part of that statement – about being politically vital – that Sterne’s essay is most insightful; he reminds scholars of the deep political commitment at the heart of the cultural studies project, arguing that if it is (or should be) about anything, then cultural studies is about culture and power. Any critical study of the Internet should therefore have at its heart an analysis of culture and power since, as Poster (2001: 2) suggests, ‘‘without a concept of culture, the study of new media incorporates by default the culture of the dominant institutions in society’’ – the state and the market.

To advance his argument, Sterne places emphasis on the need to understand and critically analyze the politics of knowledge production (asking what is at stake in studying the Internet, and how new knowledge of cyber space can advance emancipatory politics), the need to be acutely aware of context (the manifold relationships between people, place, practices, and things), and the need to produce a theory of articulation (how things are connected together). Such a theory would have as its central concerns ‘‘(a) what counts in a cultural study of the Internet and (b) how to think about and represent the Internet’’ (Sterne 1999: 263, emphasis in original). Finally, and echoing points made earlier, Sterne reinforces the necessity of a commitment to theory as a way of finding new and more effective ways to describe and analyze cyberspace and cyberculture.

Making a point resonant with Silver’s discussion of critical cyberculture studies, Sterne calls for a move beyond the simplistic online/ offline (or virtual/real) split which has for so long impaired analyses of cyberspace, toward a conceptualization that emphasizes understanding the place of the Internet in everyday life. Equally importantly, Sterne argues for the need to reconnect the Internet to other media, and to techniques of analyzing other media. This is particularly crucial in the current period, given the increasing convergence of new (and old) media. As new digital devices such as MP3 players and palm pilots become more and more ubiquitous, and as existing media are repurposed for the digital age (mobile phones, for example), so the idea of separating out the Internet as an object of study becomes redundant. At the same time, the uses to which we may now put our computers – from listening to the radio to editing home movies to shopping – calls for a broader rethinking of what it is we are studying when we are studying cyberculture.

This last point is worth exploring in a bit more detail. Some researchers have suggested that we need to track the myriad sites where we encounter digital culture beyond the narrow emphasis on the computer screen: cyberspace exists in all kinds of places, from CGI heavy movies to imaging technologies used in biomedicine (see Bell 2001). Moreover, the kinds of contact that we have with these new technologies is equally varied: we may be transformed into data and lodged in databases thanks to the manifold technologies of data collection that monitor our habits and routines (from our shopping practices to our workplace productivity); equally, we may have particularly intimate relationships with devices that become part of our everyday lives, even part of our bodies – leading some scholars to theorize the body– technology interface by using ideas of the cyborg or the post human (see Gray 1995; Badmington 2000).

Cyberculture must be about critically analyzing all of these sites, and the discourses and representations that surround them. In part that means attending to the mundane interactions we have with technologies such as word processors or console games; but it also requires an awareness of the cutting edge of new and future technologies, such as nanotechnology, artificial life, and artificial intelligence. To fully encompass all that cyberculture means is no easy task, therefore. While some scholars have called for junking the term cyberculture studies in favor of newer, more inclusive terms like web studies or new media studies (or even new media cultures; see Marshall 2004), others continue to see valuable mileage in working with and through cyberculture as a ‘‘contested and evolving discourse [whose] discussants include activists, politicians, computer geeks, social scientists, science fiction writers, digital artists, etc., all of whom are involved in the creation of new concepts and ideas’’ (Bell et al. 2004: xiii). To that end, the concept is still very much alive, indeed teeming with life, and we need the open, even promiscuous, approach to theory and method, as well as the political commitment, of critical cyberculture studies to continue to engage creatively and critically with the past, present, and future of cyberculture.

References:

  1. Badmington, N. (Ed.) (2000) Posthumanism. Palgrave, Basingstoke.
  2. Bell, D. (2001) An Introduction to Cybercultures. Routledge, London.
  3. Bell, D. & Kennedy, B. (Eds.) (2000) The Cybercul tures Reader. Routledge, London.
  4. Bell, D., Loader, B., Pleace, N., & Schular, D. (2004) Cyberculture: The Key Concepts. Routledge, London.
  5. Crang, M., Crang, P., & May, J. (Eds.) (1999) Virtual Geographies: Bodies, Space and Relations. Routledge, London.
  6. Gibson, W. (1984) Neuromancer. Grafton, London.
  7. Gibson, W. (1991) Academy Leader. In: Benedikt, M. (Ed.), Cyberspace: First Steps. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 27-30.
  8. Gray, C. (Ed.) (1995) The Cyborg Handbook. Routledge, London.
  9. Marshall, P. D. (2004) New Media Cultures. Arnold, London.
  10. Miller, D. & Slater, D. (2000) The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Berg, Oxford.
  11. Nakamura, L. (2002) Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. Routledge, London.
  12. Plant, S. (1997) Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + the New Technoculture. 4th Estate, London.
  13. Poster, M. (2001) What’s the Matter with the Internet? University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  14. Rheingold, H. (1993) The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Addison- Wesley, Reading, MA.
  15. Sale, K. (1995) Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and their War on the Industrial Revolution Lessons for the Computer Age. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.
  16. Silver, D. (2000) Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards: Cyberculture Studies, 1990 2000. In: Gauntlett, D. (Ed.), Web. Studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age. Arnold, London, pp. 19-30.
  17. Smith, M. & Kollock, P. (Eds.) (1999) Communities in Cyberspace. Routledge, London.
  18. Sterne, J. (1999) Thinking the Internet: Cultural Studies versus the Millennium. In: Jones, S. (Ed.), Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net. Sage, London, pp. 257-87.
  19. Turkle, S. (1995) Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Touchstone, New York.

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