Visions of Cyberspace

Yousuf Dhamee

Cyberspace, to a large extent, still exists only in our own imaginations. As such, the reality of the experience and how its possibilities will take form remains largely an object of speculation. Such speculation has provided vastly differing visions of the future, for contemporary technicians, theorists and artists disagree how computer technology will change our lives. The forecasts neatly divide into the dystopian world forecasted by many cyberpunk authors and the stylized, efficient world of the theorists.

The dichotomy between utopian and dystopian visions manifests itself most clearly in issues such as the effect that cyberspace will have on class relations in the future. William J. Mitchell, for instance, claims that the Net provides a forum where a speaker can express himself or herself clearly without exposing gender, race, or class information that may prejudice the listener. He also suggests that the Net can help eliminate potentially damaging information regarding a speaker's geographical position. "But the Net's despatialization of interaction destroys the geocode's key. There is no such thing as a better address, and you cannot attempt to define yourself by being seen in the right places in the right company." He relies on the hope that public libraries, schools and similar institutions will eventually provide computer access to the majority of the adult population. However, Mitchell does acknowledge that even now certain e-mail addresses carry significant information. For instance, he grants that e-mail addresses ending in "" or "" carry hints of social prestige or intellectual respectability. Although he points out that this information can be hidden or blocked (if the sender/speaker feels it is to his advantage) he fails to consider the fact that withholding this data may cause the listeners to harbor suspicions regarding the social status of the speaker. It is difficult to imagine a world that cannot recognize the importance of "" It seems that the powerful and well respected will always have a means of displaying their titles, while the best the masses can hope for is anonymity.

The first of Mitchell's points that Neal Stephenson brings into question in Snowcrash regards the possibility of unlimited access to the Metaverse, which can be seen as an extension of the current Net. (Although this world of the Metaverse offers an opportunity at embodiment, the principles of on-line access to information and entertainment make it similar to the World Wide Web or Mainframe.) Stephenson points out that,

In the Real World-planet Earth, Reality-- there are somewhere between six and ten billion people. At any given time, most of them are making mud bricks or fieldstripping their AK-47s. Perhaps a billion of them have enough money to own a computer. . . Of these billion computer owners, maybe a quarter of them actually bother to own computers, and a quarter of them have machines that are powerful enough to handle the Street protocol. That makes for about sixty million people who can be on the Street at any given time. . . Put in a sign or building on the street and the hundred million richest, hippest, best connected people on earth will see it every day of their lives.

When wealth determines access to information, many of the democratizing possibilities the Web may hold are lost. Complications regarding computer literacy further confound the issue, and increasingly complicated computers or programs might put the "amateurs" out of the game completely. Stephenson also foresees the possibility that differing degrees of technological capability will become indicators of class (and thereby race and gender.) In Snowcrash all avatars are not created equal. It quickly becomes clear that better, more expensive computers can create sharper visual images than cheaper equipment and that patrons of the Street can quickly tell who has money or clout by the sharpness of their visual representation. For instance, those who jack in at public libraries are immediately recognized by their blurry, black-and-white avatars. As technology develops, it seems likely that class differentiation on the Net will become an issue. Snowcrash finds Hiro recognizing that two avatars out on a cyberdate come from vastly different social groups. Even if, at some future date, most people can access the Internet, some will always access it more efficiently or usefully than others.

In Gibson's dystopia financial concerns dictate that multi-national corporations have gained control of the Net. For the common man access to computer technology is limited to Sim/Stim, a means of interaction which leaves the participant passive. Gibson shows how money can lead to control of information technology, which in turn leads to power. In this world the possibilities of the computer reduce to another opiate of the masses, an advanced version of television, and digital technology becomes useful mainly for surveillance, a streamlined version of the panoptican. The text shows how computers could empower the very rich and control the already helpless. The average man, if he exists, is written out of the text, just as he is presumably written out of society by the technological monopoly of big business.

Critical Theory