Monday, June 16, 2008

The geography of "cyberspace"

The first time I used the internet was during my freshman year of high school, in 1994, when I walked across the football field to use Bonny Eagle Middle School's new computer labs and "surf the web," as they called it back then. I didn't know what URLs were or how to run searches, so my browsing was limited to following chains of links on some of the first web pages: from an MIT student's page, to the Mentos home page (one of the first commercial advertisement web sites, I think), to a web site of exploding Twinkie experiments that I thought was really funny.

In hindsight, we clearly had no idea what the internet would become, or even really what it was good for. The Internet seemed so strange, in fact, that we actually assigned it a completely new geography: "cyberspace," "the information superhighway," etcetera. We made up terms that defined it as a strange sort of parallel universe, because generally speaking, the stuff on "cyberspace" had little to do with what was in real space.

Now, of course, things are completely different. Lots of people have figured out that the internet is a great way to publish and share information, or to create and manage groups of people, for practically no cost at all. I just finished reading a great book by Clay Shirky called Here Comes Everybody, which details some of the remarkable things that the internet has enabled, and that we sometimes take for granted.

For instance, we now use the web to convene clubs, to read the news, to stay in touch with old classmates. We use it to conduct commerce with each other. And we use it for political activism and to blow the whistle on regressive government bureaucracies. In other words, the internet isn't a separate geography anymore: it's strongly integrated with real life, and it's made a lot of formerly difficult things cheap and easy to do.

Shirky's book struck me with this fact several times, but I'm particularly fond of this passage about the fading geography of "cyberspace":
"The idea of cyberspace made sense when the population of the internet had a few million users; in that world social relaions online really were separate from offline ones, because the people you would meet online were different from the people you would meet offline, and these worlds would rarely overlap. But that separation was an accident of partial adoption... In the developed world [today] the experience of the average twenty-five-year-old is one of substantial overlap betrween online and offline friends and colleagues. The overlap is so great, in fact, that both the word and the concept of 'cyberspace' have fallen into disuse... our electronic networks are becoming deeply embedded in real life."

Cyberspace is disappearing: the internet, e-mail, and all the rest of the "information superhighway" are no longer a separate space, but an expansion of real space.

In fact, it may be even more than that. In the course of reading this passage, I thought to myself: "it's true, when's the last time you heard the term 'cyberspace'"? Then I thought to myself, what if there were some way to measure the frequency of the use of the word "cyberspace" through the years?

As it turns out, there is a way to measure the frequency of use for the word "cyberspace," or any other word or phrase, and it's on the internet. Google Trends charts out how often people have searched for various words or phrases on Google over time. And here is the trend graph for the word "cyberspace":

In decline, sure enough.

But what strikes me as especially eerie about this is the fact that, in a flash of what seemed like insight, I had a question - "how has the use of the word 'cyberspace' changed over time?" - and a related idea - a statistical tool to measure the use of words over time - and to my surprise, both the idea and the answer to my question already existed on the internet.

Suddenly 'cyberspace' seems again like a strange and fantastic geography - one that contains and expresses my thoughts and ideas before I have them. It reminded me of a concept from philosophical mathematics: the set of all possible thoughts and ideas.1

Dr. Darryl Macer, a New Zealand bioethicist, has proposed that science should attempt to map this collection of possible human thoughts - a sort of "ideome" project to follow the human genome project. Such a collection is probably infinitely large and has only been talked about in theoretical terms until very recently. But as more and more people use and contribute their thoughts and ideas to the internet, it strikes me that the ideome project is already well underway.

1Jorge Luis Borges also thought of this stuff and wrote about it in his short story "The Library of Babel," which was published in 1941. The Library of the title contains all possible books, printed with every possible combination of letters, spaces, and punctuation. Like the Internet, the Library contains mostly nonsense - but because it is complete, it must also contain the works of Shakespeare (in every language), a directory of the Library's English-language books, books written in code, and every other great work of literature from the past, present, or future.

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