: Code 2.0

Chapter 6. Cyberspaces

Chapter 6. Cyberspaces

Ive said we can distinguish the Internet from cyberspace. To make the distinctive form of regulation that is the subject of this part salient, we need to say a bit more about this distinction. The Internet is a medium of communication. People do things on the Internet. Most of those things are trivial, even if important. People pay bills on the Internet, they make reservations at restaurants. They get their news from the Internet. They send news to family members using e-mail or IM chat. These uses are important in the sense that they affect the economy and make life easier and harder for those using the Internet. But theyre not important in the sense that they change how people live. Its very cool that you can buy books with one click at Amazon. I buy tons (maybe literally) of books I wouldnt otherwise have bought. But my life has not been changed by one-click (even if my bank account has). Its been made easier and more literate, but not anything fundamentally different.

Cyberspace, by contrast, is not just about making life easier. It is about making life different, or perhaps better. It is about making a different (or second) life. It evokes, or calls to life, ways of interacting that were not possible before. I dont mean that the interaction is new weve always had communities; these communities have always produced something close to what I will describe cyberspace to have produced. But these cyberspace communities create a difference in degree that has matured into a difference in kind. There is something unique about the interactions in these spaces, and something especially unique about how they are regulated.

Life in cyberspace is regulated primarily through the code of cyberspace. Not regulated in the sense of Part I my point is not that the code makes it easy to know who did what so that penalties can be visited upon those who behaved badly. Regulated in the sense that bars on a prison regulate the movement of a prisoner, or regulated in the sense that stairs regulate the access of the disabled. Code is a regulator in cyberspace because it defines the terms upon which cyberspace is offered. And those who set those terms increasingly recognize the code as a means to achieving the behaviors that benefit them best.

And so too with the Internet. Code on the Internet is also a regulator, and people live life on the Internet subject to that regulation. But my strategy in this chapter is to begin with the more obscure as a way to build recognition about the familiar. Once you see the technique applied to worlds you are unlikely to inhabit, you will recognize the technique applied to the world you inhabit all the time.

Cyberspace is not one place. It is many places. And the character of these many places differ in ways that are fundamental. These differences come in part from differences in the people who populate these places, but demographics alone dont explain the variance. Something more is going on.

Here is a test. Read the following passage, and ask yourself whether the description rings true for you:

I believe virtual communities promise to restore to Americans at the end of the twentieth century what many of us feel was lost in the decades at the beginning of the century a stable sense of community, of place. Ask those whove been members of such a virtual community, and theyll tell you that what happens there is more than an exchange of electronic impulses in the wires. Its not just virtual barn raising. . . . Its also the comfort from others that a man like Phil Catalfo of the WELL can experience when hes up late at night caring for a child suffering from leukemia, and he logs on to the WELL and pours out his anguish and fears. People really do care for each other and fall in love over the Net, just as they do in geographic communities. And that virtual connectedness is a real sign of hope in a nation thats increasingly anxious about the fragmentation of public life and the polarization of interest groups and the alienation of urban existence.[1]

There are two sorts of reactions to talk like this. To those who have been in cyberspace for some time, such talk is extremely familiar. These people have been on different kinds of nets from the start. They moved to the Internet from more isolated communities from a local BBS (bulletin board service), or, as Mike Godwin (the author of the passage) puts it, from a tony address like The WELL. For them the Net is a space for conversation, connections, and exchange a wildly promising location for making life in real space different.

But if you are a recent immigrant to this space (the old-timers call you newbies), or if all you do on the Internet is check your stocks or look up movie times, you are likely to be impatient with talk like this. When people talk about community, about special ways to connect, or about the amazing power of this space to alter lives, you are likely to ask, What is this idea of cyberspace as a place? For newbies, those who have simply e-mailed or surfed the Web, the community of the Net is an odd sort of mysticism. How can anyone think of these pages full of advertisements and spinning icons as a community, or even as a space? To the sober newbie, this just sounds like hype high on java.[2]

Newbies are the silent majority of todays Net.[3] However much one romanticizes the old days when the Net was a place for conversation and exchange, this is not its function for most of its users now. There are exploding communities of bloggers and creativity. But bloggers are still just 3 percent of Internet users; the vast majority of Internet use has no connection to any ideal of community.

Cyberspace has changed in its feel.[4] How it looks, what you can do there, how you are connected there all this has changed. Why it has changed is a complicated question a complete answer to which I cant provide. Cyberspace has changed in part because the people who they are, what their interests are have changed, and in part because the capabilities provided by the space have changed.

But part of the change has to do with the space itself. Communities, exchange, and conversation all flourish in a certain type of space; they are extinguished in a different type of space.[5] My hope is to illuminate the differences between these two environments.

The next sections describe different cyber-places. The aim is to build intuitions about how to think through the differences that we observe. These intuitions, in turn, will help us see something about where cyberspace is moving.

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