Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Virtual Enough

 tags: cyberspace, virtual/virtual reality, cyborg, plugged in, the Internet

“A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly” (Gibson 4)

As the seminal work of cyberpunk fiction, Neuromancer is famous for a number of things, including its influence on the technical terminology of today. One of its greatest impacts can be seen through the word “cyberspace”, coined by Gibson in an earlier novelette and popularized through his use of it in Neuromancer. Today, cyberspace has become synonymous with the world of the Internet –  so much so that in the afterword of the 2000 reprint of Neuromancer, Jack Womack suggests that Gibson’s famous line, “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation” (Gibson 51) may have itself encouraged people to turn the then-fledgling Internet into what it had become by the turn of the millennium.
It has been eleven years since Womack asked the question, “What if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?” (Womack 269, original emphasis). And in the space of just over a decade, the world of cyberspace, the world of the World Wide Web, has transformed. In the year 2000 (a year after the release of The Matrix), the internet had only been made available to the general public for six years (Abell), the dot-com bubble had just burst, and the Web was definitely still 1.0.  Writing this post on Blogger, I hardly need to describe the transformation that’s taken place on the web since then. But one transformation seems to be glaringly absent. I’m not jacked in.


“By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. This cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics.” (Haraway 150)
Although I haven’t yet finished looking at the Haraway piece, one of the things that struck me during my first look through was the way in which Haraway seemed to use the cyborg as a theoretical framework through which to explore ideas of identity in a similar way aids or Spock (as in my Star Trek post) could be used to explore the heterogeneity of identity. But so far, cyborgs remain consigned to the realm of the fictional and theoretical.
Other than for medical purposes, we haven’t yet reached the point where our technology flows seamlessly together with our biology (though undeniably the potential is there). Yet an increasingly large portion of our lives takes place online – and that’s not even taking into account websites like Second Life, which aim to provide an entire online, well, life. But we haven’t yet physically plugged in to anything.
There’s another word for the world of cyberspace – the virtual. And while Gibson may have coined the term cyberspace and Jaron Lanier popularized the term virtual reality, the concept goes back years before the creation of computers, much less the internet (Wikipedia traces it back to the 1860s). We experience virtual worlds outside of computers, when we read books or watch films – a concept we’ve touched in class.
We aren’t actually jacked in, and yet novels like Neuromancer seem especially prescient for the internet today. We still haven’t become cyborgs, and yet Haraway’s essay from the end of the 20th century claims that the cyborg is the entity that “gives us our politics”.  We didn’t invent the concept of the virtual, and yet in a world when so many activities take place in cyberspace, it’s a common mistake to think of the term as something recent, something unique to the era of the internet.
We don’t seem to need to be physically plugged in to the technical apparatus for it to have become a seamless part of our lives, for us to be “absorbed” in our work on the internet the same way we are “absorbed” in the pages of a book. We seem to be capable of entering a type of virtual reality without the physical melding of human and machine. Will we ever need the physical fusion? Or is the cyberspace of the internet we already live in virtual enough?

Works Cited

Abell, John C. "Aug. 17, 2000: Internet Crosses 50-Yard Line in U.S. | This Day In Tech | Wired.com." Wired.com. 17 Aug. 2009. Web. 12 Apr. 2011. <http://www.wired.com/thisdayintech/2009/08/dayintech_0817/>.
Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 2000. Print.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-81. Print.
Womack, Jack. "Some Dark Holler." Afterword. Neuromancer. By William Gibson. New York: Ace, 2000. 265-76. Print.


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