Masthead CMC Magazine September 1, 1995 / Page 4


Marshall McLuhan Meets William Gibson in "Cyberspace"

by Michael E. Doherty, Jr. (

The other day, I was skimming several hundred e-mail messages that accumulated while I was offline in August and found myself fascinated by a conversation taking place on chortt-L (Computers in Humanities: Overcoming Resistance to Teaching with Technology), in which colleagues were discussing the particulars of titling a book chapter involving teaching in computer-mediated environments.

One participant wrote, insistently, that the phrase "CMC" would be better replaced with "Cyberspace," as abbreviations are sometimes linguistic barriers. She contended, "with cyberspace in the title, at least our audience will know what we're talking about." It is her latter claim that is most intriguing to CMC professionals. When we say "cyberspace," do we in fact "know what we're talking about"?

Michael Benedikt, author of Cyberspace: First Steps, takes a crack at an over-arching definition in his 1994 book:

"Cyberspace: A word from the pen of William Gibson, science fiction writer, circa 1984 . . . A new universe, a parallel universe created and sustained by the world's computers and communication lines . . . The tablet become a page become a screen become a world, a virtual world . . . A common mental geography, built, in turn, by consensus and revolution, canon and experiment . . . Its corridors form wherever electricity runs with intelligence . . . The realm of pure information . . . "

Cyberspace as just described does not exist.

Yet, we talk about this ethereal "cyberspace" daily and claim to communicate with our friends, family and co-workers there. Why, given the lack of a firm definition of "cyberspace", do we frequently claim to interact there?

Answer: Pithy Sayings are Cool

In short, we like the way "cyberspace" sounds. The term follows a long line of neologisms that describe unfamiliar technologies in familiar terms. The "horseless carriage" and "talking pictures" are early-century examples that quickly became popular vernacular in their day. It's no different with "cyberspace" -- a place we can all go visit, just like Neil Armstrong did when he traveled to the moon. We don't have to struggle to understand something in new ways when we name it in old ways. This grasp of neologism-as-comfort-zone is an important part of the reason Marshall McLuhan became arguably the most important cultural theorist of this century; his "global village" makes accessible a concept that is, at its core, nearly impossible to comprehend.

In 1964, McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media,

"The telephone: speech without walls. The phonograph: music hall without walls. The photograph: museum without walls. The electric light: space without walls. The movie, radio and TV: classroom without walls. Man the food-gatherer reappears incongruously as information- gatherer. In this role, electronic man is no less a nomad than his Paleolithic ancestors.

He seems to stop just short of writing "Cyberspace: reality without boundaries," and detailing, 30 years before William Gibson, the role of the cybercowboy. Or does he?

Nostradamu-Sizing Up McLuhan's Theories

While many McLuhanites consider the concept of the Global Village to be prescient, especially in terms of "predicting" the Internet, it is ludicrous to thus "Nostradamus-ize" McLuhan, leaving us to interpret each phrase in terms of some event or invention, nodding sagely at his brilliance each time we make a connection. Certainly, there are times McLuhan is quite accurate about the wave of the technological future - but there are many others where he clearly misfires.

It would be easy to link McLuhan's predictions to the motto of Gibson's cyberpunk followers, "Information wants to be free." After all, it was McLuhan, 28 years earlier, who wrote, "As automation takes hold, it becomes obvious that information is the crucial commodity, and that solid products are merely incidental to information movement."

Yet, we must be careful not to give McLuhan too much credit as a visionary and avoid the greatest of hindsight-driven fallacies, post hoc propter ergo hoc. Thus, if we insist that McLuhan's 1964 phraseled to Gibson's own assertion -- though both authors are (arguably) visionaries, and perhaps share the same approach to creating visions -- we should not necessarily conclude they share the same vision.

In an odd sense, specific passages in McLuhan's writing did offer a prediction about how cyberspace (or whatever we will call this new medium) would be constructed, if not what it would look like. First, in The Gutenberg Galaxy, he wrote of the inevitable uneasiness that exists when a new technology for communication becomes both available and viable:

"An age in rapid transition is one which exists on the frontier between two cultures and between conflicting technologies. Every moment of its consciousness is an act of translation of each of these cultures into the other. Today we live on the frontier between five centuries of mechanism and the new electronics."

The primary translators between these cultures are artists and artisans; and McLuhan believed the current translation, from mechanistic culture to interactive cultures, was turning to one specific kind of artist:

"Science-fiction writing today presents situations that enable us to perceive the potential of new technologies. Formerly, the problem was to invent new forms of labor-saving devices. Today, the reverse is the problem. Now we have to adjust, not to invent. We have to find the environments in which it will be possible to live with our new inventions. Big Business has learned to tap the s-f writer."

The s-f writer ... like William Gibson.

The Godfather of Cyberpunk

Gibson's neo-realistic cybervision creates a possible reality that scientists can model as plausible and which (according to Timothy Leary) technophiles can use to reinforce their identities. Virtual reality theorist Marianne Trench notes,

"When William Gibson's visions were published, they struck sparks in the real world. Scientists and hackerture they couldn't wait to build . . . Never before had science fiction literature determined the way people thought and talked."

While Gibson's world of the Sprawl is still a fiction, scientists and phrackers alike adopt the words and concepts of his novel as a vocabulary with which they can talk about, and tools with which they can build the future. Words like "cyberspace" and "netsurfing" came to popular usage through Gibson's novels, as did "ICE", "jacking in", "neural implants," and larger concepts like net consciousness, virtual interaction and "the matrix." All of these concepts have become part of the publicly conscious effort to construct this thing called "cyberspace."

Thus, as Gibson is fond of saying - and as McLuhan has pointed out - "Life imitates art." And in imitating the author's vision, the tools mentioned above are what comes to life in labs and in online environments net-wide.

It is precisely a McLuhanesque framework which allows us to see what is happening in this ongoing construction, and how and why these new tools of communication, as yet, elude accurate description. The architects of "cyberspace" are, like their early-print-age ancestors such as Francis Bacon and Thomas More, constructing a new way of seeing the world through a process of trial and error. They are attempting to enhance what McLuhan calls the interiorization of a new communications technology, and by no means is it a smooth transition.

So we hear myriad definitions of "cyberspace," ranging from Benedikt's pessimism to the playfulness of Michael Heim in The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, who writes: "Cyberspace is Platonism as a working product . . . a total electronic environment in which people can interact with data." But what does it mean to "interact with data"? (No Star Trek references, please!) Is Heim suggesting a cyberspace where the humans and the data intermingle as equals? While this may sound faithful to Gibson's fiction, it is probably wildly (and pessimistically) inaccurate. Heim's working definition of cyberspace likely means something much closer to this: people using data in order to interact with other people. The data is not anthropomorphized, in some Wintermute-like Gibsonian sense, but functions simply as a tool for people to interact with each other.

Tools for the Realm

It is this concept of virtual space functioning as a "tool" that is most important to a discussion of how McLuhanesque terminology can be used to delineate what is happening in communications technology. As I have shown in the November, 1994 issue of this publication, "any technological artifact . . . can be seen as both a tool - something functional or working in the world; and as a realm - a reconceptualized worldview with the theory/technology foregrounded." This dichotomy echoes strongly a McLuhanesque description of the "interiorizing" of technology.

At this moment in history, Western culture exists within the realm of the written word; the tools of writing are so ingrained in our consciousness, says McLuhan, that the way we see, the way we draw, the way we do math, the very way we exist is affected by the linearity imposed on our (sub)consciousness by our societal literacy. Writing has been interiorized by our society. It was not always so; before Gutenberg's press allowed for mass-production of print, the phonetic alphabet itself was a specialized tool available only to manuscripters and clerics. But how do we know when we have moved to this interiorization, have moved from seeing a type of literacy as a tool to existing within it as a realm? McLuhan has claimed that we might accomplish this only with complete hindsight, often the hindsight of many generations.

And there is the problem facing the first generation of cyberpunks and cybernauts: since the totality of (post)modern culture has not yet interiorized virtual technology, we cannot define, much less critique the "realm" of cyberspace. In fact, if cyberspace does not exist - at least not in ways we can yet talk about sensibly - then, hell! What's the point of talking about it at all?

Well, cyberspace is being created -- or perhaps it is being discovered -- and it is in the process of being interiorized.

Fortunately, the visions (tools) Gibson has provided may make the transition a bit quicker; the author said himself, "I'm always a little amazed when I run into people who feel that technology is something that's outside of the individual, that one can either accept or reject. That's true in a sense, but at this stage of the game we ARE technology."

Please Don't Amputate My Everything!

So again, we turn to the artist for ways of seeing uses for the new tools that can help us discover/create the new realm - the realm of cyberspace. Author/artist John Perry Barlow visited what he calls the current state of primordial cyberspace through virtual reality technology at the University of North Carolina, and concluded "It's like having had your everything amputated," which echoes nicely this less-poetic description from Trench: "In cyberspace, the individual sensorium becomes part of the computer."

Compare this, momentarily, with McLuhan's statement in Understanding Media, "Any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body" (45). If Barlow and McLuhan are both correct, then existence in cyberspace is theoretically impossible; for if we do indeed subtract our consciousness completely from our physical senses ("have our everything amputated"), then we have no ability remaining to adjust other ratios.

So . . . according to Benedikt, cyberspace does not exist; and according to a logical combination of McLuhan and Barlow, if it did we couldn't go there anyway - at least, according to the linear, print-bound rules of logic which we have interiorized culturally for more than half a millenia. We may see in an artist's fancy "something worth shooting for," but what's the point if it is indeed an impossible dream? The answer - for me, anyway - came, ironically enough, via electronic mail.

As part of an ongoing discussion amongst members of a collaborative group discussing computers and writing, I wrote recently that I found Benedikt's somewhat pessimistic realism refreshing in a field where most definitions of cyberspace are filled with wild fancy; it was nice, I thought, to hear an author claim the realm did not exist. Immediately, Bill Hart-Davidson of Purdue University responded:

Maybe that's what McLuhan was saying all along; the medium is the message because we are bound by our own expectations and interiorized limitations. If we're looking for exactly what we expect, we might miss what we can do.

Lesson: not all new media act like old media. McLuhan would agree. [CMC TOC]


Mick Doherty is a doctoral student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. He writes regularly for Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine.

Copyright © 1995 by Michael E. Doherty, Jr. All Rights Reserved.

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