Is Cyberspace a Space unto Itself?
I've been reading Julia Cohen's "Configuring the Networked Self," in the past few days, and it's raised some questions about the idea of cyberspace itself. In a trypical day, each of us will enter the "world of cyberspace" dozens of times, a world where we find discussions, information, and enjoyment. But where are the boundaries of cyberspace? In other words, does cyberspace function as a world unto itself?
This question has compelling implications for privacy. If we enter a separate world entirely, should we be afforded the same freedoms as the real world? Do we need a completely separate set of laws to govern this separate world. Intuitively, we can see this from both perspectives. On the Internet, national borders seemingly do not exist. It's easier to bridge gaps between countries when the internet facilitates the connections.
Lawrence Lessig, in his landmark text, "Code," discussed cyberspace as a world unto itself, but one that was also changing: "Both 'on the Internet' and 'in cyberspace,' technology constitutes the environment of the space, and it will give us a much wider range of control over how interactions work in that space than in real space." As Lessig describes, we have more control over cyberspace. Problems can be coded away. We can change things extremely quickly. This ability to rapidly iterate is a gift of the internet, but it also has facilitated a culture of control over cyberspace. The NSA revelations released by Snowden revealed that real-world actors have the ability to regulate and carefully watch what happens in cyberspace. More than ever before, there seems to be a close connection between cyberspace and real space.
This connection is what Cohen draws upon in her book. As she explains: "Networked information technologies contribute to the production of social space by enabling new markets, relationships, and practices, which are layered over the markets, relationships, and practices that previously existed." In her conception of the internet, cyberspace is inextricably linked to the real world. It is, in many ways, a layer on top of the real world, an extension of what exists. As a result, Cohen argues that individuals entering cyberspace are never truly separate from their embodied selves, which are still subject to the confines of societal regulation.
So, who is right? I say both are. In the early days of the Internet, cyberspace likely did function as Lessig described. Individuals operated autonomously, with very little regulation. Yet as the internet has progressed, more and more of the things people do in "cyberspace," have real world implications. Today, the Internet mirrors Cohen's conception of the networked self, a "cyberspace" that is inherently a part of the real world.