How We Ended Up Living in “Cyberspace” #cyberpunk

Do you think the world would be using the term InfoSpace (as a synonym for the world’s internet) if it was called that instead of cyberspace?

William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, coined the term cyberspace, a word that’s become part of our modern lexicon and cultural identity. Some of his first choices, scribbled on his legal pad and then crossed out, were InfoSpace and DataSpace. He ultimately chose cyberspace because he thought it just sounded a lot cooler, and like it really meant something.

At the time he coined it, while writing the proto-Neuromancer short story collection, Burning Chrome, he had no idea what cyberspace should actually mean. But, armed with a term so pregnant with possibility, he imagined a world that such a word might represent. And he wrote himself right into history.

Believe it or not, this was the initial inspiration for William Gibson’s idea of cyberspace.

As the story goes, William Gibson’s main inspiration for cyberspace came from his encounters with early video game arcades. He would see young gamers hunched over these giant, colorfully-painted plywood cabinets, lined up in rows along walls in an arcade. He’d marvel at the intensity of the players, their body language, their seeming desire to enter the noisy, wireframe worlds on the other side of their CRTs. He imagined each of these consoles as being a data domain in a vast sea of similar domains, “data cowboys” floating from one domain to the next. The seed for his cyberspace was planted.

The idea for the “cyberdecks” that would be used in his stories to mentally “jack in” to cyberspace was inspired by a bus stop ad he saw for the early “portable” Apple IIc computer.

Would you believe this is the progenitor of Case’s cyberdeck in Neuromancer?

It is from these unlikely origins that we now live in “cyberspace” and “cyber” has become a promiscuous prefix, attached to anything and everything related to computers and the internet. It is even now used by the law enforcement/intelligence communities as shorthand for security, data, and hearts and minds warfare in the online world. “We need to devote more money and personnel to Cyber.” Ugh.

As you may already know, the prefix cyber is short for cybernetics. While it is used as if it’s synonymous with computers, it is not. Cybernetics (from the Greek kybernḗt(ēs), for steersman, pilot, rudder) is the study of feedback, communication, and control in any type of system, be it technological or biological. The term emerged at the end of WWII around the effort to create guided missiles that used dynamic positional feedback for course correction. Cybernetic feedback loops are obviously a huge part of global computer networks, but they are not the same thing.

William Gibson said that he chose the word, and other computer-related terms used in his novels, as poetry, texture, not as technical terms (he knew nothing about computers at the time). He then wove this techno poetry into his fiction to give it a more resonant sense of reality. And that techno-poetic fiction ended up shaping part of the modern world.

In this video, William Gibson talks to a Sony human augmentation engineer about the origins of cyberspace.

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1 Comment

  1. Holy crap?! Finding out that the Apple //c as the literal progenitor of the cyberdeck just blew my mind… I was lucky enough to be given one with a modem when they first came out. Fast forward to the late 80’s and I had a modem duct taped to the top, with the terminal software floppy permanently in the built-in drive, a Radio Shack handheld TV, and a lead acid battery… As a 13 year old, I had no concept of how much money any of this had cost. It was just stuff I had…

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