No "There" There

Why cyberspace isn't anyplace.

Illustration by Tyko




I'M a pretty Net-savvy guy. I read my morning newspaper online. I buy discount airline tickets online. I participate in animated sports banter online. I even manage my finances online (if transferring money to cover checks qualifies as "managing my finances"). Still, I have never been to the magical land called cyberspace.

Cyberspace isn't on any map, but I know that it must exist, because it is spoken of every day. People spend hours in chat rooms. They visit Web sites. They travel through this electronic domain on an information superhighway. The language we use implies that cyberspace is a place as tangible as France or St. Louis or the coffee shop on the corner. But why, exactly, should we think of the Internet as a geographic location? I recently participated in a telephone conference call with people in several other states and countries. Were we all together in another "place"? I doubt that any of us thought so.

Many would say that it isn't just the act of communicating that makes cyberspace a place but the existence of a community consisting of broadly dispersed people. But that characteristic is not particularly distinctive. There are communities big and small that do not exist within any physical jurisdiction. Professional associations, alumni groups, and religious orders are among them. Members of such groups feel a kinship with other members with whom they have never interacted, in either the real or the virtual sense.

Some would respond, "Those people all had something in common before they forged connections across boundaries. But cyberspace communities were created online. There were no prior affinities to bring them together. That's unique." Is it? Ham radio operators have a global network of friends and acquaintances who came together solely through their use of that instrument. Do they exist in "hamspace"? And why is the manner in which people make first contact so significant? Do pen pals exist in "penpalspace"?

One reason that cyberspace is described as a place is to avoid downgrading it to the status of a mere medium, and perhaps especially to avoid comparisons with television. Those who would distinguish the Internet from television point out that Web denizens are not mere passive recipients of electronic signals. That may be (partly) true. But telephones and the postal system are also communications media that allow two-way communication. We don't regard them as places.

Thinking of the Internet as a place certainly makes it seem more intriguing. The idea of logging on and entering another space is suggestive in all sorts of ways. It raises issues of consciousness, allows us to think of ourselves as disembodied cybernauts, and sets us apart not just from our primitive ancestors but also from our recent ones. Not incidentally, representing the home computer and AOL membership as a gateway to another dimension helps to sell home computers and AOL memberships. The various Web sites, IPOs, and dot-coms-of-the-day feed on the fervor surrounding our exploration of this strange new land. By morphing the Internet into a destination, cyberspace has become the Klondike of our age. (Curiously, Seattle is reaping the benefits this time around, too.)

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Metaphors matter: they can help to shape our views and actions. Consider the widespread acceptance of the term "marketplace of ideas" as a metaphor for free speech. This representation emphasizes one's freedom to enter the arena of discourse, rather than one's ability to be heard. Thus, in the context of campaign-finance regulation, protection of free speech means that unlimited campaign expenditures are sacrosanct, but guaranteeing equal opportunities to reach the electorate is not a consideration. If, in contrast, we imagined not a marketplace but a classroom, enabling the quietest voice to be heard would be more important than protecting the rights of the loudest. Another example is the ill-fated "war on drugs." By conceiving of drugs as an enemy to be defeated in combat, we blind ourselves to many potential solutions. In the context of war the legalization of drugs amounts to capitulation to the enemy -- even if it might address many of the problems, such as crime, disease, and chronic poverty, that were used to justify the war in the first place.

For its part, the cyberspace-as-place metaphor raises issues of logic and psychology that may ultimately impede wise management of the Internet. Lawrence Lessig, of Harvard Law School, argues in his book (1999) that the government should not sit by while private code (software) writers define the nature of the Internet. Such a seemingly neutral stance, Lessig says, is not neutral but irresponsible. In the case of cyberspace, laissez-faire government simply defers decision-making authority to profit-seeking companies. Guided only by commercial interests, the development of the Internet is skewed to favor the corporation rather than the individual or society as a whole.

The problem, Lessig explains, is that legislatures and courts are reluctant to regulate the Internet. He lays out some compelling reasons why this is so, but he skips a crucial one. Because we think of the Internet as a place, the prospect of "going there" takes on an extra dimension. Legislatures are wary of bringing government to cyberspace -- as if it somehow existed in some pure state beyond ordinary society. Judges are reluctant to bring law into this "new" arena, as if applying existing laws to Internet transactions would be tantamount to colonizing Antarctica or the moon. In the context of legal discussions, cyberspace is seen not as a potentially anarchic realm but as a virginal Eden; the introduction of law would not so much bring order as corrupt utopia. Republicans in Congress have vowed to "stand at the door to the Internet" to defend its sanctity. Their "E-Contract 2000" would, for example, prohibit sales taxes in cyberspace for at least five years -- as if such a moratorium were needed to nurture the most dynamic sector of the economy. Many Democrats, equally eager to win favor in the industry, also support the concept of an online duty-free "zone."

As it happens, Lessig himself reinforces cyberspace-as-place thinking. He argues that the Internet user exists simultaneously in two "places," a physical location and cyberspace -- thus making the application of law somewhat difficult. In reality, the problems created by Internet transactions simply involve making decisions about jurisdiction. Should a criminal computer user, for example, be subject to the laws of the state in which he resides, or to the laws of the state in which the victim resides? This can be a knotty question, but it is not a new problem -- not a "cyberspace problem." Such determinations are made every day with respect to telephone and postal transactions. Are these problems more common because of the Internet? Yes. Do they involve more jurisdictions because of the Internet? Yes. But they do not involve their own jurisdiction, any more than matters initiated or conducted through the mails involve "postalspace."

That is not to say that the Internet will have no consequences for governance. The growth of the Internet may gradually shift the locus of authority upward, from local and state governments to the federal government or even international institutions, because as human interactions transcend political boundaries, only governments with broad jurisdictions will be able to monitor certain kinds of behavior and enforce certain kinds of laws. Law and government will adapt accordingly.

The cyberspace-as-place metaphor is probably here to stay. And it has its uses, as do the many other fanciful metaphors we use in everyday speech. But let's not be misled. The regulation of cyberspace -- in areas from copyright to taxation to privacy -- hardly represents the spoliation of a pristine and untamed land.

Jonathan G. S. Koppell is a Markle Fellow at the New America Foundation, where he writes on issues related to technology and governance. He was recently appointed to the faculty of the Yale School of Management.

Illustration by Tyko.

The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; No "There" There - 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 16-18.