The Nature of Cyberspace

The Internet–the huge (2.2 million computers), global (135 countries),
rapidly growing (10-15% a month) network that has captured the American
imagination–is only a tiny part of cyberspace. So just what is cyberspace?

More ecosystem than machine, cyberspace is a bioelectronic environment that
is literally universal: It exists everywhere there are telephone wires,
coaxial cables, fiber-optic lines or electromagnetic waves.

This environment is “inhabited” by knowledge, including incorrect ideas,
existing in electronic form. It is connected to the physical environment
by portals which allow people to see what’s inside, to put knowledge in,
to alter it, and to take knowledge out. Some of these portals are one-way
(e.g. television receivers and television transmitters); others are two-way
(e.g. telephones, computer modems).

Most of the knowledge in cyberspace lives the most temporary (or so we
think) existence: Your voice, on a telephone wire or microwave, travels
through space at the speed of light, reaches the ear of your listener, and
is gone forever.

But people are increasingly building cyberspatial “warehouses” of data,
knowledge, information and misinformation in digital form, the ones and
zeros of binary computer code. The storehouses themselves display a
physical form (discs, tapes, CD-ROMs)–but what they contain is accessible
only to those with the right kind of portal and the right kind of key.

The key is software, a special form of electronic knowledge that allows
people to navigate through the cyberspace environment and make its contents
understandable to the human senses in the form of written language,
pictures and sound.

People are adding to cyberspace–creating it, defining it, expanding it–at a
rate that is already explosive and getting faster. Faster computers,
cheaper means of electronic storage, improved software and more capable
communications channels (satellites, fiber-optic lines)–each of these
factors independently add to cyberspace. But the real explosion comes from
the combination of all of them, working together in ways we still do not
understand.

The bioelectronic frontier is an appropriate metaphor for what is happening
in cyberspace, calling to mind as it does the spirit of invention and
discovery that led ancient mariners to explore the world, generations of
pioneers to tame the American continent and, more recently, to man’s first
exploration of outer space.

But the exploration of cyberspace brings both greater opportunity, and in
some ways more difficult challenges, than any previous human adventure.

Cyberspace is the land of knowledge, and the exploration of that land can
be a civilization’s truest, highest calling. The opportunity is now before
us to empower every person to pursue that calling in his or her own way.

The challenge is as daunting as the opportunity is great. The Third Wave
has profound implications for the nature and meaning of property, of the
marketplace, of community and of individual freedom. As it emerges, it
shapes new codes of behavior that move each organism and institution–
family, neighborhood, church group, company, government, nation–
inexorably beyond standardization and centralization, as well as
beyond the materialist’s obsession with energy, money and control.

Turning the economics of mass-production inside out, new information
technologies are driving the financial costs of diversity–both product and
personal–down toward zero, “demassifying” our institutions and our
culture. Accelerating demassification creates the potential for vastly
increased human freedom.

It also spells the death of the central institutional paradigm of modern
life, the bureaucratic organization. (Governments, including the American
government, are the last great redoubt of bureaucratic power on the face
of the planet, and for them the coming change will be profound and probably
traumatic.)

In this context, the one metaphor that is perhaps least helpful in thinking
about cyberspace is–unhappily–the one that has gained the most currency:
The Information Superhighway. Can you imagine a phrase less descriptive of
the nature of cyberspace, or more misleading in thinking about its
implications? Consider the following set of polarities:

Information Superhighway / Cyberspace
Limited Matter / Unlimited Knowledge
Centralized / Decentralized
Moving on a grid / Moving in space
Government ownership / A vast array of ownerships
Bureaucracy / Empowerment
Efficient but not hospitable / Hospitable if you customize it
Withstand the elements / Flow, float and fine-tune
Unions and contractors / Associations and volunteers
Liberation from First Wave / Liberation from Second Wave
Culmination of Second Wave / Riding the Third Wave

“The highway analogy is all wrong,” explained Peter Huber in Forbes this
spring, “for reasons rooted in basic economics. Solid things obey immutable
laws of conservation–what goes south on the highway must go back north, or
you end up with a mountain of cars in Miami. By the same token, production
and consumption must balance. The average Joe can consume only as much
wheat as the average Jane can grow. Information is completely different.It
can be replicated at almost no cost–so every individual can (in theory)
consume society’s entire output. Rich and poor alike, we all run information
deficits. We all take in more than we put out.”