Science and technology
Computer Science - displays, mobility, contextual displays, ambient displays, pervasive computing, cyberspace
The concept of cyberspace as a distinct geographical entity has influenced the way we think about information technology, e-commerce, copyright, and high-tech products. New technologies are revealing a more complex relation between data-space and the real world, with consequences in all these areas.
The concept of cyberspace has been (to quote George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) a "metaphor we live by," a conceptual framework for making sense of the Internet. For the past twenty years, the Internet has been described as a kind of alternate dimension or place, separate from and in some ways superior to general life and physical reality.
The metaphor has had several sources. Science fiction and video games offered some of the earliest articulations of the idea of computers and networks as places. Arguments for and against the regulation of online speech and commerce both appealed to the notion of the Internet as a place. Software developers instantiated the metaphor of computers as places in the design of graphical user interfaces, Web browsers, and massive multiplayer online games. Finally, the social and psychological experience of using personal computers, usually in computer labs, workplaces, or home offices, reinforced the sense of the Internet as separate from real life: going online required tuning out the real world.
However, the underlying geographical assumption in the concept of ‘cyberspace’ is that computing environments are necessarily distinct from physical reality. Inspired partly by the notion of ‘virtual reality’, many commentators on computing in the recent past perceived an inexorable path towards ‘immersive’ computing in which users inhabit the same ‘space’ as their data rather than data inhabiting users’ spaces. The development of ‘pervasive computing’ (also known as ‘ubiquitous computing’) has revealed alternatives to immersive computing. Cyberspace is still a valid geographical concept, but its relation with ‘real’ (physical and social) space is complex.
Pervasive computing technologies like flexible displays, smart dust, sensors, and wireless offer an alternative to immersion. The experience of using devices designed to be socially unobtrusive, to require little of a user's attention, and to operate anywhere will change the experience of being online. Users capable of accessing the Internet anywhere will discover "real space" information-- information about the places that they are, accessed in that space-- that complements "real time" information. Rather than requiring users to focus exclusively on either the digital or physical, new devices will allow users to attend to both simultaneously.
A comparison can be made with ‘virtual reality’. (In the popular imagination, cyberspace and virtual reality are closely enmeshed.) When the concept was popularised in the early 1990s, commentators imagined that, as more applications were found for virtual reality technology, we would spend less time in real-space and more time in ‘virtual’ space. It was assumed that as virtual spaces grew in sophistication, they would also become increasingly divorced from ‘reality’ – that virtual spaces would provide an alternative space to inhabit. Though the technology has developed apace, we have not seen the emergence of totally immersive alternate realities to the extent that was predicted. ‘Augmented reality’, which maps digital media to the physical world, has proved to be more useful than fully immersive virtual reality.
Similarly, cyberspace is not as distinct from ‘real’ space as it was imagined it would be. Geographically, it is not a separate world or a new frontier, but rather a layer atop (or beneath?) the everyday world. We inhabit both cyberspace and physical space at the same time.
What to Watch:
Early combinations of digital technology and real space:
Institutions pursuing smart dust:
At A Glance: