Cyberspace: Virtual Life in the 90’s

Reflecting on a post-Tipp-Ex era I ponder questions surrounding the concept of Cyberspace.

Remembrance of Tipp-Ex past

Be it fortunate or unfortunate, the years locate me at a pivotal time in the evolution of cyberspace. I don’t claim to be among its first denizens. Arpanet, the forerunner of the Internet was “operational” in the United States from 1975 (with a connection to Norway), and went international in 1983, soon becoming known as “the Internet” (aka “information superhighway). However, among those presently alive on this planet, I consider myself to have been a relatively early user.

In 1985 or so I’d commenced my doctoral research on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake at the University of Sydney, on an Australian Postgraduate Research Award, which is a kind of national prize for undergraduate achievement.

I saved my meagre resources to purchase an electronic Brother golf-ball typewriter, if you can conceptualize what that may have been, but despite the copious application of Tipp-Ex correction fluid, for months I couldn’t get past a few printed pages. Joyce was partly to blame, partly my limited intellect and inclination for good times and tequila. But it became clear to me I was never going to be able to produce a PhD dissertation on Joyce’s work or anything else by this method (but particularly not on the Wake).

How longingly I leafed through the computer magazines displayed at the local newsagency in those days, realizing that this computer-thingy was capable of saving all those wasted trees and enabling me to progress into chapters and, possibly, an entire thesis. No, never, surely not likely.

I bought a modest computer, a British manufactured Amstrad PCW8256 beast, basically a hard-wired word processor known affectionately, coincidentally, as “Joyce” to its fans, with whom I identified enthusiastically. I imagine the inexpensive machine salvaged many a poor, lost, wannabe scholar like myself, perhaps their faithful hound lying asleep under the desk like my briard, Pepe.

I decamped from the  “Joyce Industry” to the nearby “Beckett Industry,” in which I felt more at home  and in whose work for theatre I had some background, and with the help of my Amstrad “Joyce,” finished my thesis in time. Leading international Beckett scholars examined my dissertation, and I was granted my doctorate but found I couldn’t seem to get a job apart from writing arts features and reviews and lecturing as a casual at various universities, which was enjoyable for a year or two, but uninspiring if that was all the future had to offer. So I left Australia for Japan, to have a shot at full-time tertiary teaching, first at business college, then university.

Internet advent

Towards the mid-nineties, I’m feeling somewhat isolated from Western academia, rummaging in Japanese university library stacks, a subterranean salmagundi of intellectual distraction.

I started to hear dribs and drabs about that amazing technical entity called the Internet, a kind of computer network that operated via international telephone lines. It was basically unvisualizable to anyone who hadn’t experienced it; but from what I’d heard, I thought there was a chance it might help me get in touch with libraries and researchers located in other countries.

In 1995, the Internet could boast 16 million users, or 0.4% of the world’s population, as opposed to 4,208 million, or 55.1% today (Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics).  It was like magic when my computer was hooked up, the first one in my faculty. I won’t forget my initial sight of the mysterious gray “web page” — a particular striking steel-gray I’d never before known — with its black text and blue “hyperlinks.” Wow … hyperlinks. Thank you, Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web and gave it to the world for free (See Katrina Brooker, “The Man who Created the World Wide Web Has Some Regrets,” Vanity Fair, Jul. 2018). A few years later, I’m working in a faculty of informatics — the first in a national Japanese university, where I set up a course in media semiotics.

As a nineties newbie, the notion of cyberspace struck me as a mind-blowing phenomenon, as it still does to some extent, when I’m not dodging scams and paywalls. It brought me back in touch with global academia, enabling all manner of research prospects and travel to several countries, where I could exchange ideas face-to-face with international correspondents. I wondered about how one might adapt and define the self within this space, which was evidently so liberating from the physical strictures of time and place. Like so many I was attracted to the apparently emancipating, somewhat anarchic potential, such as John P. Barlow was to articulate some years later:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. […]

Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.

We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Our legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter, There is no matter here.

Extracted from “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (1996)

That’s what many thought possible of this evolved “home of the mind”; and kudos to John P. Barlow for his monumental historical “proclamation.” However, nowadays it reads not unlike an adolescent utopian manifesto, which it may have been to some degree. Today, it is entirely clear that cyberspace is up for grabs by countless economically, criminally, and even politically motivated parties. Seems like, if someone doesn’t want our money, they’re after our data or our identity.

I think we see these tendencies way back in the 90s, the Eden of cyberspace, when click farms, troll farms and the dark web were unheard of.  The seeds are there, way, way back in time.

Some late 90s semiotics of cyberspace

It’s an opportunity to explore some more of my semiotics files of the 90s/00s, collected from Japanese publications.

Here is a magazine ad for a Palm Pilot (Palm Inc., subsidiary of US Robotics), circa 2000 — a brand of pocket computer.

Print commercial for Palm Pilot (circa 2000)

Japanese print commercial for Palm Pilot PDA (circa 2000)

Note the attempt to depict the concept of cyberspace by constructing a mise en scene that is an admixture of light, water, rocks, ice and gas. The background design obscures and refigures the elements of earth, water, air, fire and aether (void) — a persistent ancient influence on our conception of everyday reality. We presume the device had not been dropped in a rock-pool. Rather, it resembles an occupied miniature spacecraft exploring a newly discovered alien world. The light in the device suggests it is occupied, not by a human body but by a consciousness, thus attributing qualities of adventure, strangeness and disembodiment to the idea of cyberspace. The tiny computer is able to enter cyberspace and take our consciousness with it, leaving our body behind.

Here are some more images from the same catalogue, to emphasize the visual effect of the “cyberspacial” background, which was quite cool at the time, but perhaps because of the relatively naive mass-sense of what cyberspace entailed. Below are the original Harmon/Kardon Soundsticks. Original as they appear, if they remind you vaguely of a certain style, you’re quite right. Apple designed and engineered them so they could dovetail into their range of sexy, translucent, multicolored iMacs, which retailed between 1998 and 2003.

Print commercial for Harmon/Kardon Soundsticks (circa 2000)

Japanese print commercial for Harmon/Kardon Soundsticks (circa 2000)

There is a rather organic form to the design of the Soundsticks that echoes the humanoid user-friendliness of the iMac. It is pronounced in the Elmar Flototto “Flower Power” standing floor fan as well, spruiked for its innovative design, ultra-quietness and high-density foam blade. Here it is standing in a reflected glow of things cyber, there being nothing essentially related to computers, or digital, about it. It’s all about image. Let us have one standing in the room behind us or on the desk beside us, keeping our bodies ventilated and cool in the real world during our cyber-voyages.

Japanese print commercial for Elmar Flototto "Flower Power" fan (circa 2000)

Japanese print commercial for Elmar Flototto “Flower Power” fan (circa 2000)

An irony shared among the iMac, Soundsticks and Flower Power fan is that even while the organic nature of the human body is extracted from the virtual reality of cyberspace, it surreptitiously re-informs it.  Consider, for example, the Toshiba Videoball LZ-P2, which manifests, of course … the eyeball…; evoking connotations of the “cyborg,” portmanteau of “cybernetic organism,” a word first defined in 1960 by the academics Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline as exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously” (see “The Man Who First Said ‘Cyborg,’ 50 Years Later”). Also note the creepy, paranoid overtone of a malevolent AI, echoing something like Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Dean Koontz’s novel Demon Seed (1973/1997):

Japanese print commercial for Toshiba Videoball LZ-P2 (circa 2000)

Japanese print commercial for Toshiba Videoball LZ-P2 (circa 2000)

Consider the Psion Revo Plus, a PDA (“personal digital assistant”) whose pronounced organic, ergonomic design, particularly when photographed as it is here (the green and white one, though we might consider the white NTT DoCoMo P601ev mobile as well, described charmingly in the Japanese ad copy as something like “a smidgin retro”), implies the form of the hands and eyes in coordination. See the ghost of the human being, the spirit in the machine:

Japanese print commercial for Psion Revo Plus PDA and NTT DoCoMo P601ev mobile (circa 2000)

Japanese print commercial for Psion Revo Plus PDA and NTT DoCoMo P601ev mobile (circa 2000)

On the other side of the coin, we find a reaction against this disembodying tendency, which places the technology in a perceived “healthy” society. In the alternative conception, humanity is not fragmented or swallowed up, but instead, the internet may be applied as an educational, communicative tool, in the context of a properly regulated, well-governed social reality. Here is an example from NTT Communications. “Let’s boot up! We want to ‘provide’ for you: Thrills! Opportunities! Excitement! Discovery! Truth! …”

Japanese print commercial for NTT Communications OCN IP Service (circa 2000)

Japanese print commercial for NTT Communications OCN IP Service (circa 2000)

Some of the constructive, developmental things you can do using the internet — the link-like buttons — are embraced by the overarching image of the tree, which is lent connotations of

  1. organic social growth, with society seen as a kind of extended family;
  2. a healthy, outdoorsy life; and
  3. the humanistic social, ethical and ideological system of Confucianism. 

Governance and patriarchy

Note the patriarchal connotations, which are endemic, if not exclusively so, to Japanese society and Confucianism. Three woman are in charge of the children, for looking after children is their rightful domain. The gestures of two of the woman indicate the tree, at the same time as they appear to seek physical support from it. Thus we read the tree as a masculine symbol lending strength and structure to society — standing behind, sheltering and protecting the weaker members of society (women and children).

The absence of adult men in the image has an effect of transforming men into a pervasive entity, identified with the natural order. On the one hand, these absentees are those men behind the scenes, faceless and invisible behind the walls of NTT Communications, who make it all happen. At the mythic level, they aspire to a god-like status via a power of invisibility that identifies them as the most august tree-spirit in Japanese pantheism, one stretching back through the ancestors, to the mythic, prehistoric realm. In  the same way, the imperial line of descent links the present-day emperor to his mythological ancestors in prehistory, and to the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Intriguingly, the ordering and “governance” of society, is an idea that informs initial definitions of things “cyber” from as long ago as Aristotle. Thus it remains a compelling factor in our conception of cyberspace, as I aim to explore in a forthcoming article.







Categories: Articles, Features

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s