Dwight W. Read & Nicholas Gessler


Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, edited by David levinson and Melvin Ember. Henry Holt & Co., New York. Sponsored by Human Relations Area Files at Yale University (1996). Volume 1, pages 306-308.


To define cyberculture is to engage in obsolescence. Cyberculture, broadly speaking, is the culture of and in cyberspace. Cyberspace has been envisioned as a world of pure information freed from its physical substrate, configurable at will, and infinitely accessible; cyberculture is envisioned as its attendant social ramifications--sometimes eutopian, and sometimes dystopian and apocalyptic. The dream (or nightmare!) of cyberspace was sketched by the science fiction of William Gibson (1984). The reality was more firmly grounded by Michael Benedikt (1992) with the Internet seen as the realization of cyberspace. Cyberculture is, then, the culture of and in the Internet and its multitudinous means of communication (ftp, e-mail, user lists, news-groups, gopher, archie, veronica, World Wide Web, etc.). Yet it is much more.

In the same sense that cyberspace came into existence through computer technology, cyberculture may best be conceived as a culture which is mediated in some significant way by computer technology. Reflexively, cyberculture may also be conceived as a representation of culture within that cyberspace. As human/computer interfaces become increasingly immersive, the two definitions of cyberculture intermingle, sometimes indistinguishably. Anthropologists find themselves compounding metaphors and talking about representations of representations of representations. In that confusion between the natural and the artificial lies the power of cyberculture to create and to be created by artificial realities and artificial worlds. At one level, cyberculture is what can be produced through the material culture of computer technology. It is embedded in the cognitive space shared between humans and machines. At another level, cyberculture resides in the behavioral interaction between those machines and their makers. Today, cyberculture is poised to provide new philosophy, new theory, new methods, new tools, and new subject matter for serious anthropological investigations. Cyberculture is driven by the seemingly limitless technology of the information age that constantly redefines cyberspace. The power of computing technology seems to increase unendingly with innovations appearing as frequently as limitations are set. Single processing units are replaced by high performance, massively parallel computers and massively parallel computation is created in cyberspace through the massive connection of single and massively parallel processors. Even the silicon confines of computer chips are being challenged by successful computation in molecular and organic media.

This ever growing suite of advances in computational technology has broadened cultural practice into new domains that touch the traditional concerns of anthropology. The mediations of cyberculture have ranged from the obscure to the apparent and from the spontaneous to the contrived with often unexpected results. They are fed by technological changes which directly alter the way we see and talk about the world, and in so doing they have reached directly into our consciousness. Advances in human-computer interactivity have been remarkable. Sensor and display technology have created highly immersive interfaces which are in some ways more compelling than reality. In this realm of the hyper-real, visualization and indeed much of the human sensorium is rallied in order to suspend disbelief and to transport the user into a virtual reality. We must therefore think of the creation of entire new worlds of simulated reality.

Cyberspace and these artificial worlds share with their natural world counterparts a physics: A set of laws by which that world operates. The physics of cyberspace may comprise conventional notions of time and space, of objects and processes, of causes and effects, but it need not do so. Sensations may be altered, thereby giving rise to new perceptions, and physicality and materiality may be erased, reinforcing the illusion of a disembodied intellect. The hyper-real is further conjured up through conceptual advances in software.

A new scientific community doing research into artificial life has emerged from the ranks of artificial intelligence, with its own distinctive epistemology (see Brooks 1994). Among the fields that it has invoked are parallel distributed processing (including multi-agent systems and neural networks) and evolutionary computing (including genetic algorithms, evolutionary programming, and genetic programming). Creators of these worlds have sought both to augment culture computationally and to create culture as computation. Within the artificial life community, many practitioners have made the strong claim that both these artificial worlds and their natural world counterparts are merely alternate instantiations of underlying informational processes which themselves constitute the object of research. They argue that life is but a mathematical and computational process that may be instantiated in many possible media, not just in carbon or in silicon.

The artificial life world of biology and ethology has spawned initial steps in creating artificial culture (e.g., Bankes 1994, Gessler 1995; Karakotsios 1995, Read 1995, Reynolds 1995). It raises the expectations of investigating not just life through the medium of a virtual reality, but culture as-it-is, and culture as-it-could-be. As with its progenitor, it is seen as comprised of a computer representation of a population of individual agents, each with its own sensors, cognizers, and actuators interacting with other agents, with products of their own manufacture, and with a world external to them containing other objects and limited and situated resources. Each agent can construct and share conceptual representations of cognized reality. Studies in populations of autonomous robotics similarly explore the emergence of cooperative and competitive collective behaviors (Cliff et al 1994). Once initialized, any such worlds may run with or without human intervention. They may be isolated from, or introduced into cyberspace through the Internet. On the Internet we already see incipient and mature cybercultures (Jones 1994). A brief consideration of the evolution of technology from natural language, through artificially mediated writing, print, postal and telephone communications foreshadows the radically new and different physics and connectiveness of information exchange on the Internet. Information exchange is no longer dyadic but multi-adic. On the Internet, participants are not connected through Euclidean space, but through a space more accurately defined by graph theory: Each person is only a few nodes away from anyone else. Space has a topology but not a Euclidean dimension. Closeness is no longer measured by distance. Time is frequently altered and becomes asynchronous as messages broadcast to multiple receivers arrive out of sequence, leading to multiple interpretations.

Alterations of natural world physics such as the lack of facial, postural, intonational, auditory, and other contextual clues to the meanings of messages are responsible for negative emergent behaviors such as flaming (the term given to sending extremely derogatory messages about other participants) and invasions of privacy such as virtual rape. Beyond engendering new productivities, these alterations bring about new problems such as counterfeit discourse as well as counterfeit personal and gender identities.

Cyberspace designers and their client communicators also spontaneously take on the property of communities through individual and collective efforts to make the network more personal in order to encourage congenial exchanges. All these efforts involve the manipulation of the physics of cyberspatial representations of culture. From simple cultures, more absorbing worlds may be built by more fully engaging the senses and imagination of the users.

Elaborations on the theme of cyberspace have proliferated as Muds (multi-user dungeons) and Moos (their descendants). Some of the more popular are Lambda-Moo sponsored by Xerox-PARC, and Media Moo sponsored by the MIT Media Lab. In these and similar worlds the user may socialize, confer, lurk, and attend or give presentations in an architecturally defined space populated by other persons and objects. Other inhabitants may be straight or variously disguised, and hackers have at times introduced robot spies or ethnographers to spark and monitor activity, giving rise to ethical debates. Participants may move through a virtual space, conversing and gesturing as they go, reading and writing messages, and manipulating other virtual objects.

Among the more elaborate cybercultures is Lucasfilm's Habitat running in various incarnations in Japan and North America. Represented as avatars, up to 20,000 players can interact in this animated world with doors, regions, scenic objects, containers, weapons, drugs, money, pawn and vending machines, customizable heads and gender changers. Gun-play and thefts (including heads) became a concern to players, and after discussion they were banished from civilization to the wilderness. A church was formed and a Sheriff was elected. Some players discovered vending machines with selling prices lower than the buying prices of pawn machines across town and amassed fortunes of hundreds of thousands of tokens overnight. These nouveau riche then sponsored a series of treasure hunts for the other inhabitants.

In sobering contrast is the Advanced Research Projects Agency's concept of a Synthetic Theater of War (Education 1993). By linking together instrumented ranges for air, ground, and sea operations with virtual and mixed-reality simulations including semi-automated forces, the military hopes to build a distributed simulated virtual battlefield to assist them in training exercises.

Cybercultures are here now as communications networks, as games, as simulations, and as research platforms. As with artificial cultures, they may be subjected to the same disciplinary operations as natural cultures: ethnography and archaeology. Moreover, we may find that cyberculture will change our perspective on anthropology, changing not just our subject matter, tools and methods, but our theory, philosophy, and the very questions we ask.



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