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The term cyberspace, was originally a creation of late twentieth-century science fiction, and it has come to have two extended uses. In technical training contexts, it has become a useful handle for the notional “space” a person (or “user”) enters when logging on to a computer. In a social science context, the term refers to new social spaces fostered by computer-enabled automated information and communication technologies (AICTs). Often, those using cyberspace in this way confer on it important, and even transformative, impacts on “real life” social relations. However, a tendency to assume transformation without demonstrating it means descriptions of cyberspace should be approached with caution.
The term was first used by William Gibson in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. By making an electronic connection, or “jacking in,” to networked computers, a character in the novel entered into “cyberspace,” an alternative and rather dark social universe whose interaction with real life drove the novel’s plot. Shedding negative connotations, “navigating in cyberspace” became a helpful metaphor for the experiences of getting around a computer’s virtual “desktop,” navigating in and out of open software “windows,” or projecting a personal “avatar” in an online virtual game or business communications environment.
As computers appeared in more and more human activities, technology talk was similarly cyberspaced. This use paralleled the late twentieth-century, popular use of the term technology, which was often equated linguistically with advanced technological forms and innovations. Thus, the realm of technology became coterminous with cyberspace.
It is now common in social science to critique such uses of technology, and thus to be suspicious of cybertalk. Since all cultures are substantially mediated by technologies of one sort or another, to equate the technological with cyberspace is ethnocentric. In the field of STS (science and technology studies), technology is used analytically to refer to any complex of artifacts, actors, and practices. Still, social scientists interested in the relationship between technology and social change (e.g., Hakken 1999) have found interactions between cyberspace and real life to be a convenient point at which to start analyzing the dynamics of hybrid (computered and noncomputered) social spaces.
The term information technology (IT) also became widely used in this period; it was used to refer to any system of practices involving devices for automatically storing and manipulating digitized information (e.g., computers). IT shifts the focus away from a particular computing machine to the broadening range of more general systems in which it becomes embedded. Particularly with the rise of the Internet and similar technologies of communication with embedded IT, scholars began to talk more about information and communication technologies (ICTs). What is distinctive about computer-mediated ICTs, and thus of cyberspace, is the extent to which information storage, manipulation, and communication take place according to protocols built into hardware and software.
Like other labels, such as Information Age or Knowledge Society, cyberspace tends to be equated with epochal social change. AICTs are presumed to play a seminal, causal role in globalization (see Friedman 2005). Such presumptions fit neatly into long traditions of theorizing, from Leninist Marxisms to postmodernisms, that privilege technologies as engines of social change. In the long, especially American version of technological determinism, the impact of any other social dynamics on technologies is largely ignored.
Ironically, the social correlates of automated ICTs, and the dynamics of cyberspace, become both more pronounced and harder to see. The attribution of transformational changes in social relations to the adoption of AICTs is reinforced by, and reinforces, popular perceptions of massive, technology-induced social change. That AICTs automate processes (make them more rapid, more farreaching, etc.) is what gives them their potential to transform. Yet in carrying out interactions among data, information, and knowledge “behind our backs,” AICTs also make these social processes more opaque. The political and social theorist Langdon Winner points to a dazzled, computing-induced “technological somnambulism” that has made the age of cyberspace an era of “mythinformation” (Winner 1984).
Thus, there is a belief that cyberspace colonizes real life, that the new social relations engendered by computing first influence and then come to dominate what went before. Its popularity explains why social science attends to cybertalk, but to many observers it should do so as hypothesis, not as presumption. Social scientists need to explore the ways in which the social dynamics of computer-mediated spaces are influenced by, as well as influence, other social dynamics. Some, such as Frank Webster, have studied cyberspace in this even-handed empirical manner, and those with long ethnographic involvement in cyberspace tend to document social continuities between cyberspace and other social dynamics. Yet even this work too often complexifies its own interpretation, performing transformationalist rhetoric irrespective of—and often in contradiction to—its own empirical results.
In practice, university courses on the social impacts of computing outnumber those on the impacts of social processes on computing. The pervasive sense that transformative social change is inevitable, and therefore not worth thinking about too much, may follow functionally from the actions of powerful social forces that have an interest in promoting this view. For all these reasons, social research on cyberspace, like most popular musings on technology, needs to be approached with skepticism.
- Bell, Daniel. 1973. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting. New York: Basic Books.
- Gibson, William. 1984. Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books.
- Hakken David. 1999. Cyborgs@Cyberspace?: An Ethnographer Looks to the Future. New York: Routledge.
- Webster, Frank. 2002. Theories of the Information Society. 2nd ed. London: Taylor & Francis.
- Winner, Langdon. 1984. Mythinformation in the High Tech Era. IEEE Spectrum 21 (6): 90–96.
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