The word cyberspace today often denotes the Internet. William Gibson coined the word in his cyberpunk novels to mean a three-dimensional, graphical representation of the global computer network accessed via brain-computer interfaces called “cyberdecks” or just “decks,” which transport the minds of their users to:
[…] bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void… the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data. […] A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding […]1
A vision of cyberspace for Johnny Mnemonic (1995) based on Gibson’s stories (source)
The word became associated with similar ideas from around the same time such as Vernor Vinge’s “Other Plane” in True Names, and also with virtual reality: “a three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person.”2 The term virtual reality was coined by Jaron Lanier in 1987, three years after he had founded VPL Research to engineer and experiment with head-mounted displays, wired gloves, and other devices for interacting with digital content by moving one’s head, hands, and other parts of her body. It was not quite “decking” as Gibson had envisioned it, but it was a start. VR technology has improved since 1984, but we are still getting most of our data from HMDs and none of it over wetwired interfaces.
“I need a Sino-Logic 16, Sogo-7 data gloves, GPL stealth module, Burdine intelligent translator, and Thompson eye-phones.” (image and quote from Johnny Mnemonic, 1995)
Cyberspace is partially a literalization of spatial metaphors about computing, which are plentiful. Consider, e.g., the World Wide Web, which you navigate with a browser (bearing names such as Navigator, Explorer, Safari, and Compass) when you go to a Web address. Before the Web we had bulletin board systems whose design was informed by the metaphor of posting messages on a physical bulletin board. Such metaphors are more or less informed by our embodied experiences as actors in physical spaces interacting with physical objects occupying those spaces, but they become their own things conceptually and, to some extent, somatically. When you “go into” a chat room, you do not experience physically walking into a room full of people who are socialising (there are 3D chat applications that simulate this), but rather you press some buttons on your keyboard and your computer screen responds with signs letting you know you have “gone into a chat room,” and you immediately understand that means messages you send can be read by people “inside” that “room” and not “outside,” and that there are certain rules and expectations that pertain to this new “environment.” You do not scan the room for a bar or check to see what colour the wallpaper is (although you might pretend to:
/me looks around for the bar), but your body still changes in response: you act differently in a chat room than otherwise.
Magical or ritual spaces are other spaces we may physically or conceptually occupy. A common example of creating magical space is casting a magic circle wherein a ritual is to be performed, which can be done in a variety of ways from rearranging a physical space and actually drawing a circle there with some instrument, to simply visualizing the circle in the mind’s eye and performing some activity to activate it. However and wherever the circle is constructed it marks a non-trivial distinction between things within and without it: magical vs. mundane, sacred vs. profane, microcosmic vs. macrocosmic, etc. The circumscribed space maps to the magician’s mental space, providing a context wherein agents, actions, or objects within the circle become magically efficacious or are magically protected from outside forces. Like the chat room, this space facilitates certain activities governed by perceptions, assumptions, expectations, and permissions that are peculiar to that space.