Life After Cyberspace

Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520

EASST Review 18(2/3), 1999, pages 3-5.

Please do not quote from this version, which may differ slightly from the EASST web site's version.


As the Internet matures and becomes integrated with the institutional world around it, it is becoming increasingly clear that science fiction has disserved us. Although networked computing had already been familiar to many academic and military people for several years, it was taken up by popular culture in the context of the virtual reality craze whose canonical text was Gibson's Neuromancer (1984). Compelling though Neuromancer was as myth, as a forecast it was quite backward. Gibson famously defined cyberspace as a space apart from the corporeal world -- a hallucination. But the Internet is not growing apart from the world, but to the contrary is increasingly embedded in it.

Forecasting is a hazardous occupation, and among its many hazards is the mistake of overgeneralizing from transient aspects of one's current-day reality. One prominent reality of computer use in the 1980s was the cumbersome nature of interfaces. The paradigm of computer use then, as for most people still, was the box: the desktop terminal, attached by wires to a processor, with a display screen and keyboard that were useless unless the user's body was immobilized in a narrow range of postures. The desire to cast off these chains is widespread, and Gibson spoke for many in imagining that the constraints of the box could be cast off by plugging the darn thing directly into one's brain.

Computer science, though, is headed in an entirely different direction. The great fashion in user interface research is to get out of the box, as they say, and to embed computers in the physical environment: in clothing, architecture, automobiles, and public places, letting the devices talk to one another wirelessly (Weiser 1993). Computing is to become ubiquitous and invisible, industrial design is to merge with system design, and indeed the very concept of computing is to give way to concepts such as writing reports, driving to work, and keeping in touch with one's family. Computing, in short, is increasingly about the activities and relationships of real life, and the boundary between the real world and the world of computer-mediated services is steadily blurring away.

The early visions of cyberspace have disserved us in other ways. Certain aspects of Internet architecture and administration are decentralized, and this led to hopes that everything else would become decentralized as well. Information connoted freedom, and networks connoted Adam Smith's market of artisans. Economics, however, has taught us that each of these associations is misleading. Information as an industrial input and output exhibits vast economies of scale (Arrow 1984: 142), and economies of scale frequently lead to industry concentration -- witness the vast wave of merger activity currently going on in many industries and especially those related to information. Economics also teaches of network effects, which can persuade the whole world to adopt an open protocol like TCP/IP but which also create natural monopolies for any private good whose value to customers lies mainly in the number of other people who have it (Katz and Shapiro 1994).

It is clear, therefore, that we need to retool our intuitions if we want to understand the real world of networked computing, much less do anything about it. But why have our intuitions been so wrong? The things that seem newest are in fact very old, and Neuromancer is a good example. It is an archaic tale of shamanic journeys overlaid with the symbolism of computers and the dystopian narrative of the wounded hero that also gave us Sylvester Stallone's film version of Rambo (Gibson 1994). We do need more shamans, it is true, but we will not find them in the false lower world of the circuit boards. To seek that kind of wisdom, we must look deeper into the reality of the counterintuitive coevolution between information technology and the rest of the real world.

Some guidance in this project can be had in the work of economic sociologists such as Karl Polanyi (1957), who urged that the formal logic of the market as an allocational mechanism for distributing scarce goods must be understood as something embedded in, and analytically inseparable from, the substantive workings of the social world. Recent scholars of this tradition such as Mark Granovetter (1992) and Walter Powell and Paul DiMaggio have (1991) developed this theme more fully by investigating the ways in which market phenomena are structured by phenomena such as social networks and cultural meanings. A similar perspective can be applied to computing. Although the formalisms of computer science and the esoteric concerns of computer scientists can mislead us into treating computers and computer work abstractly as an autonomous realm unto themselves, serious empirical work demonstrates the many ways in which they are embedded in a broader world of social relationships and social processes. In the case of the Internet we can see this embedding in many ways. I will describe three of them here.

First, we can look at some of the institutional preconditions that almost miraculously made the Internet possible. Contending theories of social order emphasize centralization and decentralization, but in fact the Internet grew out of a special combination of the two. ARPA was located at both the center and the periphery, in different ways, of a powerful institutional order. Its centralized support enabled a loosely organized process of producing public goods, namely technical standards. And then NSF's policies, broadly supported by the university community, established the critical mass that was necessary to set network effects in motion. Those effects, which we experienced as the explosive growth of the Internet in the last five years, had as their preconditions the great power and the equally great obliviousness of at least two other monopolies: AT&T, which built a robust telephone network that carried the ARPANET's bits from its earliest days, but which failed to embrace and extend the network when it had a chance, and IBM, which had the power to establish a standard for personal computers, but which saw the need for such a standard coming so late that it passed on an opportunity to take control of the rest of the networked desktop. Between them, these powers fortuitously gave rise to a niche that the Internet was able to occupy. This niche was so cleanly defined that it was taken for granted in the background, and the firms that benefitted from it were able to believe that they did it themselves.

A second aspect of the Internet's embedding in the social world pertains to its user communities. So long as we persist in opposing so-called virtual communities to the face-to-face communities of the mythical opposite extreme, we miss the ways in which real communities of practice employ a whole ecology of media as they think together about the matters that concern them (Agre 1998a). And so long as we focus on the limited areas of the Internet where people engage in fantasy play that is intentionally disconnected from their real-world identities, we miss how social and professional identities are continuous across several media, and how people use those several media to develop their identities in ways that carry over to other settings (Wynn and Katz 1997). Just as most people don't define their activities in terms of computers, most people using Internet services are mainly concerned with the real-world matters to which their discussions and activities in the use of those services pertain.

A third and final aspect of the Internet's embedding in the real world is the process of social shaping through which the Internet's architecture on various layers evolves. This is a large and complex story, but I want to draw particular attention to the ideas about people's lives that are inscribed in the code (Agre 1998b). For example, the Internet was originally designed for the scientific community, and its architecture reflected a whole set of background assumptions about that community, for example its high capacity for self-regulation, its openness, and its relative lack of concern with exchanging money. As new communities began to appropriate the architecture for their own purposes, all of those background assumptions came to the surface in the form of security holes and other problems. Although the architecture exhibits the same inertia as any other standard, it is fortunately not entirely inert, and it is now evolving through the vast feedback process through which user communities' experiences give rise to a discourse of controversies and agendas and opportunities, and these give rise to new architectural ideas in turn. We can best see the Internet's embedding in the real world by seeing the Internet of this year or any other year as a snapshot of something in motion, and as one element of a variety of much larger institutional fields which are themselves very much in motion.

All of this is most unfortunate in a way. If we could escape into a parallel world of cyberspace then we could ignore the emerging sprawl of nontransparent and undemocratic institutions of global governance that increasingly order our electronic and nonelectronic lives. But that's how it is, and we need to deal with it by recommitting ourselves to the values of democracy here in the real world.


Philip E. Agre, Designing genres for new media, in Steve Jones, ed, CyberSociety 2.0: Revisiting CMC and Community, Sage, 1998a.

Philip E. Agre, The Internet and public discourse, First Monday 3(3), 1998b.

Kenneth J. Arrow, Collected Papers, Volume 4: The Economics of Information, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

James William Gibson, Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America, New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

William Gibson, Neuromancer, New York: Ace Books, 1984.

Mark Granovetter, Economic institutions as social constructions: A framework for analysis, Acta Sociologica 35(1), 1992, pages 3-11.

Michael L. Katz and Carl Shapiro, Systems competition and network effects, Journal of Economic Perspectives 8(2), 1994, pages 93-115.

Karl Polanyi, The economy as an instituted process, in Karl Polanyi, Conrad M. Arensberg, and Harry W. Pearson, eds, Trade and Market in the Early Empires: Economies in History and Theory, Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957.

Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio, eds, The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Mark Weiser, Ubiquitous computing, Computer 26(10), 1993, pages 71-72.

Eleanor Wynn and James E. Katz, Hyperbole over cyberspace: Self-presentation and social boundaries in Internet home pages and discourse, The Information Society 13(4), 1997, pages 297-327.