How "Cyberspace" Became A Household Word

William Gibson explains how he came up with his most famous phrase.

The advent of computers and digital communications gave rise to all sorts of new terminology. These weren’t just new technologies and new products but a whole new world of concepts, and they demanded new words. In the 1990s, we understood our emerging global network as a "world wide web" and an "information superhighway," both of which sound fairly dorky today. The term "cyberspace" had been around before either of those two, but it still has more edge to it, even if it has been co-opted by clueless primetime TV specials about the dangers of hacking.

But there are some more fundamental differences in those terms that are worth exploring. The web and the highway are both metaphors describing some sort of infrastructure that connects people—real flesh-and-blood people in the real world. They encourage us to understand the internet as a tool, or a resource, or a means to an end.

Cyberspace, invented by the writer William Gibson and popularized in his debut novel, Neuromancer, in 1984, comes much closer to capturing what the internet really has become: a whole new place, separate from the one we walk around in. In other words, an end in and of itself.

Gibson recently gave a talk at the New York Public Library, and he went into detail on how he settled on the term. Here, faithfully transcribed by the good folks at The Awl, is his account:

Gibson: I came to that out of a perceived need to find an arena in which I could set science fiction stories. The science fiction arena of my childhood was space travel, and the vehicle was the rocket ship, the space ship. And in the late 70s early 80s, that wasn’t resonant to me. I knew I didn’t want to do that. I knew I didn’t want to to do the post-apocalyptic wasteland. I knew I wanted to try to write science fiction, but I didn’t have an arena. And I arrived at cyberspace—

Holdengräber: By arena, you mean?

Gibson: A territory, a place in which the story can unfold. And I wanted that sense of another realm, and I wanted a sense of agency for the characters, and particularly for the protagonist. She drives her (hmmm) through (hmmm). But I didn’t know what she was driving, and I didn’t know what she was driving it through. So in some odd way I think I began to mull over that and keep my eyes open while walking around in my daily life. Bits and pieces of reality, bits and pieces of something that could be cobbled into the arena I need this character to have, some sort of agency. And the pieces I came up with were just the sight of kids playing very early huge plywood-sided arcade games, and the body language of just intense longing and concentration and when I glanced into these arcades that I was probably afraid to go into myself, it seemed to me that like they wanted to go right through the glass, they wanted to be right there with the Pong, or whatever. But you could see that they wanted it, and I think I could also see that they were very likely to get more complicated games than Pong pretty quick. Which indeed they did. I had that, I had the big bus stop posters of the actual computer part of the Apple IIc, which was smaller than most briefcases. It was a very crisp-suited businessman arm, holding this thing, and it didn’t show you that there was this big clunky monitor that you had to have. He was just holding this thing with a keyboard on it. I knew people who were starting to buy Sinclairs and kits, building kits, like these incredibly primitive little computers that, you built it, and you had to keystroke all of the programs into it, and if you made a single mistake, the whole thing wouldn’t work. But I knew that people did that. I started hearing about people that connected home computers distantly via telephone, and because, fortunately, I knew absolutely nothing about computers, I was able to smoosh that all together and get this vague vision of my arena, which I then need a really hot name for. Dataspace didn’t work, and infospace didn’t work. Cyberspace. It sounded like it meant something, or it might mean something, but as I stared at it in red Sharpie on a yellow legal pad, my whole delight was that I knew that it meant absolutely nothing.

It’s a wonderful origin story, and it shows how Gibson was utterly prescient about how technology would change the world. Looking at those kids playing Pong, he apparently had some inkling of how it was all much bigger than a single new product or plaything or pastime. What it all represented was a whole new world to get lost in. And that, for better or worse, is where we are now. At least we don’t have to call it infospace.

Read more bits from Gibson’s talk here.

[IMAGE: Space via Shutterstock]

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