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The End of Cyberspace

I’ve got a piece on the end of cyberspace and its meaning for libraries in the just-published Berkshire Savant, the newsletter of Berkshire Publishing.

None of us were supposed to be here. According to futurists writing in the early years of the personal computer age, by 2005 printed newsletters were supposed to be obsolete, books a rarity, libraries an anachronism. Digital media were creating an alternate dimension of information and thought: cyberspace. In cyberspace, information would roam free of the constraints of pages and books, becoming accessible anywhere to anyone, unstoppable by borders, unmanageable by jealous professions and priesthoods. So why are you still librarians, working in libraries, reading this in a printed newsletter?

Partly I wrote it because it’s hard to say no to Karen Christensen, Berkshire’s co-founder and CEO, but mainly because Berkshire Savant sounds like a 19th-century literary magazine that published some of Emerson and Thoreau’s early works, was run as a labor of love and expression of faith in emerging American intellectual life, and is now available only in a handful of New England college and atheneum libraries.

And, as I’ve thought about claims about the impact of cyberspace (and the Internet and digital communications more generally), it struck me that the failure of the library to disappear— despite the consistency of a decade’s punditry that held that the library was an expensive, outmoded anachronism— would help understand what cyberspace hath and hath not wrought. And, conversely, thinking about what just-over-the-horizon technologies like RFID could do for libraries would help illuminate the possibilities that emerging technologies will create for connecting bits and atoms.

The entire issue of the Savant is quite interesting, just as one would expect from Berkshire, which is the Maas Biolabs of reference publishing— small, ruthless, and all Edge.

The newsletter is available as a PDF, but be warned, it’s an awfully big file (over 4 MB).

[To the tune of Peter Gabriel, «Digging In The Dirt,» from the album «Secret World Live».]

Technorati Tags: cyberspace, future, library

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The End of Cyberspace

Andrew Shapiro argues in his essay «The Disappearance of Cyberspace and the Rise of Code» that

the idea of a separate online «space» may have made sense to a certain cohort of computer hackers who appropriated Gibson’s term. The Internet in the early 1990s was mostly a medium used by computer savvy individuals—researchers, activists—who engaged in dialogue in vibrant online communities like The Well. These pioneers who explained the wired life to the rest of us were dedicated users of interactive bulletin boards and of «chat rooms.» To them, going online may well have felt like going somewhere: to a digital salon full of friends. It was often a laborious process, with a fair degree of unpredictability and randomness. But all this was part of the challenge—and the reward. Indeed, the sense of an arduous journey likely contributed to the romantic idea that cyberspace was foreign and far away, a frontier to be settled.

That struck a chord with me. When I was a postdoc at U.C. Berkeley, and first discovered the Web— around 1992 and 1993, at exactly the same time everyone else did— getting online was hard. It could take an hour to establish a TCP/IP connection— an hour of hitting the redial button, and watching the little green lights flicker on the modem (why were there so many of those lights, I wondered? what were they saying that I couldn’t understand?), waiting for that magic sound of the handshake between my modem and the network’s.

In short, going online had the feeling of travel: it was strenuous and time-consuming. Indeed, in 1996 law professors David Johnson and David Post argued that since going online— dialing up an ISP, and entering a username and password— was the equivalent of going through customs, and thus that «[c]rossing into Cyberspace is a meaningful act that would make application of a distinct ‘law of Cyberspace’ fair to those who pass over the electronic boundary.»

Have I just romanticized the experience of going online in the early, heady days of the Web? Am I oversensitive? Or did the difficulty of getting online contribute to a sense that you were going somewhere, that cyberspace was separate from ordinary life?

This isn’t just rhetorical. I’m genuinely curious. People who comment will be in danger of being cited in my article. You’ve been warned.

Technorati Tags: Berkeley, cyberspace, law

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The End of Cyberspace

06 March 2007 at 17:17 | Permalink

» An Explosion of Information from Heritage Tidbits
Reported by the Guardian: The amount ofdigital content (emails, mobile phone calls, photos, blogs, TV signals, etc.)generatedon earth last year would fill a dozen stacks of hardback books stretching from the earth to the sun.&n… [Read More]

Tracked on 08 March 2007 at 02:17