So why should we care what term (if any) replaces cyberspace? Why should we care that the term cyberspace was used in the first place?

Words have power — two kinds that especially interest me. First, words can reflect reality. As Raymond Williams showed in his great Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, you can use the changing meaning of certain “keywords” to trace deep changes in culture. Words can serve as weathervanes, signaling deeper shifts in the economic and social forces that shape history. Second, words can shape reality: whether we know it or not, they can affect the way we think about important things.

For me, the word “cyberspace” is interesting both as weathervane and as reality-maker. Its history serves as a nice entree into the cultural history of computing– the history of our use of computers, and thinking (or anxiety, or hope) about their uses and place in the world.

“Cyberspace” has also helped create belief in a space separate from the everyday world of people and things, in which information lives– and importantly, in which information can live more freely (in various senses) than in the real world. The belief in that separate space has had some real, unintended consequences. Let me give one example here; part of my larger project is to document others, so more will be coming.

Several legal scholars have argued that the concept of cyberspace has had a big impact on copyright law. A decade ago, when courts were just starting to deal with questions about how to apply law to the electronic realm– whether, for example, sales taxes should be applied to online sales based on where the buyer was, where the seller was, where the server was– David Johnson and David Post argued that thinking of cyberspace as a place would help clarify these issues: “Many of the jurisdictional and substantive quandaries raised by border-crossing electronic communications,” they wrote, “could be resolved by one simple principle: conceiving of Cyberspace as a distinct ‘place’ for purposes of legal analysis by recognizing a legally significant border between Cyberspace and the ‘real world.'”

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Not everyone agreed. Two years later, Andrew Shapiro worried that this wasn’t a good move: “[W]e are not well served by the idea that cyberspace is an autonomous ‘place,'” he wrote. “This conception wrongly implies that online interactions are, or should be, governed by their own body of law. It suggests that what happens ‘there’ is in some way unconnected to what happens ‘here.’ In so doing, it distracts us from recognizing that the real significance of cyberspace is not in its being elsewhere but, quite the opposite, in its coming increasingly closer to us.”

So why did this matter? Dan Hunter argues that the popularization of the metaphor ultimately contributed to the “second enclosure movement” of cyberspace in the late 1990s and 2000s:

Cyberspace was once thought to be the modern equivalent of the Western Frontier, a place, where land was free for the taking, where explorers could roam, and communities could form with their own rules. It was an endless expanse of space: open, free, replete with possibility. This is true no longer…. [W]e are enclosing cyberspace, and imposing private property conceptions upon it…. The conception of ‘cyberspace as place’ leads to the implication that there is property online, and that this property should be privately owned, parceled out, and exploited.

Mark Lemley notes a deep irony in this history. “In a curious inversion, those who argued less than a decade ago that cyberspace was a place all its own – and therefore unregulable by territorial governments – are finding their arguments and assumptions used for a very different end. Instead of concluding that cyberspace is outside of the physical world, courts are increasingly using the metaphor of cyberspace as a “place” to justify application of traditional laws governing real property to this new medium.”

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In other words, the “placeness” of cyberspace became a resource for asserting property rights in the digital realm– and often asserting forms of rights that destroy customary, important practices like fair use. Of course, you can argue that even without the notion of cyberspace– or a term for describing the Internet and our interactions with it that helped create that sense of place– lawyers for Hollywood, the record industry, etc., would have found ways of asserting their clients’ copyrights online. However, it seems fairly clear that in the U.S., the idea of cyberspace as a place made it easier for those arguments to gain ground.

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