The creation and development of cyberspace has profoundly changed people’s thinking and behavioural habits. Current academic discussions on a range of issues such as web policy, web ethics, web culture and ideology have also become borderline academic topics.
Accurately grasping the connotation, characteristics and essence of cyberspace and scientifically defining its attributes in everyday life are the foundations and prerequisites for exploring this kind of problem. Otherwise, it will be difficult for us to understand and accurately grasp the origin and roots of these issues, which will influence the scientific nature of research.
For discussing the Internet-related issues, social science research mainly uses the “web society” and “cyberspace” as conceptual tools to impact on the topic.
With the fast development of web technology and people’s proactive participation in communication practices, cyberspace has been widely recognised and has affected people as a new form of environment. Nevertheless, there are still many differences in the understanding and definition of the cyberspace concept. Further work on theoretical identification is therefore needed. Many scholars have made a structural analysis of cyberspace and some consider it to be a three-tier structure, including:
- the lowest physical layer, which forms the material basis of the web information system. The term cyberspace, for example, leads some people to think that information travels over the air: this is not the case at all! The Internet spreads via underground terrestrial and marine fibre-optic cables, and radio base stations are connected to this cable network. The antennas we see towering on the hills receive the signal from the network of underground cables and transform it into electromagnetic waves so that they can be transmitted and then picked up by our smartphones: in other words, the illusion that cyberspace is wireless in the air, while it is, in fact, ground-to-ground.
- The intermediate grammar layer, i.e. the instructions, programs and protocols with which the machine interacts between the system designer and the machine user.
- The highest semantic layer, which mainly refers to the information contained in the machine and to some services that are needed to make the system information work.
Other scholars classify it into five layers:
- the “physical layer’ refers to the hardware devices that make up the computer.
- The “protocol layer” emphasises that the different versions of communication protocols are, to a large extent, the source of power and authority in cyberspace and provide users with key identifying marks in cyberspace.
- The “logic layer/code” is the software operated by the computer, which defines and limits the ways in which users can use the web.
- The “content layer” mainly expresses the various objects and/or narratives created by the Internet users.
- The “relations layer” emphasises the transmission of cyberspace, i.e. the social relationship between the users who make, exchange, disseminate and share web content embedded in objects and narratives.
As a result, scholars not only see the material and technical foundations that constitute cyberspace, but also reveal the human relation aspects contained in it, thus considering cyberspace as a kind of “virtual reality”. Some scholars have interpreted this “relational” aspect from a more specific viewpoint, and have considered cyberspace to be a stand-alone electronic field – separate from political professionals – a field containing many topics such as politics, economy, society, culture and religion.
Hence what is the essence of this “virtual reality”? Traditionally, with a view to meeting their basic survival needs, “real people” first engage in the production of material goods. In production activities, the division of labour, the practice of communication and the methods of production will inevitably arise, which – characterized by different behaviours – will give rise to different social forms.
It can be said that perceptual and concrete practical activities are the driving force behind the establishment of human social relations. In fact, the emergence of the Internet is exactly the product of human practical activities and an important result of the transformation of the objective world into human production practices. In other words, as a technical tool, the web represents advanced productivity and embodies the legacy of human knowledge, abilities and skills.
Based on the Internet technological platform, the social participation of “real people” enables the creation and development of cyberspace. The information flow is the basic form of existence in cyberspace. Information, as a symbol, brings the people’s actual social relations, which have consequential values and meaning.
Based on these attributes, cyberspace – as a product of human social practice activities – has further expanded and enriched the field and methods of human practice. It has changed people’s thinking and behavioural habits: new forms of real life.
In short, whether in terms of production, content or actual impact, cyberspace displays clear social characteristics and sociability is its fundamental attribute. It can be said that cyberspace is a new form of social space created with the development of web technology, and it is the further extension and expansion of social space in the context of information technology.
This process of extension and expansion produces and reproduces the social space itself, i.e. the space in which we actually live. For cyberspace, as in everyday life, people’s interaction and practice activities based on different interests and purposes – which cause the continuous differentiation of cyberspace – are marked by the generation of secondary spaces such as the Web, the forum, the post to be posted, and the circle of friends that begins to create widespread consensus.
On the other hand, once the secondary web space is generated, it will produce a certain value and meaning of aggregation (“pro”) or exclusion (“anti”), and will thus divide people into different web groups. Consequently, two relations are established between man and cyberspace: one is that people use the web as a means and instrument to be applied; the other is that the web constitutes the actual conditions of human existence: people “are” in the web, they exist only there, as the real is only necessary as a search for food and physical subsistence, and not even so much for sex.
In further analysis, man and cyberspace manifest themselves as a spatial relationship of symbiosis and coexistence. In this relationship, cyberspace has not only changed the way people receive, process, and send information (as in the past), but it has also changed the way information itself is generated, in a different and/or opposite way than before.
People have created and developed web technology through practice, but at the same time they have reshaped and improved themselves with web technology, as well as expanded the boundaries of life and achieved the spatialisation of life itself. It can be said that cyberspace is not only a space for the digital information flow, but also a space for social interaction, a new space in which the essential power of the human being can be shown in a new guise that is no longer casual or accidental, such as physiological birth.
People are used to summarising the basic features of cyberspace with words such as virtuality, anonymity (albeit illusory as noted in an article published a few weeks ago), freedom and openness, as well as trans-temporal and spatial features, and then making common sense of them. Usual and ordinary things, however, are more likely to be marked by omissions or illusions, not being able to grasp a fact or a truth in depth.
Cyberspace is often said to be “virtual reality”. When we call it virtual space, what does the word “virtual” mean? In a general sense, the word “virtual” has the following meanings: one refers to a kind of empty space, or something that does not exist in reality, while the other is to represent a potential possibility. For example, a piece of wood can become a table or a cupboard, and a stone has the possibility of being the statue of a leader or the sculpture of a lion. These can all be transformed into a certain reality by relying on intermediary human practical activities: the carpenter, the artist. “Virtual” can also be understood as a type of real existence, but this type of existence does not play a practical role, although it plays a certain role. The virtual nature of cyberspace can also be understood and defined from several angles. From a technical viewpoint, cyberspace is a spatial form based on digital and computer technology. It is not a world composed of atoms, but a virtual world composed of “bits” that simulate real things. From the identity viewpoint, the apparent anonymity (i.e. the illusion of it that the provider offers the user) brought about by virtuality deconstructs the subject’s professional role, social status, and even the gender of men and women, transforming X into what he/she would like to be, but is not.
As a result, “real people” become ghosts wandering in cyberspace. Past social interaction between people is turned into technical and symbolic interaction. When several computers are connected to form a huge network linking people through different interfaces, communication practices take place in which there is no longer any need for movement, travel, encounter. It is here that the virtual world takes shape.
The “virtual nature” of cyberspace does not certainly focus on the so-called emptiness=real existence, but its essence comes in the form of simulation and digitalisation. This virtualised way of constructing the world does not only contain the potential for the development of things, but also possesses the actual path of transformation from possibility to reality.
The US computer scientist, Nicholas Negroponte, pointed out: “If the words “virtual reality” are seen not as noun and adjective, but as “equal halves”, the logic of calling “virtual reality” a pleonasm is more palatable”. The implication is that virtual can also be understood as part of reality. Virtual things will be as real as reality, and even more real than reality. Because, as a form of technology, the “virtual” cannot only unfold around real problems, but also reveal the real parts of things and bring people a realistic experience, making it easier to achieve people’s expected goals.
In short, we cannot regard cyberspace as an “unrealistic space” because of its virtual nature. Cyberspace is not an abstract space that depends on the human imagination to perceive and grasp. Its spatial form is embodied in what is by no means a figment of imagination.
“Freedom” is the universal value concept of modern political civilisation and it is the fundamental human right, second only to the right to life. The creation and development of cyberspace has given this right a new expression, i.e. the Internet freedom. Some scholars have specifically structured the Internet freedom into (a) freedom of expression on the Internet; (b) freedom of access to the Internet and (c) freedom of communication on the Internet.
“Freedom of expression on the Internet” means that the so-called netizens can use the Internet to post and convey their thoughts, opinions and even personal feelings. They are not passive receivers of information, but proactive publishers and disseminators of this information.
“Freedom of access to the Internet” refers to the netizens’ rights to obtain and use the network infrastructure and to choose and obtain web information.
“Freedom of communication on the Internet” refers to the freedom of Internet users to use media.
In general terms, we can further understand and define web freedom by the following aspects. Cyberspace is an equal and open form of disseminating thought. Based on access conditions and technical thresholds for the release of basic information, everyone can participate freely, thus having the opportunity to freely release, access, choose and consume information online. At the same time, cyberspace overcomes – to some extent – the shortcomings of the information asymmetry of traditional media and breaks down the natural barriers of physical time and space.
Netizens can share information resources online and develop free exchanges and interactions. The virtual nature of cyberspace has actually hidden the different representations of identity, status, wealth, job, etc. in real social relations. Based on the fundamental characteristics of cyberspace, individualisation in it has been strengthened, thus generating a bottom-up inner power. With this kind of power, netizens generally have an autonomous experience of freedom. It can be said that for real people, the development of technology and the creation of the web space also have an important liberating significance from a psychic viewpoint.
Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web (WWW), wrote: “My ideal for the World Wide Web is that everything can potentially be connected. It is this ideal that gives us new freedom and enables us to develop faster than our own hierarchical classification system”. Nowadays, faced with the fast development of the Internet and the profound social changes it entails, some scholars have directly pointed out that the value and significance of the Internet lies in its internal values of civilisation. It is the spirit of the Internet that advocates and supports freedom, equality, openness, innovation and sharing. The freedom of the Internet, however, is not absolute. Cyberspace itself has not only the function of individual empowerment, but also the function of “control”, which is mainly achieved through the creation of technical barriers. These types of operations can effectively set the authority to post information, as well as netizens’ access authority, and can selectively display or mask relevant information, thus intentionally guiding or even controlling the public opinion trends on the web, ranging from the illusion of being free and independent to that of being controlled and hetero-directed.
This kind of operations, however, can also be used for special purposes, and the advantages gained by “hidden third parties” achieve a comprehensive monitoring of netizens and web information.
Quoting Michel Foucault, referring to Jeremy Bentham, cyberspace can become a “panoptic ring-shaped prison”, i.e. a “super panoramic prison” for the observer. Milton Mueller had to say: “Although the Internet has greatly expanded the scope and interaction between public and individual discourse, it has also fostered the development of technology and organisational means to monitor and control online discourse”.
In the governance process, with a view to effectively regulate netizens’ sloppy and superficial use of “freedom”, and overcome misguided trends of thought such as cyber violence and rumours, cybercrime, fake news, cyber anarchism, unbridled liberalism and nihilism, States and governments have also actively intervened, striving to base netizens’ thoughts and actions on legal regulations and moral constraints. Only in this way can the Internet freedom truly embody the subject’s consciousness and awareness, the value of rights and obligations, and netizens’ public spirit.
Therefore, we cannot only understand the web from the perspective of individual freedom. It also aims directly at the creation and maintenance of a holistic public order. In short, cyberspace is not a non-proprietary technology-centred “space” system, but a human-centred system with “unification of rights and obligations”. The Internet freedom is not abstract freedom, nor freedom of individualism, but includes the protection of other people’s rights and the overall construction of public order. Therefore, the Internet freedom is ultimately a kind of “limited freedom” and the freedom to break this limit will turn into a destructive and consequently illegal force.
As mentioned above, cyberspace is essentially a social space. The production of cyberspace is fundamentally the production of human social relations, and this production process is completed through interactions between people. The characteristics of virtuality, anonymity and intertemporal nature inherent in cyberspace provide new spatial conditions for human interaction, which is prominently manifested in the “non-centrality” or “decentralisation” characteristics of the web interaction.
Manuel Castells pointed out: “The net has not a centre; it only contains nodes. Each node has a different relevance to the net”. Hence we ask ourselves: what kind of person crosses the “node”? What is the relevance of the mode of communication? First of all, the web communication is made in the electronic square and the whole process is completed in the links of production, exchange, consumption and processing of web information. It can be noted that web interactions are based on the Internet technical platform, using symbols such as texts, videos, voice and even emoticons, in various online communities, forums and other secondary spaces.
It is a typical technicality of activity. The virtual nature and anonymity of cyberspace, as well as the interaction between people, break down the restrictions of face-to-face communication and make them obsolete. The presence of the mind and the absence of the body become the technical behaviour of interaction.
Web interaction has also become a new form of spiritual communication for “real people”. Value and meaning are constantly being created in the process. Secondly, this production of value and meaning is more procedural, i.e. the production of value and meaning is created in the process of interaction between the subjects of the communication. It is no longer prefixed, given, instilled by a third party, but consciously forms the power and influence of the discourse in the interaction, thus constructing different worlds and modes of meaning.
Taking some question-and-answer web platforms as an example, netizens can edit together, share knowledge and experiences through the aforementioned interactive mode, with a simple registration. Between question and answer, netizens establish a social relationship by adding followers (actual followers), sending private messages and posting comments. In question-and-answer style interaction, these professional and rational answers can acquire the power of discourse more and faster, and are universally recognised by netizens.
In this world and in this way, on the Internet, the social network of the others, of the unknown selves, is constantly being constructed, and this is where the value and meaning of the new social relationship arise. Finally, the ‘non-centrality’ of web interaction does not mean ‘non-subjectivity’: the web subjects are always the main vectors of communication activities, and they are fully reciprocal.
Communication activities will establish new relations and will form a new social structure, but at the same time they will take place within the social relations and structures established with non-visible knowledge.
In real society, people’s communication activities are inevitably influenced by the subject’s pre-existing identity, manifested in specific social roles: status, wealth, physical beauty and other pre-existing elements even to their contrary – which makes interaction appear “not so natural”, but influenced precisely by wealth, position, and physical appearance factors.
Conversely, web interaction has largely changed the hierarchy of power and formal degrees of value in real society. When everyone becomes the centre, people enter the web space and enjoy the same opportunities and rights for communication. The structure of democracy is thus formed, which is not based on visible values in the known exterior (society), but on invisible values in the unknown interior (the web).
Obviously this kind of reciprocity is also discussed in a general sense, and it is not absolute either. For instance, some Internet influencers and opinion leaders publicly disclose their identities. The reason why they have a strong ability to “acquire unknown fans” does not exclude the aggregation of their social status (the aforementioned status, physical appearance and other pre-existing factors), so as to use it in real society. In other words, the known figure exploits the cyberspace to impose himself/herself within society; in other words, the shepherd leads nameless sheep where he/she wishes. There is therefore a certain degree of unequal power structure in cyberspace.
The activity of the cyberspace figure known from the outside, as he/she is present and active in real society, is represented by various information, involving all aspects of production and people’s lives, such as education, medical care, insurance, real estate, advertising, legal services, etc. The data flow is ultimately the information flow. The information flow in cyberspace, with its wide source, high speed, large capacity, rich content and form, completely surpasses the traditional information flow. As a result, the well-known figure who uses the net does so to overtake real opponents in his or her respective field, while the followers think he or she is a disembodied guru or anything else.
Through “nodes”, netizens can spread and receive information without being limited by time and space. On the one hand, the virtualised and anonymous characteristics of cyberspace deconstruct or weaken the subject’s fixed identity, which in cyberspace is strongly contextualized, thus showing ambiguity in the practice of fluid communication, as the nature of cyberspace has changed the traditional meaning of space-time coordinates.
The Internet physical equipment is the “new field” of the subject’s activities, but the meaning of the subject’s geographical “position” disappears, and the IP address determines his/her existence. Mobile identity can enable web subjects to become “ubiquitous” and to exist and be mobile across different web interfaces.
The fluidity of cyberspace reflects the following aspects: firstly, the dynamic nature of cyberspace. The characteristic definition of “flow” has the dual meaning of time and space. Due to the flattening and levelling of cyberspace, this type of flow is not a change in the position of individuals in the social class in a sociological sense, but is a flow without hierarchical meaning. Due to the borderless and trans-temporal nature of cyberspace, this type of flow has no physical boundaries in the topological sense, but takes on the undefined meaning of “place”.
Secondly, it reflects the interaction between web entities in the process of web information flow. Human needs are the source of information production, and the web information flow has become the bearer of value and meaning from the very beginning. It is also in the flow and collision of information that new values and meanings are created, thus showing the complex social relations between people. Therefore, in a fundamental sense, the information flow is a social movement related to the generation of meanings and signifiers. In Italy we had a great example, which later ended up in the disappointment of the vast majority of voters, to the benefit of a few who knew how to study (sometimes fraudulently) the bureaucratic apparatus.
Thirdly, it reflects the dynamic development of the social structure based on technological progress, which fundamentally reflects the procedural nature of the practice of “real people”. Castells pointed out: ‘Space is not a reflection of society, but an expression of society. In other words, space is not a copy of society: space is society”. This emphasises that the generation of cyberspace is fundamental to its self-generation.
On the one hand, the fluidity of cyberspace has become an endogenous force for the differentiation and integration of cyberspace itself and its dynamics influence and change the structure of value and meaning in cyberspace. On the other hand, through online and offline interactions, it ultimately transforms – through concrete actions – real society itself that, in turn, promotes changes in the overall social structure. Hence, as a “quality of flow”, cyberspace is basically embodied as a process of social practice.
The creation and development of cyberspace is the result of the continuous differentiation and integration of social space in its own changes. Hence, is cyberspace a so-called “public domain”? According to our understanding, we can see the basic elements that constitute the public domain: firstly, individuals with a rational and critical spirit; secondly, independent media and thirdly, public opinion forming a rational consensus.
As to cyberspace, the public is active: when faced with general events, the public does not stand on the sidelines, but actively participates in the discussion of important issues to safeguard public interests and control power. This kind of fair and dialogic communication and interaction not only reflects the independent thinking, judgment, choice and even critical capacity of netizens as rational subjects, but also reflects their good moral and legal literacy, thus playing a key role in maintaining public order.
In the media sense, the basic characteristics of cyberspace make it relatively independent. There are no hierarchical and strict public power organisations, institutions or systems in cyberspace: it is open to everybody and people communicate and interact in a relatively free environment. The development of web technology – at least the one presented as such – also provides sufficient guarantee for this equality, freedom and independence.
When people online express opinions on various events, a large number of opinions and discussions are quickly gathered in the online public opinion with the help of the relevant platform. Through massive pressure, related issues are resolved in a fair or at least not covert way, and promote the reform and improvement of the relevant systems, and of the rules, too, where necessary.
It can be said that the critical and controlling functions of people online through public opinion have become a positive and constructive force. From this viewpoint, cyberspace has actually fulfilled its function of public domain. But can we infer from this that cyberspace is really in the public domain?
As the main entity of the web, not all netizens can be called “public” in a rational spirit. On the contrary, with the exception of the netizens who are addicted to online consumption and entertainment all day long, some netizens arbitrarily vent their emotions by attacking and verbally abusing their opponents. Aggressive cybernetic pursuits, rampant defamations that ignore facts, and unprincipled cyber parodies make them outright saboteurs.
Public spirit and rationality are completely unfamiliar terms to such netizens. There are unidentified cyber forces that become the packagers and manipulators of information for further aims. Fake information with extremely unreliable sources and content, cybercrimes that trample on the bottom line of laws and morality, etc.
They have also turned cyberspace into a foggy environment. Hence, based on its complexity and in view of creating good web “ecology”, countries around the world are strengthening the management and control of cyberspace, thus achieving the penetration of public power into it. Therefore, we see that cyberspace is not completely independent in a theoretical sense.
In short, in the process of information flow and collision, there is the creation of value and meaning, but also its destruction. Web communication and interaction do not always contribute to resolving incidents of any kind, but in many cases simply act as a destabilising force. Indeed, we cannot simply decide that cyberspace is a “public” or a “quasi-public sphere”.
When discussing the spatial attribution of cyberspace, the yes/no-1/0 method of judging is the result of mechanistic understanding and application of commonly accepted public domain theories. It is very easy to hide the complexity of the structure and the inherent contradictions of cyberspace, and this prevents us from accurately understanding and judging the essential characteristics and functions of cyberspace – and by essential I mean and refer to utility as a shared value, and not to the individuals’ personal benefits.
In my opinion, the greatest significance of the public domain for cyberspace is that it must exist functionally. Cyberspace cannot simply be judged at the aforementioned 1/0 digital level, but can actually perform service operations for everyone. When attempting to orient and guide web subjects from “individualised” to “public” netizens, they can express not only their own needs for interest under the form of help with knowledge and exchange of purely personal experiences, etc., but also uphold the spirit of public rationality by actively paying attention to public events, supervising public power, and safeguarding everybody’s interests.
As a result, it is hoped that cyberspace will rise to the status of a “rational information agent”, and hence a proactive constructive force. When cyberspace plays the role and function of the public domain, it can effectively communicate the relationship between the private sphere and the power sphere, between the online and the offline space, and effectively rebuild the relationship between government, society and citizens, thus contributing to the adjustment and optimisation of the general order of social space.
Conversely, as far as the ownership of cyberspace is concerned, we cannot simply identify cyberspace as ‘being’ or ‘not being’ in the public domain, but we must seek to orient its role in the public interest. In a fundamental sense, cyberspace is a social space, a new ‘environmental’ form that extends and differs from the social space of everyday life with the development of the Internet technology.
Nevertheless, based on the technical dimension, cyberspace as a “virtual reality” is different from the social environment in a general sense, displaying its own characteristics and operating rules that all too often defy moral, civil and criminal behaviours.