What is Cyberculture?
Cyberculture is the response to the ubiquitous presence and use of computers and networks in all aspects of contemporary social life, including communication, labour, education, art and entertainment, business, and industry. It involves the everyday experience of digital technologies, networks, and the representation of the many possible futures that such technologies might contribute to making a reality.
In the past we have imagined what cyberculture would be like in movies, television, books, comics and advertising, and these media forms have teased us with dreams of having instantaneous communication available anywhere in the world, with powerful supercomputers that fit in your hand, and the ability to store millions of documents, images and pieces of information with immediate recall. Indeed cyberculture is part futurology.
Today, many of the technologies once dreamt about and represented in fiction are now commonplace. We live in the future imagined by cybercultural texts, we exist online and off, we are in cyberspace. Cyberspace is not a virtual world, it is the interconnectedness of networks, devices, screens, logins, profiles, applications and software. This subject is interested in how cybercultures have been historically represented and how these past visions and ideas of the future compare to the reality that is lived today and what that might mean for the possible tomorrows.
There are a great many books and other academic materials that have been produced over the past three decades contributing to the study of cybercultures, and one interesting example to start with is Defining Cyberculture, a piece by Jakub Macek, which examines the history of attempts to define the term cyberspace.
Lev Manovich, a professor of new media theory and computer science at the City University of New York where he is a researcher and teacher with a focus on on the digital humanities, social computing, new media art and theory, and software studies, has an interesting definition of cyberculture: “I would define cyberculture as the study of various social phenomena associated with the Internet and other new forms of network communication. Examples of what falls under cyberculture studies are online communities, online multiplayer gaming, the issue of online identity, the sociology and the ethnography of email usage, cell phone usage in various communities; the issues of gender and ethnicity in Internet usage; and so on... .”
Lev Manovich 2002 “New Media from Borges to HTML,” The New Media Reader, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (eds), The MIT Press.
Culture is an anthropological term and can be considered as a set of learned behaviours and shared resources of expressions and representations, which are characteristics of an interconnected people group.
We might talk about the culture of athletes, celebrities, or speak of a national culture or indigenous cultures or the subcultures of fandoms and we will already have a shared sense of their norms, standards and activities from our own experiences.
Unlike culture, which is marked by flexible and changing boundaries, society is the actual experience of belonging: we belong to a society of individuals and a collective culture of expression. Society is made up of practices, institutions, governments and organisations that we belong to, even if they develop cultures and subcultures of their own.
So with regards to the distinction between New Media Technologies, like Virtual Reality, 3D printing or personal drones and the cybercultures they are part of, we are interested in the potential of the cultural object and the paradigm of its social existence.
In this subject we will interrogate the representations of the social order that regulates how these technologies and cultural practices impact our daily lives, how we imagine and create laws and contracts to control them, but also how we use media to represent their potential and employ them to create new experiences, social groupings and cultural expressions.
Take for instance the World Wide Web. The phenomena of hypertext and HTML (the language of the web) is not only important in terms of looking at the specifics of how the code works, but also its representation in cinema, television, fiction and documentary. We can examine how these representations have impacted on our everyday processes, how it has been adopted in contemporary culture and how it works to format our societies and social order in return.
What has the web done to social relations, sovereignty, governments, laws, and the expressions of our common activities and relationships? How have those impacts been represented in popular culture?
As we know from the Robert Zemeckis Back to the Future movies, particularly the sequel which predicted we would be riding hoverboards in 2015, not all representations and visions of cyberculture become a reality, but Science and Science Fiction have a close affinity: one informs the other in a cyclical relationship. Science and engineering often come close, even if the reality doesn’t quite align with the imagination of Science Fiction.
The imagined technologies of Science Fiction aren’t really predictions but rather attempts to wrestle with the implications of change and disruption to our established modes of existence that technologies, like self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, cloning and maybe one-day anti-gravity, cybernetic brains or quantum teleportation might help to produce. These predictions are more about the cybercultural imagining of the now and our relationships to technology today than they are about the future.