In Defense of Cyberspace

By March 6, 2013 Blog No Comments

This blog post is a challenge to two popular articles that were published in the last month about cyberspace and the state. Both conversations could be substantively enriched with grounding in a broader social science literature, the findings of political scientists, and others attempting to understand the relationship between the state and society.

The first is an article by Michael Lind entitled, “Stop Pretending Cyberspace Exists” that begins with the line, “Some ideas make you dumber the moment you learn of them. One of those ideas is the concept of ‘cyberspace.’” Hyperbolic phrasing aside, he argues that there is no such place as cyberspace.  He states that “cyberspace” is a “bad metaphor” that is no longer applicable as most Internet activity takes place in a particular territory governed by states. He asserts that it is nonsensical to argue that the US or corporations are extending their jurisdiction or invading cyberspace.  He says:

There is no such place as cyberspace. It is not a parallel universe, coexisting with our world but in a different dimension. It is just a bad metaphor that has outlived its usefulness. Using the imagery of a fictitious country makes it harder to have rational arguments about government regulation or commercial exploitation of modern information and communications technologies.

To put it simply, he is stating that the term “cyberspace” does not capture the realities of the relationships between individuals, the state, and….well, to be honest, the third entity in his argued relationship is a bit unclear since he has disposed of the cyberspace metaphor.

His argument fits into a debate about whether the rapid expansion of ICTs is empowering the state or individuals. This debate is often tied to questions about the democratizing power of the Internet.  I would like to disagree with his claims.

My first central critique of Lind’s argument is that if we dispense with the term “cyberspace” we have no easily understood concept to articulate the experiences we have in online spaces. We need a metaphor to capture the virtual spaces that are imagined, coded, and lived while our physical bodies are elsewhere. Most who study online communities report that when people log into a given online community they think about that space as an actual place that they are visiting. This feeling, which seemingly has to do with the ways in which we imagine ourselves and project our “self” into a virtual space, is something that is implicit or explicit in most of the work focused on online communities. For example, both Markham (1998) and Rheingold (1993) speak in these terms in their seminal works about online communities.  Further, if we think about online spaces such as those in World of Warcraft, EVE Online or Star Wars: The Old Republic, it is impossible not to speak about actual geography. Players enter into these spaces with thousands of other people and maneuver across vast landscapes.  Even using “in game” transportation mechanisms that are the equivalent of a bus it can take over 20 minutes to move from one place to another in World of Warcraft.

My second complaint about Lind’s argument is that his conceptualization of “the law” and state power does not match with the vast number of scholars’ works that address the same issues.  As someone trained as a political scientist I would never dispute Lind’s claim that:

Individuals sitting at their PCs in, say, California are subject to the jurisdiction of the state of California and the United States of America…Cyberspace is not the equivalent of land that has suddenly arisen off the coast and has yet to be claimed effectively by any existing nation-state. The countries of the world already have jurisdiction over all of the activity that goes on within their recognized international borders.

Indeed, I would tsk-tsk some researchers for ignoring the power of the state.

However, Lind’s claim does not actually capture what is happening in this mythical place he no longer wants to name. When I sit at my computer on Friday nights and play World of Warcraft, I am wearing layers of legal jurisdiction like blankets. I am in Seattle, Washington, the servers I am using are located in California, both are in the United States—but I am playing the game with an Australian, also in Seattle, who is not a U.S. citizen; a Canadian in Toronto, Ontario; two men in West Virgina; three men in Perth, Western Australia; a woman in California; a woman in Colorado; and three lovely people in Turkey, two in Istanbul and one in Western Turkey. We play together in “Azeroth” (the name for the World of Warcraft world), but we also use Mumble—something similar to Skype, no idea where our provider’s servers live. We often are posting things on our guild website, using our cell phones and Google Chat to talk to each other, and frequently referencing things we saw on our Facebook pages. Each activity is embedded in the other and most happen in a space related to the Internet and separate from our physical bodies. In fact, many of us have only met “in person” once and some of us have never physically met. While this interaction is absolutely embedded in our “real lives,” making a dichotomous conception of “online” and “offline” unhelpful, it is also separate from our “real lives” in ways that we need some concept to capture.

My third disagreement with Lind centers on the fact that the findings of countless political scientists support the argument that even within the “clearly” governed space of the nation-state, there is no clear jurisdiction over our actions. In light of the limitations of the state within national boundaries, the transnational space of cyberspace should be an even easier case to test such arguments. The law and society literature actually has a term to capture our multi-jurisdictional life, but it does not just capture law as it is written.  That term is “legal pluralism.”  Sally Merry says that legal pluralism is, “Generally defined as a situation in which two or more legal systems coexist in the same social field.” (Merry 1988: 870)  She goes on to say:

Recent work defines ‘legal system’ broadly to include the system of courts and judges supported by the state as well as non-legal forms of normative ordering.  Some of these are part of institutions such as factories, corporations, and universities and include written codes, tribunals, and security forces, sometimes replicating the structure and symbolic form of state law.  Other normative orders are informal systems in which the processes of establishing rules, securing compliance to these rules, and punishing rulebreakers seem natural and taken for granted, as occurs within families, work groups, and collectives.” (Merry 1988: 871)

Researchers call all of these components “the law” although they also differentiate the concept of the law, as you can see above. Some have brought the law into engagement with spatial concepts.  For example, Migdal argues that there are not only the geographic boundaries of the state itself—spaces where one set of laws ends and another begins—but that there are many boundaries overlapping, which delineate the edges of where the ways of “doing things” change (2004: 6).  Unlike the boundaries of the state, these lines do not appear on maps.  Rather, they are mental maps and at the edges are “checkpoints” where groups differentiate their members from other groups (2004: 6).  The idea that there is “just the law” and that this law is without overlapping fields of power is not one that is embraced by those who study the relationships between law and society.

The second article I would like to address is Katherine Maher’s beautifully written piece for Foreign Affairs.  In it, Maher argues that the Internet, “was clearly a place, but a place without any familiar cultural signposts, a space beyond the boundaries of geography or identity. It deserved its own name: cyberspace.”  So, to engage Lind’s framing, if the term “cyberspace” makes us “dumber,” why would so many smart people use the idea of cyberspace as something jurisdictionally separate from more conventionally governed spaces if we know this isn’t the case?

In relation to Lind’s argument, I would assert that just because “cyberspace” does not correspond easily to the world that we consider to be “reality” does not mean that it does not exist and that we are not placing our own mental maps and expectations over it.  Geographers also have a long history of studying the relationship between physical space and power and have argued that when colonizers arrived in the “new world” they conceived of this vast geography as “empty” because it didn’t contain any of the familiar structures—institutional and physical—that they associated with states, civilization, and modernity.  This conception of the space as “empty,” regardless of the many people living in complex civilizations there, then allowed them to impose their own ordering systems over the space. As I have implied in a previous blog post about the US state’s response to so-called hackers, even the state sees “cyberspace” as a wild west.  And, I would challenge Lind to explain why, if our existence is so governed and tucked into tidy jurisdictions, the Pirate Bay is still online.

Maher’s article runs parallel to Lind’s argument about “cyberspace” to some extent. In the article she raises the question of the Westphalian state as an ordering principle in international relations and outlines a move by the state to enclose “cyberspace,” thereby placing the same borders around it. She concludes her article stating:

Nearly 365 years ago, those hundred-plus princes and diplomats came together to end war — and in the process, created borders. The Internet broke those borders down, advancing the cause of fundamental rights, free expression, and shared humanity in all its messy glory. Now, to stifle political dissent and in the name of defending national security, governments are putting those borders back up — and in doing so, they’re dragging the Internet into ancient history.

My complaint with Maher’s article is milder, rather her piece raises some interesting questions for thought that have a context in my own disciplinary training.  In the subfield of political science, international relations (IR), there is a long and debate about the idea of the Westphalian state itself.  Much of this debate asks whether the idea of nation-state sovereignty we trace from the Treaty of Westphalia has actually been the reality in the international system. While this is argued, Stephen Krasner famously wrote with beautiful clarity:

The Westphalian model, based on the principles of autonomy and territory, offers a simple, arresting, and elegant image. It orders the minds of policymakers. It is an analytical assumption for neo-realism and neo-liberal institutionalism, both of which posit that states can be treated as if they were autonomous, unified, rational actors.  It is an empirical regularity for various sociological and constructivist theories of international politics.  Moreover, it is a benchmark for observers who discern a basic erosion of sovereignty in the contemporary world. This article demonstrates, however, that the Westphalian model has never been an accurate description of many of the entities that have been called states…Breaches of the Westphalian model have been an enduring characteristic of the international environment because there is nothing to prevent them…The Westphalian model has never been more than a reference point or a convention; it has never been some deeply confining structure from which actors could not escape.” (Krasner 1995: 115).

In addition to this debate from IR, within the subfield of comparative politics, there has been an ongoing debate about the power of the state domestically. This conversation is directly related to the work of those attempting to understand whether “The Internet” is empowering the state or activists/individuals.  In 1985, Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol even wrote a well-known book entitled, Bringing the State Back In, which argued academics needed to pay more attention to the state as an actor able to shape political and social processes. Or, looking to the state-in-society approach articulated by Migdal, the state and society are mutually shaping, embedded in each other, and non-unitary.  If in doubt of the number of people involved in this debate, please put the title of the book into Google Scholar.

To sum up, I sometimes read work that is explicitly engaged in a debate with the same themes and arguments that there is a deep literature covering within political science, in particular, but also within the careful work of new media scholars but without reference to that work. I know that among those who study new media, in particular, political science has a reputation for being so behind the times that it is often not even mentioned. But, the conversation in political science, the academic conversation about ICTs, and the popular conversation about new media and the state would be enriched through conversation with each other.


The featured image on this post is from the OPTE project.

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