The thing that’s going to be quaint about “cyberspace” (that already is, really) is the inherent assumption that it’s a realm unto itself; that it’s in any way elsewhere or other.
According to Edward Said Orientalism is the notion, that “[…] as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West.” (Said 1978:5) For this condition he blamed a distinctive body of academic work which rose under the shield and by the force of nineteenth-century colonial domination, and didn’t vanish with the formal structures of colonial rule but continues to reflect the ongoing interests of the West in the East. This academic work, still according to Said, stereotypes the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Orientals’, denies history and agency. (Clifford 1988, Spencer 1996:407) In a nuthshell: the ‘Orient’ is constructed as a negative pendant to the ‘Occident’ unto which every fear and notion of evil is projected—amazingly enough sometimes phantasies of paradise, too.
On the one hand there is much talk about the Internet as an incredible chance to humankind: A democratic space where information can be traded freely without censorship, a possibility for the not-so-well-off nations to participate in the ‘first world’ and even to catch up with it, a system which stores all the knowledge of the world and grants access to it to everyone, a means of communication which bridges cultural, political, and economic divides, and so on.
On the other hand each group seems to find its haunting nemesis, its individual phantom menace, inside the conceptual space generated by CMC, too: For USamerican puritan moral-guards its the place where porn is uncontrollably exchanged, for German authorities the Neo-Nazis organize themselves there, for the People’s Republic of China the critics of the government, separatists and Falun Gong dwell there, for the music industry its the realm of the bootleggers, for the economists’ establishment it is the dungeon out of which evil hackers threaten there infrastructure, for Microsoft it is the network of the Open Source community, and for the latter it is the system through which Microsoft strives for world domination, and so on. On a more abstract level it is seen as the technology which’s usage quickly can develope into pathologic patterns (Young 1998, Davis 1999)—a threat to the human individual itself. Those notions are examples of manifest Virtualism, as the concept already has led to words and actions.
It does not matter if ‘cyberspace’ is stylized as an utopia or as a dystopia. In both cases it is brandished as a ‘Gegenwelt’, as a reality decidedly distinguished from the ‘real one’. Unfortunately science gives support to this construction when it labels it to be ‘virtual’. By the sheer use of this label in connection with CMC, science has become guilty of latent Virtualism, the unconscious, untouchable certainty about what the CMC-mediated realms are. They are seen as separate, eccentric, and silently different. Their change and value are always judged in terms of, and in comparison to, the familiar offline-world. In consequence cyberspace always remains the inferior, the malleable and conquerable, the Other.
From a phenomenological point of view the dichotomy real-virtual can not be upheld anymore when speaking about CMC. We have to accept that CMC does not constitute another world. Like every other means of communication it is an augmentation of the possibilities to make experience. Granted, the Internet makes new social phenomena possible, which have not been seen before, and even new cultures may emerge which on first glance are completely alien to us. But when we do research on these new cultures, from the start on we have to be very careful about the terms we use, or sooner or later we will have to face the same accusation with which Said confronted the western scholars of ‘oriental’ cultures. To be careful in this respect means to discard the prefix ‘virtual’ when speaking about CMC, as it forcefully constructs distance and otherness and implies a fundamental homogeneity of all experiences made online. Just as an orientalistic stance brings forth the notion of a monolithic ‘cultural area’ called Orient.
By definition all experiences made online are mediated by technology, happen in Sterling’s “place between the phones”—of course. Analogously correct is the banal observation that the geographical region called Orient is situated in physical space. But physical space houses an enormous social and cultural diversity. Accordingly: “What characterizes the new system of communication, based in the digitized, networked integration of multiple communication modes, is its inclusiveness and comprehensiveness of all cultural expressions.” (Castells 1996:405) Castells overdoes it, hence, what he postulates is still to prove. In my opinion the project of proof and subsequent research is worthwhile, but we can not do it on the basis of a virtualistic panoramic view of whole cyberspace, but rather with differentiating methods and concepts that allow space for the dynamic variety of human experience. A fragmentation of the experience of reality combined with a subsequent judgement of the resulting parts in terms of value does not serve the cause of research on CMC. Just as it didn’t serve western science and philosophy when it was introduced into those by christian theology. (Baigent and Leigh 1997)
If the rejection of Orientalism is an erasure of the line between ‘the West’ and ‘the Other’, as Said concludes, the rejection of Virtualism is the erasure of the boundary between real and virtual.