The creation and development of cyberspace have profoundly changed people’s thinking and behavioral 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 Internet-related issues, social science research mainly uses the “web society” and “cyberspace” as conceptual tools to impact the topic.
With the fast development of web technology and people’s proactive participation in communication practices, cyberspace has been widely recognized 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:
A. 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 fiber-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.
B. The intermediate grammar layer, i.e. the instructions, programs, and protocols with which the machine interacts between the system designer and the machine user.
C. 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:
A. the “physical layer refers to the hardware devices that make up the computer.
B. The “protocol layer” emphasizes 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.
C. The “logic layer/code” is the software operated by the computer, which defines and limits the ways in which users can use the web.
D. The “content layer” mainly expresses the various objects and/or narratives created by Internet users.
E. The “relations layer” emphasizes 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 labor, 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 behavioral 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 webspace 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 spatialization 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 represents 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 digitalization. This virtualized 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 adjectives, 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 civilization and it is the fundamental human right, second only to the right to life. The creation and development of cyberspace have given this right a new expression, i.e. Internet freedom. Some scholars have specifically structured 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, individualization 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 webspace also have an important liberating significance from a psychic viewpoint.
Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web (WWW), wrote: “My idea for the World Wide Web is that everything can potentially be connected. It is this idea 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 lie in its internal values of civilization. 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 operation, however, can also be used for special purposes, and the advantages gained by “hidden third parties” achieve 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 organizational 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 rumors, 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 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-centered “space” system, but a human-centered system with “unification of rights and obligations”. 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, 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 product 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 “decentralization” characteristics of 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, 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 behavior 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).