Does “cyberspace” still exist?

A food-for-thought/thinking-in-progress post: does “cyberspace” still exist?

I’ve been thinking about this issue recently in connection with several law review articles I’m writing. My feeling at this point is that our earlier conception of networked communications at the dawn of “cyberspace” in 1996 (see Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace) is quite different from the conception we have today. In an era of social networks, smartphones, apps, and customized services, it may no longer make sense to think of cyberspace as a shared place we visit.

One way of showing this is by examining how Google treats searches for formatives of the word “cyberspace.”

cy

1. Search for “cy”: None of the suggestions include “cyberspace.” Considering the advertising orientation of Google, I’m not surprised that “cyber monday” shows up. But “cyanide and happiness?” Disturbing, much, until I realized that it is a webcomic.

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cyb

2. Search for “cyb”: Even more “cyber monday” stuff, with “cyberpower” at the end. Cyberpower makes UPS power strips.

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cyber

3. Search for “cyber”: If anything should show “cyberspace,” this should. But I got the same results as for “cyb.” Maybe people just don’t think about “cyberspace” as a place anymore. I’m not sure that I should, either. (“Professor, you’re sooo 20th century….”)

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cybers4. Search for “cybers”: You’d think “cyberspace” would have shown up by now. But it still doesn’t; instead, we see “cybersource” (I had to look it up, it’s a credit card processing company), “cybersquatting” (which I’ve written about), “cyberscholar” (a/k/a, hopefully me), and “cyber security” (a hot topic). But no “cyberspace.” Interesting.

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cybersp

5. Search for “cybersp”: Finally, “cyberspace” is the first hit. The first hit is Wikipedia, and claims that the term is “ubiquitous.” But based on Google’s suggested searches, I’m not so sure.

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Beyond the observations above, I’ll not speculate unduly as my thoughts are still forming. But as Dan Hunter wrote in 2003, “Thinking of cyberspace as a place has led judges, legislators, and legal scholars to apply physical assumptions about property in this new, abstract space.” That’s very true: the assumptions we make about things affects how we choose to regulate them.

But I suspect that we’re now moving into a post-cyberspace era, one of networked communications devoid of “place.” Indeed, I don’t think of either Facebook or Twitter–which I call “Super-Intermediaries” in one of my forthcoming pieces–as a place at all, but rather a connectivity tool. Super-Intermediaries are not thought of as metaphorical “places,” but as things that provide ever-shifting and oftentimes highly complex networks that can vary significantly between individuals (Twitter and Facebook) and sometimes between geographical regions (YouTube).

I suspect that this arguable shift away from place-ness may have a significant effect on how we conceive of the internet, how we describe it, how lawmakers try to regulate it, and how human rights are affected. I’ll demur from saying more as my thoughts are still forming, but I plan to discuss some of these themes next month at the upcoming Internet Law Work-in-Progress Conference at Santa Clara Law School.

Cross-posted to Infoglut Tumblr.

Google abandons “minimalist” homepage, permits distracting background images. Yuk.

For everything but its core search engine, Google has been at the forefront of the participatory web, i.e., Web 2.0, with products like YouTube, Picasa, and more.  But its core search engine has for over a decade been sacrosanct, with a minimalist aesthetic: logo, search box, and a so-called 28-word rule that limits the words on the homepage.  And, of course, the minimalist, non-distracting white background.

Until today.  Now Google permits users to select background images, either from an online database or their own computers.  Sure, other search providers have pretty backgrounds (Bing, anyone?)  Sure, it’s kind of pretty.  But after playing with backgrounds for a few minutes, I went back to the default white.

Why avoid backgrounds?  To reduce information overload and the attendant distractions.  Google is an essential tool, one that should foster focus rather than distraction.  The loading of the background and the perceived — even if not actual — delay, is another addition to a sea of distractions.  For better or for worse, I use Google numerous times a day.  In an era where focused attention is becoming increasingly difficult — see, e.g., Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson — the fewer distractions, the better.

Plus, Google is a hypocrite.  Contrasting Google’s new “backgrounds” feature with the company’s stance on privacy is extremely revealing.  A few years back, as noted here, Google adamantly refused to include a link to its privacy policy on its home page, allegedly because an additional link would distract from its “beautiful clean home page.”  Only after privacy advocates pushed did Google finally relent and add a privacy link to its homepage.  Even now, that link remains in the smallest typeface, possibly to avoid reminding people of how much information they sacrifice to Google daily.  Yet if Google truly cares so much for its minimalist aesthetic, why permit users to now clutter their homepages with pictures of kittehs?

So my response to Google: yuk.  For now, I’ll carry Google’s banner and stick to the minimum.  Enough distractions.

James Gleick on the future of books

The great science writer James Gleick writes in today’s NYT about the future of books:

As a technology, the book is like a hammer. That is to say, it is perfect: a tool ideally suited to its task. Hammers can be tweaked and varied but will never go obsolete. Even when builders pound nails by the thousand with pneumatic nail guns, every household needs a hammer. Likewise, the bicycle is alive and well. It was invented in a world without automobiles, and for speed and range it was quickly surpassed by motorcycles and all kinds of powered scooters. But there is nothing quaint about bicycles. They outsell cars.

The op-ed is a thoughtful take on the future of books, including the significance of the recent settlement of the Google Book Search litigation, in which Gleick played a role as a negotiator for the authors.

Google Book Search settlement

Here’s an excerpt from today’s press release:

The Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers (AAP), and Google today announced a groundbreaking settlement agreement on behalf of a broad class of authors and publishers worldwide that would expand online access to millions of in-copyright books and other written materials in the U.S. from the collections of a number of major U.S. libraries participating in Google Book Search. The agreement, reached after two years of negotiations, would resolve a class-action lawsuit brought by book authors and the Authors Guild, as well as a separate lawsuit filed by five large publishers as representatives of the AAP’s membership. The class action is subject to approval by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Info on the settlement here and here.

Google and Viacom reach partial YouTube data agreement

The NY Times reports that Google and Viacom have reached a partial agreement regarding production of YouTube user data:

Google said it had now agreed to provide lawyers for Viacom and a class-action group led by the Football Association of England, a large viewership database that blanks out YouTube username and Internet address data that could be used to identify individual video watchers.

The parties are still working towards a separate agreement concerning YouTube employee data, an issue I wrote about yesterday.