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Ulysses goes CyberSpace,
the Genesis of a Hype Word

von Joachim Paul

To a single person the notions of our languages appear as something fixed in sense and unmovable, but within a historic dimension language turns out to be a roaming sea of continouously changing metaphors.

Julian Jaynes

CyberSpace is "in". No doubt.

Wether as the surfable "data space"" of the internet, or as "virtual reality", VR, a technically high-ended software-construction of three-dimensional spaces within a computer, which one can visually perceive, manipulate and "fly through" with the support of HMDs (head mounted displays) and data gloves.

Something Etymological
The origin of the second part of our notion, "Space", is rather easy to determine. It is derived from the Latin term "Spatium", engl. similar in meaning to "space", "interspace" and "time space", which was used as an expression for "distance". Although Latin language possesses an own word for time, "tempus", our recent clear destinction between the terms "time" and "space" is not mirrored within the term "space".  This is easily understandable, if we take into account, that for an ancient Roman the overcoming of a larger spatial distance needed also a larger amount of time.

The prefix "Cyber" nowadays is often used as a part of frontpage headlines as well as for composing new notions for everything, which contains or should contain an electronic component: CyberCash, CyberDemocracy, CyberSex, CyberMarketing, etc. Because it suggests hype, modernism, being up-to-date, as well as a seal of approval for technical innovations.

The joke is: The term is egregiously old, even in historical dimensions, and has initially nothing to do with electronics and electronic media.

Therefore its origin and its linguistic evolution towards "CyberSpace" is not so easy to determine as it is the case with the notion "computer", which derives from Latin "computare", with a similar meaning to the English term "to calculate", and which was first used in the sense of a calculating machine by the German philosopher and mathematician Leibniz. The genealogy of our term rather contains a  complicated historical process with detours, which is really typical for the manners in which new notions - not only nowadays - emerge and have emerged.

Our way again leads us back to antiquity, this time to Greece. The ancient Greek term "kybernétes" somehow is an antique job title and denotes  "helmsman", i.e. captain of a ship. Coordinated to that word is the ability to steer, the steermanship "kybernetiké", which is related to "techné", similar in meaning to "doing with the hands, prestidigitation", and from whom our notions "technique", "technology" and "technics" are derived. So we have to do with the manual activity as well as the coordination of steering and controlling a ship on sea, odysseys included, if one thinks about Ulysses, the famous "kybernetes". In a more abstract meaning "kybernetiké" stands for the ability, to move - autonomously - through a continuously changing environment - here we have the image of a high sea with all its dangers -, a process of control in broadest sense. But this ability is only possessed by living beings, conclusively "kybernetiké" has got something to do with life itself!

Processes of Nascency
The next step of the evolution of the notion "CyberSpace" lies in USA in the middle of Wiener's famous publicationour century. The American-German mathematician Norbert Wiener by all means was conscious about the ancient meanings, when he looked for an adequate notion. In 1948 he published  his fame gaining fundamental work "Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine" [1].

By the way: Within Anglo-American language the word "Control" is used similar than "regulation" and in a basically different sense than the German term "Kontrolle", which for example depicts the more or less hierarchical check of circumstances. However both words are of the same origin, a drawing together of the French "contre-rôle" of 18th Century, which means something like "anti-roll", "anti-registry".

The target Wiener was aiming at with his mathematically and philosophically oriented publication about control circuits and feedback mechanisms was the creation as well as the definition of a new scientific discipline, even in the sense of a clear distinction to the already well established academic branches.

How about that? A single person will manage it to introduce a new notion, here the notion of cybernetics, to the - only academic at this time - every day life use? No way. Though the new notion was proposed by Wiener it was foremost established by a true democratic consensus.

The "guiltiness" belongs to the physicist Heinz von Foerster with his at that time humble command of English language, who came from Austria and immigrated to USA in 1949. But we should let him tell the story: "As a guest of the 6th Macy-Conference on 24th and 25th March 1949 I was excluded from the business meeting at the evening. But when I was asked to enter again, the chairman Warren McCulloch announced that because of my bad command of English language the members of the meeting are endeavoured to find a possibility for me to learn that language as soon and as thoroughly as possible. And as they told me they had found such a possibility. I was ordered to write the meeting report, which should be published as soon as possible. I was completely astounded! After having gathered myself, I stated that the title of the conference "Circular-causal Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems" seemed too clumsy to me, and that I think it is better to simply entitle the conference with "Cybernetics" along with using the present description as the subtitle. With applause and laughter this proposal immediateley gained compliance, and Norbert Wiener left the room with wet eyes to hide his emotions." (Translation from German by author) [2]

Why this longer anecdote? On the first glance a germ cell for the distribution of a new notion was created, whose scientific topics are the "interaction mechanisms" within biological and social systems. But what is shining through within the lines of Heinz von Foerster are starting points for a new culture of acting and thinking, which is mirrored in the fact, that the one with the badest command of English language is ordered to write the conference report, just to allow him to learn English!

However this new culture - important for a deeper understanding of the creation of the new notion "CyberSpace" - has its initial points not only within the publication of Wiener, but within two shorter articles of Warren McCulloch published earlier in 1943 and 1944. These publications both deal with "computations" of reactions within nervous systems of living beings according to the environment. The first publication written together with the mathematician Walter Pitts and named "A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity" delivered a first mathematical model [3]. Within "A Heterarchy of Values Determined by the Topology of Nervous Nets" McCulloch discussed the question of order within nervous systems and drawed the conclusion - also influenced by his own investigations on spinal chords of frogs - that the topology of nervous systems does not show any order in the sense of a hierarchy! [4]   Embodiments of Mind, Warren S. McCulloch As a well educated thinker - even within  the European tradition, Heidegger's "Sein und Zeit" was not only part of his bookshelf - McCulloch constructed the notion of "heterarchy" in the sense of a co-ordination and in strong contradiction to "hierarchy" ("hierarchia" in ancient greek means something similar to "order by god" and  "government by priests"). Additionally he stated that a formal description  of the activities of a nervous system is not possible alone with the tools of classical binary logic. What a consolation! Although ist is still stubbornly tried ...

Following McCullochs theses, every living being - wether man or frog - does not "function" via a hierarchical organization. This circumstance can be made clear with a rather simple example. One of the most central and highly ordered control systems of the human organism is the feedback loop for the body temperature. Even with changing environmental conditions it ensures a nearly constant average body temperature of 37°C. However if a bacterial infection occurs the immune system forces the temperature control system to increase the nominal value of the body temperature to support the biochemical reactions for the defense of the intruders. In that context fever caused by infection is a healthy reaction! After defeatment of the intruders the immune system gives its "leadership" back to the temperature control system. According to the above mentioned facts living is a process understandable as an ongoing interplay of hierarchy and heterarchy. Within living beings there exists no permanent  hierarchy.Ein auch "Strange Loop" genanntes, heterarchisches Elementarnetz mit doppelter Schließung

 A heterarchic elementary network called "Strange Loop" with double closure
The three feedback loops are netted with another loop. This topology in two dimensions is not cross-free but has to be put on a tore, a double closed hyperplane in three-dimensional space.

Attention! To compare the new notion of heterarchy with chaos or disorder does not meet the theme. The problem lies in the fact that we human beings tend to imagine "order" as something hierarchical equipped with the features of "upper" and "lower" levels caused by a lack of terms and imaginations for heterarchies, i.e. co-ordinations.  These have to be developed in the nearby future. If we have a look at the realities of life on our planet, it has to be considered that nearly everywhere whe have to face hierarchies of different couleur, another symptome of missing imaginations for other order principles.

Multiple Interpretations
For further conclusions let us consider the definitions of cybernetics stated by leading members of that new thinking-art which exceptionlessly stand for an extension of our notion of order; i.e. Gregory Bateson, anthropologist, ethologist (with dolphins) and "father" of family therapy: "Cybernetics is a branch of mathematics which deals with problems of control, recursion and information." Or Stafford Beer, economics and mamagement-teacher: "Cybernetics is the science of effective organisation." One of the most abstract statements was done by the British psychologist Gordon Pask: "Cybernetics is the science of justifiable metaphors."   It seems that cybernetics possesses different meanings for different people according to their individual terminological richnesses; by the way none of those cyberneticians has problems with the acceptance of the definition of a colleague. But common to all of them is a central theme, the theme of circularity and selfreferenciality. This fact is expressed in a perfectly clear way in a statement of the anthropologist Margaret Mead: "I do not apply to the fact that amongst rebelling youngsters clothing has substituted the mimeographical machine as a form of communication." And a few sentences later: "In particular I would like to point at the meaning of the interdisciplinary terms, which in the beginning we called 'feed-back', then 'teleological mechanisms' and then 'cybernetics' - a kind of interdisciplinary thinking which allows members of many disciplines to communicate in a language which erveryone understands." [2]

At least here it becomes clear: Within the newly developed cybernetics in the Fourties in USA it radically was made an end with the separation between sciences and humanities. Although global diffusion is still missing. However, cybernetic thinking, mosty represented by effect structures, nowadays and 55 years later can be found within revolutionary research work in biology, cognitive sciences, family therapy, psychology, computer sciences and mamagement sciences, just to mention a few domains. Paul Watzlawick is a popular epigon of the first cyberneticians, as well as Frederic Vester, known for his nice games and simulations in ecology.

The Cybernetic Consequence
In the last philosophical consequence one has to state the following together with Gotthard Günther (an American-German philosopher, working together with Heinz von Foerster at BCL): "Because that it is often mentioned, that computers are able to perform many actions but are basically not able to act in a creative sense, on the epistemological background of cybernetics it has to be dare said, that if somebody rises that assertion and is able to define finiter and precisely what he understands by the term "creative", then an engineer is able to build a machine which possesses that feature. But if the scepticist is not able to express what he means, then it will be completely obsolete to expect from a cybernetician to construct something which should remain an undefinable mystery to him." [5]

Here it becomes clear that the boring discussion about computers being able to show creativity or not on the ground of cybernetics had been overcome!  This question is based on the classical separation of "body" and "mind" (a hierarchical order relation!). Here cybernetics accepts neither the idealistic nor the materialistic perspective, it stands beyond and points out pathways into new philosophical landscapes of thinking, where the absolute character of the classical dichotomies "good and bad", "mind and matter", "shape and content", "rational an emotional", "Alpha and Omega", as well as the logical values "true and false" will not hold. In other words, the unquestioned validity of all the outcomes of occidental philosophical history with their unmovable walls of two-valued Aristotelian logic with its founding metaphysics is rejected by cybernetics. What holds are naked but complex effect nets of operationally closed control systems, which due to actual problems are filled with content. In the best sense cybernetics is transcultural, it has untied itself from its cultural background and represents something on its own, just like the post-war exile Europeans, who constructed it on American ground, and who laughed into the faces of the "gods" of the old world with the saying of  Ulysses: "Nobody has blinded you!"

Within that transcultural feature of cybernetics we find a first analogy to cyberspace, here meant as the "data space" of the Internet, with its functionality being not restricted to just one cultural sphere. 

Transcultural and the Origin of Cyberspace
An even more deeper analogy can be found within the literary work of the science fiction author William Gibson. At the end of the Seventies he introduced the notion "CyberSpace". Inside his trilogy "Neuromancer" he sends his hero Case (one should recognize the name used as a reserved word for decision command structures in programming languages!) through a multidimensional data labyrinth, which possesses no "upper" and no "lower" , no "beginning" and no "end" and at least no hierarchical order. [6]. As a kind of modern version of Ulysses Case generates his way through the labyrinth himself by his decisions, he modifies it, he even creates it by his walkthrough, and the labyrinth creates him newly at every "location", so that is pure feedback!

Within the hypertextual system of the Internet and within the newsgroups the situation is similar, the question for individual identity is raised newly - within the context of the data network -, and no Ariadne helps with a thread, no Minotaur is lurking behind the next corner (although a lot people think, that Bill Gates is it ...).

The first who used the notion "CyberSpace" for the combination of computer technology and telecommunication was the journalist and media philosopher John Perry Barlow, still known to a few as the lyricist  of the US-rockgroup "The Grateful Dead". He demarcated and declared the data network to a qualitatively new world, for which new metaphors, new rules and new patterns of behavior have to be developed. [7]. It was a consequence of his appearances within the classical media, that this new notion quickly was overtaken by leading magazines like Time and Scientific American as well as by scientists, cryptographs and hackers.

We have seen, that the notion "CyberSpace", which is very badly translated by a term like "control space", could be filled with a more deeper meaning which goes beyond frontpage words like CyberMarketing and CyberCash. These are just pure adaptations and express the wish to make marketing and cash within the cyberspace "Internet", so why not?

Hopes and Hamperings
If one tries to have a sober look at the data network on one hand and at our premises on the other, and without the rock'n-roll-revolutionary-romantic attitudes of Gibson and Barlow, the following has to be stated: The already existing electromagnetic world of radio and tv knows - for technical reasons - less senders and a lot of receivers. The Internet is totally different. For the first time in history we have access to a medium - not an unidirectional mass medium - which allows distance-unlimited transmitting and receiving for every participant. Even in a cybernetic sense the old media hierarchies are broken. But: With the experiences with the old media we are educated to be consumers and have to (re)learn and/or to teach transmitting. Vilém Flusser brings it to the point when he puts the netting and networking of human beings against the bundling of mass media. [8]. Pure rejection of new technologies does not help but gives ground to technocracy and barricades the path into a technological age.

Simultaneously the worldwide and multimedial data labyrinth  is both generator and generated for the modern Ulysses. It is a babylonian secularisation engine and is able to bring us nearer to ourselves as well as to each other, the (painful) kingsway to a (perhaps) planetary civilization. Its normative power lies in its de-normatizing features. First then a history of mankind as a whole will start to begin.

Or just to speak with the cybernetician Heinz von Foerster: "Only the questions which are principally undecidable, we can decide."

Yes, to become Ulysses is nothing for the fainthearted.

For Cute Readers:
[1] Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: or Control and Kommunikation in the Animal and the Machine, Massachussetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge Mass., 1948 ../images/totext.gif (902 Byte)

[2] Heinz von Foerster, KybernEthik, Merve Verlag Berlin, 1993 ../images/totext.gif (902 Byte)../images/totext.gif (902 Byte)

[3] Warren St. McCulloch, Walter Pitts; A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity, Abdruck in: Embodiments of Mind, Warren St. McCulloch, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 1970 ../images/totext.gif (902 Byte)

[4] Warren St. McCulloch, A Heterarchy of Values Determined by the Topology of Nervous Nets, Abdruck in: Embodiments of Mind, Warren St. McCulloch, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 1970 ../images/totext.gif (902 Byte)

[5] Gotthard Günther, Selbstdarstellung im Spiegel Amerikas, in: Philosophie in Selbstdarstellungen, Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg 1978 ../images/totext.gif (902 Byte)

[6] William Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984, dt. Neuromancer, Heyne Verlag, München 1987 ../images/totext.gif (902 Byte)

[7] Stefan Bollmann, Einführung in den CyberSpace, in: Kursbuch Neue Medien, Bollmann Verlag, Mannheim 1995 ../images/totext.gif (902 Byte)

[8] Vilém Flusser, Verbündelung oder Vernetzung? in: Kursbuch Neue Medien, Bollmann Verlag, Mannheim 1995 ../images/totext.gif (902 Byte)

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Author Contact: jpaul@xpertnet.de
Copyright © 1998 Joachim Paul, all rights reserved
fist published in German within Medienbrief 2, 1998,  Medienzentrum Rheinland
Last modification of English translation: May 15, 1999
Last modified (layout): 2010-12-06