Cyberpunks in Cyberspace:
The Politics of Subjectivity in the Computer Age

published in Susan Leigh Star, ed., Cultures of Computing
(Keele, UK: Sociological Review and Monograph Series, 1995), pp. 69-84.

NOTE: this version does not reproduce original pagination.

Paul N. Edwards
Associate Professor
School of Information
301D West Hall
University of Michigan
550 East University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1092

Digital computers transform complex, sophisticated techniques into everyday tools. As marketing campaigns so tirelessly proclaim, they thus confer a kind of power. But the significance of computers in modern life extends far beyond this practical capacity.

For half a century, along with television, space flight, nuclear weapons, and automobiles, computers have formed a technological backdrop for the American mental landscape. Revered as the consummate representatives of an ever more technological civilization, they are tools for work and toys for play, assistants to science, fixtures of daily life. They are icons of efficiency, social status, and a high-tech future. Reverberating across the intricate webworks of language and community, images of computers weave a dense and energetic fabric of signifying forms. Computers have been absorbed into the collective American imagination.

By 'imagination' and 'culture' I mean not only the fantastic high-tech futures of science fiction, but also the visions that guide public policy and science in a world of very-large-scale integrated circuits (Haraway 1985). Computers were the enigmatic object of profound hopes and hatreds even before their invention during the Second World War. They have always been as much symbols as practical devices: 'giant brains,' standards of precision, signs of scientific values, evidence of omnipotence. Ideas about artificial intelligence, a networked society where computers instantaneously handle calculation, communication and control, and the view of the human brain as a biological computer are now commonplaces. We can make sense of the material roles of computers as tools only when we simultaneously grasp their roles as cultural metaphors.

Igloo White

In 1968 the largest building in Southeast Asia was the Infiltration Surveillance Center at Nakhom Phanom in Thailand, the command center of US Air Force Operation Igloo White. Inside the ISC technicians pored over banks of video displays, controlled by gigantic IBM computers and connected to thousands of sensors strewn across the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos.

The sensors Ð shaped like twigs, jungle plants, and animal droppings Ð were designed to detect any human activity: the noises of truck engines, body heat, even the scent of human urine. When they picked up a signal, it appeared on the remote display terminals of the ISC as a moving white 'worm' superimposed on a map grid. As soon as the ISC computers could calculate the 'worm's' direction and rate of motion, coordinates were radioed to Phantom F-4 jets patrolling the night sky. The planes' navigation systems and computers automatically guided them to the 'box,' or map grid square, to be attacked. The ISC central computers were also capable of controlling the release of bombs automatically. The pilot might do no more than sit and watch as the invisible jungle below exploded into flames. In most cases no American ever saw the targets at all.

This entire process normally took no more than five minutes.

Operation Igloo White ran from 1967 to 1972 at a cost near $1 billion a year. Visiting reporters were dazzled by the high-tech scene inside the windowless ISC. Young soldiers sat at their displays in air-conditioned comfort, faces lit weirdly by the dim electric glow, directing the destruction of people and equipment as if playing a video game. One technician is reported to have said, 'We wired the Ho Chi Minh Trail like a drugstore pinball machine, and we plug it in every night.'

Air Force officials made extraordinary claims for Igloo White. They said it destroyed over 35,000 trucks, each carrying about 10,000 pounds of supplies destined for the communist insurgency in South Vietnam. But the official estimates, like so many other official versions of the Vietnam War, existed mainly in the never-never land of public relations. In 1971 a Senate report pointed out that the figure for '...truck kills claimed by the Air Force... last year greatly exceeds the number of trucks believed by the Embassy to be in all of North Vietnam.' Daytime reconnaissance flights rarely located the supposedly destroyed vehicles. Traffic over the Ho Chi Minh Trail continued as the guerrillas adopted countermeasures such as sensor-confusing decoys and anti-aircraft weapons. The antiseptic efficiency of the ISC control room was belied by the 13,000 civilian refugees created by its operations Ð and the loss of three to four hundred American aircraft.

Finally, despite more than four years of intensive computer-controlled bombardment of their heavy-equipment supply lines, the communists were able to field a major tank and artillery offensive inside South Vietnam in 1972. (See Dickson 1976, pp. 83-97, and Gibson 1986, pp. 396-399).

Operation Igloo White's centralized, computerized, automated, power-at-a-distance method of 'interdiction' resembled a microcosmic version of the whole US approach to Vietnam. Van Creveld has noted, in his study of command in war, that once President Johnson ordered US bombing of North Vietnam in 1965, 'the air war... was run by McNamara and his assistants from Washington.... Directives emanating from the Office of the Secretary of Defense specified the targets to be struck, the weather conditions..., and even the minimal level of training that individual pilots had to possess.' Johnson himself took part in targeting decisions. It was 'the revolutionary explosion of electronic communication and automatic data processing equipment... [that] made effective worldwide command and control from Washington a practical technological proposition' (Van Creveld 1985, p. 244).

Because of the length and complexity of these chains of command, this drive to centralize command and control created serious impediments to accurate understanding of what was going on in the field. The elements of Operation Igloo White exemplify both the 'information pathologies' of Vietnam (Van Creveld 1985) and its problems at the regional level: centralized, remote-controlled operations based on super-sophisticated computing and communications gear, an abstract representation of events (sensors, maps, grids, 'worms') justified in terms of statistics, and a wide gap between an official discourse of overwhelming success and the pessimistic assessments of independent observers.

I begin with Igloo White because it shows how the story of the computer is nested inside another, larger narrative about the grand politics of globalist American foreign policy. There are strong, concrete connections between what I call the 'closed world' of post-WWII American global political hegemony and the 'microworlds' of computer simulations and artificial intelligence.

In the post-WWII era, especially during the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Reagan administration, military priorities played a major role in the general direction of American computer research (Flamm 1987; 1988). In turn, the development of computers Ð for real-time control of automated forces, for modeling of military situations and world dynamics, and eventually for 'smart' weapons Ð helped create new military capabilities, new forms and locations of authority, and new techniques of analysis that reinforced closed-world political thought (Gray 1991; Edwards forthcoming).

The notion of a 'closed world' is intended to signify a bounded psychological and conceptual space. Sherman Hawkins used this term to define one of the major dramatic spaces in Shakespearean theater (1968). Closed-world plays are marked by a unity of place, such as a walled city or the interior of a castle or house. Action centers around attempts to invade and/or escape its boundaries; its archetypal form is the siege. The central problematic of the closed world is psychological, an inward confrontation of characters with the power of rationality and social convention which, in tragedy, leads to self-destruction (e.g. Hamlet) and in comedy to exorcism of these forces (e.g. Jaques' punishment).

The alternative is not an open world, but what Northrop Frye called the 'green world,' an unbounded natural setting such as a forest, meadow, or glade. Action moves in an uninhibited flow between natural, urban, and other locations, frequently affected by magic and mysterious natural events (think of A Midsummer Night's Dream or The Tempest). The green world is indeed an 'open' space where the limits of law and rationality are transcended, but this does not mean that anything goes. Rather, the opposition is between a human-centered, inner, psychological logic and a magical, natural, transcendent one.

The 'closed world' discussed here is political and ideological, rather than literary. Post-WWII American politics were dominated by a closed-world unity of place. The stage was the globe, the action one of attempts to contain, invade, or explode a closed Communist world: 'the Iron Curtain,' the Berlin Wall. The globe itself was seen as a closed whole, a single scene of capitalist/communist struggle from which the only escape was the technological utopia of space travel. The US reconceived itself as the manager, either directly or by proxy, of the entire global political, economic, and military scene (Baritz 1985), justified by an opposition between 'freedom and slavery' (Ambrose 1985). But this principle was belied by 1950s social conformism and its totalizing modernist obsession with planning, rational action, Keynesian economic control, and military power. Even as American leaders committed troops to seal off the Communist world in Vietnam, the social movements of the 1960s were exposing the poverty, inequalities, and savage oppressions in the land of freedom. The ideology of apocalyptic struggle within a closed world, in part, maintained an external focus on extreme contrasts, diverting attention from cracks in the façade of liberal politics.

Computers played an important role in the developing discourse of the closed world. They were a key factor in the massive increases in the speed and scale of warfare, in air defense, command-and-control systems, satellite surveillance, and 'smart' weapons such as guided missiles, cruise missiles, and advanced jet aircraft. They were also of immense symbolic importance in the ideological worlds of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, representing total oversight, exacting standards of control, and technical-rational solutions to complex problems.

Turing machines and cyborgs

In 1950 Alan Turing, the mathematician who invented the theory of digital computation, devised an 'imitation game' in which a computer is programmed to simulate human thought processes (Turing 1950). A person, communicating through a terminal, tries to distinguish between the computer and another person by interrogating them both Ð the Turing test for machine intelligence. Turing believed that within fifty years it would be possible 'to program computers... to play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 percent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning.' At MIT in 1991, forty-one years later, computers fooled five of ten judges in a limited Turing test restricted to a single area of informal knowledge such as wine-tasting or romantic love (Markoff 1991).

Another of Turing's predictions received far less attention, though it is in many ways more profound:

The... question, 'Can machines think?' I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted (Turing 1950, p. 456)

Here Turing was clearly right. Even then, computers we would now think of as pathetically primitive were known in the popular press as 'giant brains.' By the late 1980s 'expert systems,' 'artificial intelligence,' and 'smart' and even 'brilliant weapons' were part of everyday vernaculars. Within subcultures, such as computer hacking, highly articulated descriptions of the computer as a self with thoughts and desires, and of the human mind and self as a kind of computer, were commonplace (Turkle 1984).

Turing thus predicted the emergence of a language of intelligent machines: 'cyborg discourse' (Edwards forthcoming, 1995; Haraway 1985; Haraway 1992). This discourse is primarily concerned with the psychological and cultural changes in self-imagining brought on by the analogy between computers and minds. Artificial intelligence and cognitive science are part of this discourse, as are hacker communities and cyberpunk science fiction (McCaffery 1991; Turkle 1984). While closed-world discourse is built around the computer's capacities as a tool of analysis and control, cyborg discourse focuses on its mind-like character, its generation of self-understanding through metaphor (Lakoff 1980; 1987).

These discourses are not purely intellectual or linguistic phenomena. The computer metaphor in psychology had sources in the military quests for automation of processes subject to human error and for integration of humans into combat machines. World War II and the ensuing Cold War produced intense, largely unopposed pressures for automation and integration in military systems. Integrating humans into anti-aircraft weapons, and refining communications systems through psychometric studies of the 'machine in the middle' of the communications circuit, were first steps toward full-blown 'device-independent' theories of intelligence, language, and thought (Gardner 1985; Wiener 1948).

At a press conference early in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, General Schwarzkopf played videotapes of computer-controlled, laser-guided bombs destroying buildings in Baghdad. A worldwide television audience experienced the joining of cyborg subjectivity with the politics of the closed world. As we rode the eye of the bomb to the white flash of impact, we experienced at once the elation of technological power, the impotence and voyeurism of the passive TV audience, and the blurring of boundaries between 'intelligent' weapon and political will. The dazzling Ð and terrifying Ð power of high-technology warfare displayed in the Gulf became an emblem for America's waning global hegemony. It was the cyborg as the psycho-logic of closed-world politics.

This moment is an icon for my central argument: in the computer age, theories, beliefs, and fictions about mind, intelligence, and selfhood are political constructs. They reflect a history involving new forms of warfare, militarism, a pervasive technological system, and global capitalism and its culture. So, too, the political constellation of the post-WWII era involves the subjectivity of mental machines.

Cyberpunks in cyberspace: computers, politics, and subjectivity in the 1980s

The early 1980s marked two key events in the history of computing: the introduction of powerful, low-cost desktop computers, and of commercial artificial intelligence software in the form of 'expert systems' (Feigenbaum and McCorduck 1983; Feigenbaum and others 1988). By the late 1980s direct experience of computer use was almost ubiquitous for middle-income Americans. Expert systems, hyped to the hilt, brought the notion of AI into everyday parlance and, seemingly, everyday use. By the late 1980s neural networks and virtual reality were receiving the same kind of mass-media attention.

The first half of the 1980s was also the height of the second Cold War (Halliday 1986). Ronald Reagan's administration was marked by a resurgence of anti-communist rhetoric and major increases in military spending. The Pentagon attempted to severely restrict trade and scientific communication in 'defense-sensitive' areas, including computer science. Reagan ordered toy-war skirmishes in Grenada and Libya designed to flex American muscle on the global stage and, in 1983, proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or 'Star Wars'), a total space-based nuclear missile defense.

Reagan's was also the most popular peacetime Presidency in history.

Star Wars pre-empted the powerful Nuclear Freeze movement that had threatened to steal the thunder from Reagan's Cold War revival. The most advanced computers and software ever constructed would be the core of the SDI, channeling vast new Pentagon funding into computer research. The lesser known but related Strategic Computing Initiative, a major and controversial program in advanced computing and artificial intelligence of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was announced that autumn. Simultaneously, revelations emerged of a long, secret history of computer failures in NORAD nuclear early warning systems (Borning 1987). This news intensified public fears of computer-initiated nuclear holocaust. In 1984 Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility was founded around opposition to aspects of Star Wars and Strategic Computing, marking the organized politicization of computer experts.

At least until the middle of Reagan's second term, anxiety about nuclear war and ideological polarization with Communism reached heights unseen since the late 1950s. Reagan's 'peace shield' was an ultimate high-tech version of the closed world. Part of what made it remarkable was the strongly positive public response to an idea disowned by most scientists as completely unworkable.

In the science fiction and science fiction film of the 1980s, the closed world of computer-controlled global military power and the image of the computer as a cyborg, an intelligent being, merge to produce graphic images of subjectivity in the world of the very-large-scale integrated circuit. A number of archetypal figures appeared Ð human and mechanical Ð including hackers, crackers, phone phreaks, artificial intelligences, cyborgs, robots, and androids (Levy 1984; Hafner and Markoff 1991; Turkle 1984). Their common ground was the sense that the closed world within the computer might be entered by humans, and that computers might become aware of the world outside Ð that the closed world might expand to such enormous proportions that it could encompass or even replace the real world.

'Star Wars' itself took its nickname, of course, from the film trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983), which introduced the largest movie audiences in history to the 'droids' C3P0 and R2D2 and the cyborg Darth Vader. They also introduced the Death Star, a planet-sized military spaceship wielding a planet-destroying death ray Ð a sort of ultimate closed world image.

(1984), the sequel to Stanley Kubrick's dark masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), explained Kubrick's killer computer HAL as the victim of mental illness. In 2010 HAL is cured by the nerdy but mystical Dr. Chandra, who erases HAL's traumatic memories. HAL becomes a hero, sacrificing himself for the human crew. At the same time, major plot tensions are the relationships between the Soviet and American members of the mission, constrained by military secrecy, and the development of a superpower crisis on Earth that threatens to erupt into nuclear war.

A central scene of Ridley Scott's film Alien (1980) features treachery by an android. Part of its terror lies in the fact that the android is indistinguishable from his human colleagues until he is unintentionally dismembered during a fight. In this moment his lack of concern for his colleagues earlier in the film suddenly comes into sharp relief, the result not of a scientist's stereotypical coldness, but of the lack of emotion stereotypical of machines. The aliens are terrifying because they are simultaneously so Other and so (in appearance) Just Like Us.

War Games (1983) fictionalized factual news about teenage hackers and phone phreaks, break-ins to Pentagon computers over public telephone lines, the NORAD computer breakdowns, and artificial intelligence. An intelligent military computer, egged on by a teenage hacker who thinks he is playing a computer game, brings NORAD nuclear forces to the brink of DEFCON 1 Ð all-out nuclear engagement. The scene under Cheyenne Mountain is much reminiscent of the one fifteen years earlier inside the Infiltration Surveillance Center in Thailand.

Walt Disney's Tron (1982) provided a breathtaking, romantic vision of what would soon come to be called 'cyberspace' or 'virtual reality,' a surrogate sensory world inside the computer, while demonizing faceless corporate power. This theme was continued in William Gibson's extraordinary novel Neuromancer (1984), the flagship work of cyberpunk science fiction (Gibson 1984). Neuromancer introduced the cracker as outlaw anti-hero. In its near-future world, most of Earth's computers have been linked together in a gigantic network. People enter the network through 'cyberspace,' a virtual-reality visual grid-space, a 'consensual mass hallucination.' Cyberpunk evolved into a disciplined, highly articulate school of science fiction. It linked a postmodernist aesthetic of decadence and fragmentation with computerization, mass-media artificial experience, biotechnology, multiculturalism, and a dark political future of massive urbanization and militarized corporate hegemony (McCaffery 1991; Sterling 1986).

To Case, Neuromancer's main character, cyberspace is home. When Case finally re-enters cyberspace after a prolonged absence, the sensation is pure poetry:

Please, he prayed, nowÐ
A gray disk, the color of Chiba sky.
Disk beginning to rotate, faster, becoming a sphere of paler gray. ExpandingÐ
And flowed, flowered for him, fluid neon origami trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity. Inner eye opening to the stepped scarlet pyramid of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority burning beyond the green cubes of Mitsubishi Bank of America, and high and very far away he saw the spiral arms of military systems, forever beyond his reach.
And somewhere he was laughing, in a white-painted loft, distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face (Gibson 1984, p. 52).

No one and nothing living escapes entirely unaltered in the cyberpunk world. Plastic surgery is ubiquitous, become a form of personal expression. Case's partner Molly has four-centimeter scalpel blades implanted in her fingertips which she can extrude, at will, like cat claws. Her nervous system has been amped up to give her lightning reflexes. Mirror lenses implanted into her face form permanent sunglasses that completely conceal her eyes.

If physical identity is a matter of choice in Neuromancer's world, so is subjective experience. Psychoactive drugs are only a start. Some people have jacks installed in their brains which accept 'microsofts,' or chips, that extend their skills or change their personalities. The technology of 'simstim' lets one person's sensory experience be recorded and piped directly into the mind of another. Case and Molly use this as a communication device: as she carries out her part of their 'run,' Case can flip in and out of her sensorium at will, experiencing directly whatever she is seeing and doing. Ordinary people use simstim as a kind of super-duper television, plugging in simstim cartridges as we would insert a videocassette.

Even the body is optional and problematic. The Dixie Flatline is the recorded mind of a dead man, who exists now only in cyberspace. The ex-Special Forces soldier Armitage, by contrast, is a shell of a man whose personality has been taken over by the artificial intelligence Wintermute, a creature of cyberspace living in the real world.

Cyberspace means dispensing with 'meat things' in favor of a computer-generated landscape. For Case, this closed world is a better place to live, perhaps because conversion of the green world into a closed world is complete in Neuromancer's future. All Earth scenes take place either indoors or in dense, grim urban cityscapes, mostly at night. Only when we reach the space stations Zion and Freeside do we encounter green spaces Ð but as inverted, artificial ecosystems on the inner surfaces of artificial moons.

Here the victory of the closed world over the green world is tightly linked with the expansion of capitalism. If everything is optional Ð the body, experience, culture, reality itself Ð everything is also for sale. Military power is still important, and military computers are a major presence in cyberspace. But transnational corporations replace nation-states as the central units of large-scale social organization, and the driving force behind almost every character is 'biz,' as Case calls it. The closest approach the novel offers to transcendence of this state is its Rastafarian characters, who listen to the voice of Jah and inhabit the refugee green world of the Zion Cluster space station.

The Terminator

The epitome of the intersection of closed world and cyborg discourse was James Cameron's film The Terminator (1984). The Terminator opens in Los Angeles in 2029 A.D. amidst post-holocaust rubble and smoke. An all-out nuclear exchange had been initiated by the 'Skynet computer built for SAC-NORAD.... They say it got smart. A new order of intelligence. Then it saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side.' The few remaining humans eke out a miserable existence in grimy underground bunkers, emerging only at night to battle robot killing machines that are now the masters of the planet. To finish off the human resistance, the machines send a cyborg back in time to the pre-holocaust present. The Terminator's mission is to find and kill Sarah Conner, mother-to-be of the future resistance leader John Conner. But the resistance is also able to send a soldier, Kyle Reese, to warn and protect her.

The Terminator murders the first two Sarah Conners in the L.A. telephone directory, then comes looking for the third. But Reese is already following her. When the Terminator attacks, Reese shoots it many times with a shotgun at close range, but this stops it only for a few seconds. The plot from this point on is the standard horror-movie script about a scared, helpless woman pursued by an unstoppable monster/man, rescued by a (male) good guy using ever-escalating violence. After many narrow escapes and Kyle's eventual death, Sarah finally destroys the Terminator by crushing it in a metal press inside a deserted automated factory.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the Terminator with a kind of terrifying mechanical grace. Completely devoid of emotion, within seconds of his appearance on the screen he kills two young men for their clothes. He has a seemingly symbiotic relationship with all kinds of machines: for example, he starts cars by merely sticking his fingers into their wiring. When shot, he sometimes falls, but immediately stands up and keeps lumbering forward. We see him dissect his own wounded arm and eye with an X-Acto knife, revealing the electro-mechanical substrate beneath his human skin.

The Terminator's computerized mind proves equally alien. At certain points we see through his camera-like eyes: the scene becomes graphic and reddened, like a bit-mapped image viewed through infra-red goggles. Displays of numbers, flashing diagrams, and menus of commands appear superimposed on his field of vision. He speaks and thinks with formidable precision. But he is also a totally single-minded, mechanical being. Kyle warns Sarah that the Terminator 'can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop Ð ever Ð until you are dead.' The Terminator blends a perverse, exaggerated masculine ideal Ð the ultimate unblinking soldier, the body-builder who treats his body as a machine Ð with images of computer control and robotic single-mindedness, complete with the alien subjective reality provided by the Terminator's-eye sequences.

The film's main theme is the idea of an apocalyptic struggle to save humanity from a world of self-aware computers and autonomous machines. But in an unusual contemporary twist, Sarah Conner begins the film as a very ordinary waitress whose major purpose in life seems to be trying to get a Friday night date. Resentfully, under the relentless pressure of the Terminator's pursuit, she is forced to learn about the threats the future holds and her role as the mother and teacher of the future savior. She bandages Kyle's gunshot wound. Under his tutelage she learns to make plastic explosives, as well as the importance of resistance, strength, and fighting spirit. At one point she saves the wounded Reese, ordering him to his feet in a voice that rings with determination. She, not Reese, finally destroys the Terminator. In the end she is transformed into a tough, purposeful single mother Ð pregnant by Kyle Ð packing a forty-four, driving a jeep, and heading off into the oncoming storm as heroically as any cowboy.

We thus meet a single mother as a new kind of heroine: the progenitor and trainer of a race of soldiers fighting for humanity against machines. When Sarah asks Kyle what the women of the future are like, he replies tersely, 'Good fighters' (one of his future combat partners is female). Women, no longer shriek helplessly in the face of violence: they emerge as men's armed allies in the militarized future. The subtext is about arming women for a new role, outside traditional contexts of marriage and male protectorship. The message is also that women are the final defense against the high-technology, militaristic masculinity represented by the Terminator Ð not primarily because they harbor traditional connections to emotion and nature, but because they are 'good soldiers.'

The social reality of 1984 held extraordinary resonances with The Terminator's themes. Reagan's Cold War rhetoric, the Nuclear Freeze movement, the NORAD computer failures, and the SDI created a highly charged context for the theme of computer-initiated nuclear holocaust. In addition, a rising tide of robot-based industrial automation, a new wave of computerization in workplaces based on personal-computer technology, and the Strategic Computing Initiative's controversial proposals for autonomous weapons matched the film's theme of domination by intelligent machines.

With respect to gender issues, the film took its cue from two social developments. First, the women's movement had begun to establish and legitimate more independent roles for women. The highest rates of divorce and single motherhood in history gave a special urgency to this search for new social identities. Second, women had become increasingly important as soldiers, filling ten to thirteen percent of all US military jobs by 1985, with serious proposals in Congress to increase the ratio to fifty percent in the Air Force. So the film finds its model for the future of womanhood in single motherhood and the armed forces.

The iconography of closed-world discourse is omnipresent in The Terminator. The Skynet computer is 'hooked into everything,' enabling it to become intelligent and initiate a nuclear holocaust using its central control. Almost all of the action occurs either indoors, inside vehicles, on urban streets and in alleyways, primarily at night. Almost no natural objects or landscapes appear in the film. Scenes from the world of 2029 A.D. take this imagery to a maximum; nothing remains above ground but the rubble and twisted girders of blasted buildings and charred machines. Human dwellings are underground, dirty, furnished with the burned-out hulks of television sets, now used as fireplaces. Only two scenes in the film occur in a natural setting: the few hours Sarah and Kyle spend resting in a wooded area, and the final scene in which Sarah drives off toward the mountains of Mexico. Thus, in a pattern characteristic of closed-world drama, the green world is the final refuge Ð when there is one Ð from apocalypse.

Cyborg imagery also pervades the film. The cyborg is a marginal figure: a man who is a computerized machine; a living, flesh-and-blood organism whose core is a metallic, manufactured robot. He seems to be alive, but he cannot be killed. He talks, but has no feelings. He can be wounded, but feels no pain. We learn that the Terminators were created to infiltrate the bunkers of the resistance by impersonating humans. Dogs, however, can sense them. Dogs, of course, like coyotes, are marginal figures of another sort, connecting humans with the animal, the natural, and the wild Ð links with the green world.

The Terminator is a caricature of the military ideal: he follows his built-in orders unquestioningly, perfectly, sleeplessly, and has no other reason for existence. But Kyle, too, has an intense single-mindedness about him, likewise born of military discipline. He speaks of an emotionless future, where humans, like the machines they fight, live a permanent garrison lifestyle. He dismisses these horrors with a disdainful 'Pain can be controlled.'

The Terminator is the enemy, but he is also the self, the military killing machine Kyle, too, has become Ð and which Sarah herself must become for humanity to survive. Reese and the Terminator are twisted mirror images: humans have built subjective, intelligent military machines, but are reduced to a militaristic, mechanical, emotionless subjectivity in order to fend off their own products.

The fictional world of The Terminator draws our attention to the ways closed-world and cyborg discourses are historically and conceptually linked. Just as facts Ð about military computing, artificial intelligence, nuclear weapons, and autonomous machines Ð give credibility to fictions of mechanical subjectivity, so too fictions Ð visions of centralized, remote control; clean, automated war; global oversight; and thinking machines Ð give coherence to the facts of an increasingly computerized world.


Cyberspace already exists, of course (Benedikt 1991; Dertouzos and others 1991). It is one of the fictional constructions, the narratives of self, other, and reality, that is shaping our factual experience here and now. It is already a major preoccupation of millions (see B???, this volume; Taylor and Kramerae, this volume). In the subjectivity of these fictional visions, artificial minds are both foreign and friendly, familiar and strange. The human mind has become, equally, an artificial product, a programmable computational object. The experiential quality of cyberspace includes anxiety about boundaries and borders; voyeuristic fears and caffeinated ambitions about power, love, sex, nature, and nuclear holocaust in the hands of machines; and the real-life on-line experience of disembodiment and abstraction from geographical space and real time.

There is much more going on here than in the well-known love-hate relations of previous ages with their machines. In the computer, human beings confront not only questions about their own changing roles, but what their creations think, whether and what they feel, and whether they deserve rights, compassion, and even love as well as responsibilities. This new subjectivity Ð in concert with other scientific reconstructions of human nature such as genetic engineering Ð also involves fundamental transformations of gender identity, with troubled reconstructions of traditional relationships of gender and rationality, intelligence, emotion, embodiment and physical strength, war and peace.

The political and historical dimensions of this experience are usually ignored in the rush to consider philosophical and ethical issues. Cyberspace, exciting as it is, does not escape its origins in the quest for centralized, sanitized power and control through automated military force. Even should the military motivations recede, there is the risk that the green world and our bodily links to it will be consumed by the rationalism of the closed world, replaced by hyper-realistic simulation, artificial experience, and the language of 'systems' and 'management' that has already gone a long way toward destroying the spiritual heart of the environmental movement.

I welcome the exhilaration that comes from turning our abstractions into sensory experience, the poetry of Neuromancer, and I think we should not be afraid to face the contradictory and paradoxical pulls that draw us into cyberspace even as we struggle to save our green planet. But I worry about the loss of grounding Ð that perfect green-world metaphor Ð when we become cyberpunks: when we step through the looking glass into an artificial world we cannot or will not leave. Where will Sarah Conner's jeep end up? Who will stop the next generation of Terminators? The militarized history of cyberspace may serve us well, in the New World Order, as a cautionary tale.


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