What does it mean to dwell in Cyberspace and why do we go there?
A look at theories and definitions
Part 6


A Project Presented to Dr. O Dr. O. Amienyi, Professor of Radio/TV, and the ASU College of Communications in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements of Theory of Mass Communications, November 2000

At the tone the time will be…

Long-term computer users often suffer from the constant jolt back and forth between two time worlds. As they become more enmeshed in the new time world of the computer, they become less and less able to readjust to the temporal norms and standards of traditional clock culture. They become victims of a new form of temporal schizophrenia, caught between two distinctly different temporal orientations."

- Lance Strate, 1995


As in the physical world were space carries with it a fourth dimension of time, cyberspace also integrates a "when" with the "where." Cybertime has been relatively unexplored in Internet research, most likely because of our vague understanding of time in any environment. Albert Einstein (1954) explained that space and time are interrelated, interdependent and inseparable, that they are two elements of a single phenomenon known as physical reality. If we establish the reality of Cyberspace, then we must acknowledge the existence of time there.

Cybertime assimilates several concepts, just as Cyberspace does. Computers, the Internet and human beings have a physical existence in "real" time passage. The Internet itself, however, can project the past, present and future when presenting information. A message posted on a board exists now. For the recipient(s), it will not exist until the time at which they read it, which may be in a moment or in a week. This is not unlike the parallel in physical environments where a message board remains unread until someone approaches it. But the Internet goes steps, maybe leaps, further than that concept. Tomorrow’s headlines can be accessed online tonight. You can chat with someone celebrating New Year’s day as you prepare to go out New Year’s Eve. And should you find concentration difficult for a day or so after the New Year’s celebration, you can read the January 1 newspapers on January 3.

This would be possible in the physical world by calling someone in a different time zone or by going to the local library and simply reading a past issue, but those media exist outside of each other and in different locations. The Internet provides a place for these to all exist in the same location, at the same time. Also, there is our experience and perception of time when we engage in Internet communications. (It would not be usual for someone who waited seven seconds for a page to download to argue that it took at least three minutes.)

The Internet provides several "cybertime zones" to communicate in. "Synchronous communication" involves people communicating at the same time, or in "real time" on the Internet. "Asynchronous communication" involves the use of e-mail, message boards or newsgroups (Suler, 1998). In both instances, however, time is delayed. Even in chat rooms or voice messaging there are seconds or even minutes between messages. Suler calls this "time stretching." Though seconds may not seem like a long time, it is still considerably more than we are allowed in most face-to-face conversations. Any of these forums allow time to reflect on, compose and edit a response. Email and message boards allow hours and days. Often these communication threads take on a life of their own and exist as a continuos, "in-progress" event maintained at a level within our day-to-day activities but unrestricted by them. A discussion that took place in a few hours may now take days or even weeks to experience.

A common symptom of the Internet addiction phenomena is excessive time spent online (Young, 1996). Some users report that they are totally unaware of the passage of time when they are online. Unlike the suspension of time that occurs with chat and email, time for these users seems to accelerate. According to Young’s research, 55 percent of users she classifies as "non-dependent" spend their time on email and surfing the web. "Dependent" users, however, spend most of their time engaged in synchronous communications, particularly chat rooms (35%), multi-user domains (MUDs), or role-play platforms (28%). But how can time be suspended yet accelerated simultaneously? Part of what may be occurring is the availability of communications on a 24-hour basis. "Real life" is conducted on a fairly routine schedule. Lunch times, shopping hours, work tasks, and socializing all fall into a fairly predictable time range. Daylight and nighttime each demand their own structure.

The Internet, however, can bear an uncanny resemblance to a Las Vegas casino: no windows, no clocks, no prompts for the next event. Chat rooms, stores, post offices, and libraries are all open with the click of a mouse. And as mention earlier, participants can be in any time zone. The user in England at a website in Hawaii and the user in Chicago in a chat room with someone from Japan all have different perceptions of time. Time becomes irrelevant in Internet communications, thereby negating its effects as well as its necessity. The perceived effect on the user is that time may not exist in Cyberspace. If time does not exist, it can not be suspended or accelerated.

Of course, most educated individuals would argue the absence of time during Internet activities. But is it really so irrational? Cambridge metaphysicist John McTaggart (Davies, 1995) wrote in 1908 that the concept of time is so "riddled with contradiction that it makes more sense to suppose there is no time." J. Smart (1964) explains in his work, "Problems of Space and Time," that we feel time passing because of "metaphysical confusion." He writes that time is just an illusion. Paul Davies (1974) suggests that we may have many concepts of time depending on what we are doing. Different levels exist within our consciousness and those levels each experience time in a different way (Davies). Many people have had the experience of time shifting during a crisis as time seems to stretch into slow motion. Time "flies" when we are having fun and seems to drag when we are bored. We are aware, of course, that these perceptions are unique and individual.

An example of the unique and personal concept of time can be found in Davies’ book, "About Time" (1995). Davies writes about an experiment conducted by Stuart Albert. Two groups were closed into different rooms. Each of the rooms had a clock that had been altered. One clock ran twice as fast as it should; the other ran twice as slow. After the experiment, neither of the groups was aware of the alteration. For the subjects, time had proceeded at it usual rate. Another example Davies provides is cited from biologist Stephen Gould. Gould states that an organism’s internal clock depends solely on body size and the space it occupies. Some animals’ clocks run faster and they live shorter lives. Other run slower and they live longer. Measured by their internal clocks, however, all animals live about the same amount of time.

These examples and theories indicate that the fourth dimension of time is relative. It is not only relative to the individual, it is relative to space, as Einstein’s theory of relative proposes. Time’s relativity depends on the space associated with it. The physical clocks we use to schedule time simply assign values to "spacetime." They do not measure a universal awareness of time. If one accepts these theories, then one should accept the idea of a "time" continuos with space, or cyberspace. If we are in cyberspace, then we experience a time unique to that space. Whether this experience is pleasant or unpleasant is relative as well. Nevertheless, it is an element of the cyberspace experience and serves to define this dimension even further.

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Feel free to cite material in this study, but please provide this reference:
     Angleman, S. (December, 2000). What Does it Mean to Dwell in Cyberspace and Why do We Go There? A Look at Theories and Definitions. Unpublished manuscript, Arkansas State University, Jonesboro. <http://www.jrily.com/LiteraryIllusions/TheoryResearchPaperIndex.html> (date of access).

For information or comments concerning this study, please contact, Sharon Angleman at sharon@jrily.com Visit my home site at http://www.jrily.com/LiteraryIllusions/ for other journalistic materials.