Semiotics of Cybermind

(c) Jerry Everard 1996

Semiotics of Cybermind. There's a lot of Greek in those words. And perhaps that is not inappropriate for a group of people getting together to think through a set of issues surrounding a technology of the machinic and a technology of the self.

We live in a time perhaps as great as the birth of Humanism which marked the entry of our culture into the Renaissance. So a bit of Greek provides us with a suitable point of entry. A suitably Classical beginning for that which would provide the basis on which to challenge just about everything the Classical has come to represent in high Modernism.

I want today, to talk about the subject of Cybermind. And I want to say broadly three things about it.

I want firstly, to talk about Cybermind as a discussion list.
Secondly, I want to talk about Cybermind as a community, and
Thirdly, I want to talk about Cybermind as a State of Mind - knowingly capitalised.

And I want to argue/suggest that Cybermind is all of these things, together and individually.

Let me take the first of these: Cybermind as a discussion list. I want to say three things about this aspect.

The topic of Cybermind: the Discussion list, is the Philosophy and Psychology of cyberspace. It is a discussion list with a three-fold focus:
One. The Philosophy is the process orientation. It asks the question: "How can we THINK about...(x)?"
Two. The Psychology aspect asks the question: "how do we FEEL about...x?", and thirdly,
cyberspace: WHAT is it? Is it a 'space'? Is it about control and boundarymaking? Can it be geographised?

Thus, embodied within the subject of Cybermind is three questions - what how, and for whom are these new technologies of the body - for such they are. In all of the discussion on Cybermind: the discussion list (which is never truly seperated from the other three functions of Cybermind) the subject can be related back to one of these three key questions. And I think that is one of the strengths of Cybermind the discussion list. It asks in one form or another a myriad versions of these three questions.

They are also basic economic questions, indeed they are perhaps the basic questions of human existence. They are in that sense timeless questions. Perhaps that is what leads us to think of cyberspace in spatialised terms - because of the compression/extension of time.

I feel a spot of Greek coming on, so I shall defer that thought while I bring myself to the second thing I want to say about Cybermind. That is: Cybermind: the Community.

The word community is a frought one. An essentially contested term. So I want to take, yes, three approaches to it.

Let me begin with the Latin (I warned you about the Greek, so I thought I'd surprise you with the Latin).

The word community is made from two morphemes - Com, or perhaps approriately Cum, and Munus.

There is a conjoining of these morphemes into the notion of Communitas, meaning community or fellowship.

There is a related word, Communis, meaning shared together, or common to several or all.

A further related word is Communitio, meaning the making of a road, an introduction.

Let me now consider the morphemes separately.
Com/Cum, is a prefix that means:

  • together, a convergence;
  • of union, sympathy, closeness etc
  • in company with

Munity, derived from the latin Munus, can be seen as:

  • A service, office, function, duty
  • A bounty, a favour
  • A tribute to the dead

A related term is Munitio, meaning to open up a road, or pathway.

Now, for those of us who have trodden the path of Cybermind, for any length of time, these latin roots have an uncanny ring to them.

Let me take you through my early subjective experience of Cybermind. I had recently returned to study, and I was on the Foucault list, that was co-moderated by Michael Current. On 1 July 1994 a message came through announcing the start of Cybermind. It was a message jointly undersigned by Michael Current and Alan Sondheim. I was structuring my thesis to look at cyberpunk science fiction, and this list looked like it was made for me. There was a couple of days while I fumbled the subscription procedure, and the first message I have in my archive was - fittingly - one from Alan Sondheim dated 5 July 1994.

My archives from that period are patchy. I know that Jon Marshall has more detailed ones including - the great spelling debate - that I foolishly discounted as trivial in my quest to conserve my precious storage space.

There was at that time in those opening weeks considerable discussion about the nature of community, in such threads as "Mind the Wires, and Virt Community. There was discussion of MOO-space too, with the first version of the Rape in Cyberspace posted on 7 July 94. This was a Forward of an article in Village Voice dated 21 Dec 93 pp36-42. The print article was attributed to Julian Dibbell - I forget who posted it to the list.

Aside from a few short asides, the bulk of the posts in those early days were fairly lengthy considered pieces, from my recollection, and yes, many of them were about community, and

  • whether Cybermind would become one,
  • whether Cybermind already was one, and
  • what was the nature of community anyhow?

On 10 July 94 there was what to me now is a poignant message from Michael Current on the nature of virtual community. In it he described Cybermind as a nascent community. I agree with him, despite my message I think the following day, confidently asserting that we already were a community. In retrospect, I think we were at a sort of proto-community stage.

I consider that time to be a period of meta-community. It was a time we were discussing the nature of community, and, perhaps, in the Great Spelling War, we were already engaging in an early form of boundary-making process that was to ultimately turn us into a community.

On 23 July 1994 the world stood on end. A message came on that Michael Current had died. Amid a quick flurry of questions - like is this someone's idea of a bad joke? - we were quickly assured that it was not. That Michael Current had died from complications owing to a reaction to his insulin.

The list went very quiet. I personally felt very odd. I was feeling a palpable sense of loss from what the wisdom of the day said was a virtual persona. Could what I was feeling be real? One by one others shared their thoughts on the list - shared their feelings of loss and grief.

For me that was the defining moment of Cybermind: the Community. Suddenly we were not talking ABOUT the nature of community we came together AS a community. People were sharing feelings as well as thoughts. It seems ironic that Michael should write that it was his hope that one day Cybermind would become a community, only later to become the catalyst for that community process to occur - with greater passion and depth than I have seen on any other list.

Community. Shared together in company, Sense of fellowship, the making of a road. A tribute to the dead, A convergence. Yes, Cybermind is all of these things.

Let me turn now to the third thing I want to say about Cybermind. Cybermind as a state of mind. Remember the Greek I warned you about? Well here it is.

Cyber...... and ........Mind
Two components. Let me take the first of these first.
Cyber, comes from the Greek Kyber, which means:

  • To steer
  • To govern

It also refers to:

  • communication and control in living organisms or machines.

Let us keep then, the word Kyber to one side.

On the other side I want to place the word Mind.
When I turned to my Oxford Dictionary, I was confronted with 20 meanings for the word Mind. Before I come to those, I want to recall to mind, the philosophical chant I kept hearing each time I took the London Underground. As a train pulls into the subway, a voice comes over the platform speakers, saying: "Mind the Gap"

And I remember thinking, how profoundly Lacanian - and this among a culture that professes to dislike the French! It is a culture of irony. But I digress.


  • Memory
  • The state of being remembered - recollection
  • Act of commemoration
  • That which a person thinks about any subject or question
  • One's view, judgement, or opinion
  • State of thinking about something
  • Purpose, intention, desire or wish
  • Bent, direction of thought
  • Seat of consciousness

And as I think it through, Cybermind: The State of mind is about all of this too. Kyber - governance/steering, State of thinking. Clearly too, a thinking of State.

We have had discussion and indeed practice of governance, demonstrated in our dealing with and coping with a maliciously disruptive individual - one of two to be exiled from the list. We have thought too, about whether there could be a sovereign State in cyberspace - a deterritorialised State. Hivemind. A networked set of thought patterns - a State. Of Mind.

Of course, States - as in Nation states are also nothing more than discursive formations - cultural artefacts, Deleuzian Anti-Oedipal subjects. Is a virtual community any different, when seen from that perspective?

We are, as a civilisation always already networked by and through language and sets of cultural practices that stitch us into that which makes us human, that which makes us cultural beings - our music, our art, our architecture, and the architectures of social management, have all been arrived at in relation to the Other. Other ways of doing things, other communities, other art forms, other cultural practices.

We are always already bodies-without-organs: arrangements within the flows of cultural practice. In that sense Cybermind is also about a state of mind.

Let me conclude by mapping out the path just taken.

Cybermind is three things:

  • A discussion list
  • A community
  • A state of mind.

As a discussion list it looks at the philosophy and psychology of cyberspace, it is a discussion ABOUT community and it is a discussion ABOUT cyberspace.

As a Community, I have considered the emergence of Cybermind AS community, I have alluded to it, perhaps as a symptom of the practices by which it defines its boundaries. as a community it has practiced forms of governance.

As a State of Mind, I have considered Cybermind as

  • Hivemind
  • as lateral/networked thought pattern, and
  • as illustrative, or exemplar of the Deleuzian anti-Oedipal subject: the body-without-organs.

In a rather short space of time I have covered quite a lot of ground. I have not done justice to the immense amount of work and energy exuded throughout by the one man whose vision has kept this whole thing together - Alan Sondheim. And I am conscious too, that I have raised more questions than I have answered, so perhaps this would be a good time to throw the session open to discussion.

(c) Jerry Everard 1996

Copyright Jerry Everard
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