The most interesting aspect of cyberspace is not what happens for a time to its visitors. It’s not the absence of regulation nor the presence of perfect regulation; it’s not the staggering variety of content nor the sudden arbitrariness of geography; it’s not the constant threat of surveillance nor the occasional absence of accountability. The most interesting aspect of cyberspace flows from its status as an engine of realization: cyberspace widens the range of what we think of as possible. The Web is home to phenomena that never quite happened before—not because the technology was untenable, but because no one thought to do it. The importance of cyberspace is not what occurs to you when you visit; it’s what occurs to you.
This is hardly an isolated example.
A central reason online ads continue to gain on traditional ads is because they allow for sophisticated targeting and analytics. You can know where a user has surfed and what she is looking at, so you can advertise to her based on relatively good intelligence about her preferences. And you can follow her clicks and views to determine what's effective.
Not coincidentally, it now occurs to outdoor advertising companies to listen to what is playing on your car radio and change the billboards you see accordingly. Suddenly they place cameras in billboards to detect demographic and other information about the people who look at ads. Today's malls can follow you around using your cell phone signal as you shop to rearrange their store displays for maximum impact.
The latest and most sophisticated technique in use on the Internet is probably deep packet inspection (DPI). Such technology “sniffs” the content of data packets traveling node to node by Internet protocol. DPI can be used, among other things, to detect the illegal sharing of copyrighted content. It works invisibly and need not disrupt lawful activities. You would think that DPI would be hard to reproduce in the real world. It turns out not: it has occurred to the Motion Picture Association of America to pay to train dogs to sniff luggage and mail for the tell-tale scent of recently burned (read: pirated) CDs and DVDs.
It’s often said that where there’s a will, there’s a way. I don’t agree. We want many things that we cannot make happen no matter how hard we try. I’d say the converse is more plausible. Where there’s a way, there’s a will. If one day a new road for thought yawns into the distance, some adventuring mind will take it. This is the lesson of cyberspace—its promise and its greatest danger.