Psychology Of Cyberspace: How The Lines Between Digital And Physical Are Blurring

Disclosure: Your support helps keep the site running! We earn a referral fee for some of the services we recommend on this page. Learn more

Sharing is caring!

Last Updated on March 10, 2020

Most of us live and breathe the internet. It’s become a natural extension of us. For some of us it’s become so ingrained we rarely even think about it. The transition from an up and coming technology to an integral part of our lives that most of us can’t live without has been rapid and seamless.

Yet, the internet and cyberspace have had and continues to have a profound impact on our psychological behavior, how we interact with one another, how we work, how we love, and even what we consider ourselves to be as humans. Below we explore all of those issues and hopefully inject a moment of thought into our crazy hectic lives, so we can think more meaningfully about the internet’s effect on our present and future lives.


What is Cyberspace?

Cyberspace is the theoretical environment where communication occurs over computer networks. The word came into more modern use in the early 90’s when the internet was in its infancy, and it grew to represent the idea and theories surrounding the internet and computer networks.

Cyberspace and the Internet

The term cyberspace represents anything associated with the internet and more so relates to the theories and symbolic space that surrounds the internet. Today they are often used interchangeably, especially since the internet has grown in scope and influence.

The blurred lined in terminology has to do with the overlapping use of the words. The internet is technically a set of global networks, computers, and servers. While cyberspace entails what all of that represents.

If the internet was physical it would be an actual book you hold in your hand, including all of the written elements of the story. While cyberspace would represent the mental projection you create when reading the book.

Cyberspace in Metaphor and Story

The idea of cyberspace can be likened to the classical philosophical experiment called “Brain in a Vat”, which has been popularized in the film The Matrix. In this experiment, a disembodied brain is floating in a vat, which is then hooked up to a computer simulation of the world. From the perspective of the brain, the world they experience is the same physical world that we experience on a daily basis.

In olden days, cyberspace was called “the string.”

This far out vision of cyberspace has generated a completely false reality that’s computer generated. Although far from our daily understanding and perception of reality, this might not be a far-off future with the growth of the VR sector, along with the technological maxim of Moore’s Law.

For a simpler definition more grounded in today’s world, we can look towards the work of Bruce Sterling in his book The Hacker Crackdown. He offers us a simple analogy for understanding cyberspace in terms of an old-school phone call. “Cyberspace is the “place” where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person’s phone, in some other city. The place between the phones.”

The Extension of Cyberspace

This notion and the actual physical reality of cyberspace has only grown with the influx of new devices into our daily lives. Smart watches, smartphones, smart cars, and that’s just the beginning. We’re traversing a new realm where the digital world is coming into constant contact with our physical worlds.

A recent example of augmented reality is Pokemon Go.

We also have the notion of augmented reality, which is the layering (and potentially altering) of a digital world on top of our existing physical world.

What used to be a fine line of desktop access to the internet and message exchanges via email and chat has become a full-fledged world that readily alters and influences our physical existence. And we’re only just getting started.

Your Mind, Self, and Cyberspace

Even though cyberspace isn’t a tangible physical reality it does influence actual physical elements including our minds, bodies, and sense of self. This symbolic reality has a deep influence on our day to day lives, and can even be seen an entirely separate psychological space.

Below we explore how cyberspace can influence our psychology, sense of self, perceptions of time, all while maintaining characteristics that mirror psychological states.

Mental Transporting

When we plug into the internet we’re embodying the same psychological space as other people without sharing the same physical location. Tell that to a person from the middle ages and we’d be persecuted for witchcraft.

These guys are transporting themselves somewhere. Probably best if we don’t ask. Image via TheLeadSA – flickr

The process is similar to being engrossed in a fiction book. Your body remains planted on the couch, your eyes remain fixed on the page, but your mind is elsewhere, actively creating an imagined reality you’re emotionally reacting to—as long as it’s a good book.

This same state mental travel can be active when using the internet. Maybe not as imaginative, but it’s still a separate mental reality that you’re plugging into.

Beyond the altered states of mind invoked when deep within cyberspace, there’s also a transcendence of time. In typical communication, all information is transferred in real-time.

Cyberspace allows for both synchronous and asynchronous communication. Things like instant messaging apps and online tools allow for real-time communication allow for synchronous communication, without the subtle cues of in-person communication, of course. While, email, comments, and other forms allow for communication without the other person having to respond in the moment.

The digital interference creates a temporal space for reflection and actually stretches out time, creating conversational space that drags out well beyond the present moment.

Physical Dislocation

When you tap into cyberspace you’re tapping into a non-real place. There is no physical location. The closest physical location we could probably manage is a server where site’s files are stored or the router that’s uploading and downloading the data for our digital experiences.

Being able to share emotions, thoughts, and ideas across the world, in real-time is just one of many benefits of this cyber world we reside in.

Cyberspace makes personal geography irrelevant. Distance has little impact upon who you can communicate and connect with. This has the advantage of exposing us to different walks of life. With an internet connection, we all have equal access.

This sharing of space is actually quite a unique thing. Before the prevalence of the digital jungle, we find ourselves in most communication and even relationships was limited to our small geographic regions.

Cyberspace as a Dream

We can look at cyberspace as an entirely separate reality laying on top of our physical world. Yet, cyberspace embodies characteristics that are more dreamlike and isn’t governed by the rules of our physical world. That might seem a little far out, but hopefully, the points below will help to ground the point.

Instantaneous Creation

If you have the skills the internet becomes a playground of creation. We tend to look past digital properties as actual physical creations, but they do have roots and influence in the real world. Just look at the wealth created with the IPO explosion of companies like Facebook and Instagram.

These were once nothing but dreams, put into reality through the manipulation of cyberspace elements.

Sir Isaac Newton knew about transcending physics.

On a smaller scale, the same can be said for publishing a blog post or creating a simple website. It’s the act of making something from nothing.

Transcending Physics

We don’t normally view websites or apps as physical destinations. But, in some ways, they do transport our consciousness to different places. When you’re sucked into a website, or watching a video on YouTube you’re often not consciously aware of your surroundings. You’re somewhere else. You’ve traveled.

In the click of a button, you’re experiencing a different world or a different point of view. Often with the linking structure of the internet, you’ll find yourself deeply invested in a different topic than where you started your search. Wikipedia black hole anyone?

Expanding Time

In dreams, time doesn’t exist. We touched on this above, but when you’re plugged into the internet time also has a loose quality. We’ve all undoubtedly intended to go online for 15 minutes only to find ourselves bleary-eyed a few hours later wondering where the time went.

This could be due to the addictive nature of the internet, or it could also suggest a similar state of mind to flow state. A sense of deep absorption and participation in the present moment, of course, this is entirely task dependent.

Your Online Self and “Real” Self

Today we live our entire lives on the internet. Representations of our personal selves extend out into space-time. These identities take care of us, allow us to content with new people, share ideas, and expand perspectives. They can provide a real sense of nourishment and expression.

Below we look at the evolving reality of our online selves, and the different roles people tend to take on and embody across cyberspace.

Online Identity and Authenticity

Historians believe Van Gogh’s Facebook timeline was comprised of mostly selfies.

It might not seem like it, but even something as simple as your Facebook or Instagram profile is a virtual representation of you. Caretaking of your online personas is a relatively new development. This is the idea of maintaining a certain projection of yourself that either mirrors or enhances your true to life self.

In some cases, the notion of maintaining an online personal brand deals with the idea of a separate digital self which takes care of your physical self in the real world. Typically, this digital self (or online identity), is a close representation of your physical self. You highlight certain characteristics, passions, or traits, in order to connect with a wider audience.

Still, there is a gap. It’s near impossible to broadcast the subtle nuances of who you are as a person. And, most wouldn’t want this transparent of a perception anyway.

Still, the notion of a separate entity you actively maintain and use to engage with other people is the stuff of science fiction.

Online Roles

The cyberspace world isn’t an accident. No matter what kind of person you are, there are varying roles you’re probably playing. Some act as creators, building websites, networks, apps, and other technological vehicles that facilitate digital connection and communication. Others act as pure consumers, actively using these digital channels and consuming content through various mediums.

Most people sway between the roles of creator and consumer. Even posting on an app like Instagram, or commenting on a blog post is a small act of creation that contributes to the digital landscape, even if it’s not being done at the foundational level.

While still others act as hackers, which can be viewed through the lens of positive or negative. Using their knowledge and skills of technology to manipulate for their own gain, or embrace the positive mentality of finding solutions and breaking things in the pursuit of efficiency and new advancements.

The Influence of Cyberspace Groups

Cyberspace presents us with an entirely new world of groups and group engagement. From Facebook communities to forums, to interactions with social media followers. The digital landscape offers us new methods to connect and engage without the typical physical restrictions.

Below we examine a few of the different ways cyberspace groups influence us today.

Online Connection and Dating

Connections across the internet are often thought of as less real than in-person interactions and relationships. After all, we’re missing out on the physical element. Most relationships conducted via the internet are text-based. Although channels like Skype and other video streaming services does allow us to go beyond the text divide.

Still, we’re often limited to text as the main method of communication. With the advent of letter writing, humans have been communicating via text for quite some time. It does lack instantaneous emotional feedback, but often the process of writing to another can bring about the deeper meaning of what was trying to be conveyed that might not be able to be communicated through regular conversation.

Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, tried to change her name to eHarmony, but sadly the domain name was already taken.

Yet, the question still arises on the tangible value of digital relationships compared to physical relationships. Are relationships mediated through a screen still valuable? In a recent Atlantic article, professor of neuro-economics, Paul J. Zak, made the argument that the brain doesn’t really differentiate between the two. Your brain releases dopamine via physical interaction, but the same release can happen via social media interaction as well.

The Online World as Therapy

For some, the online world can be an outlet for their true selves. It offers a place for hidden desires or repressed aspects of ourselves to finally be set free. We have the ability to not only inhabit more flexible identities but can create various identities, which can be therapeutic to our physical selves.

Sadly, things like homophobia, racism, and other dark parts of human nature still exist. The physical world isn’t always a safe place. When the notion of a safe physical community is impossible, then cyberspace can act as a haven for support and understanding.

Prosocial online behavior does exist and can help to usher a new era of human understanding, acceptance, and empathy.

The Dark Side of Cyberspace

With all of the benefits that the internet and the prevalent existence of cyberspace have provided us it doesn’t come without its drawbacks. Especially, with the rapid pace of the internet’s inclusion into our daily lives. It seems that rules, ethics, and morals (or perhaps our own psychology) can’t keep up with the rapid pace of technological development. Below we look at a few of these examples.

In our constructed digital worlds of social media, our email inboxes, and the content we digest we’re at the risk more than ever of living inside our self-created worlds where our beliefs are the only true beliefs about the world.

Reality Tunneling

The idea of reality tunnels was proposed by Timothy Leary and expounded upon by author Robert Anton Wilson in his book Prometheus Rising. The basic idea proposes that our access to truth about the world is mediated by our physical senses, beliefs, conditioning, and experiences. Our realities are then shaped by the forces, and this is what we perceive to be real.

Obviously, this is a more philosophical leaning, but the mechanics of the idea can still apply.

For example, Facebook’s algorithms are catered to show us relevant information based upon our friend groups and the things we like. Although seemingly innocuous the subtle reinforcement of our sense of selves can have dangerous consequences.

We’re now living in curated digital environments. Being able to control the daily stimulus we allow into our lives can be very valuable, but it also has a dark side we need to be aware of.

Online Aggression

According to internet psychologist Graham Jones, “in the real world, people subconsciously monitor the behavior of others around them and adapt their own behavior accordingly. Online we do not have such feedback mechanisms.”

With anonymity being so easily accessible across the internet there are no real-life consequences for negative actions. If consequences do exist, they almost always require intense effort on the side of those being attacked.

This level of anonymity linked tied to no direct consequence for actions has also led to the rise of cyberbullying, with more than 1 in 3 young people experiencing cyber threats.

The psychology of cyberspace has a good side and a bad side.

With the prevalence of phones and social media, especially in the lives of adolescents, cyberbullying posses even more of a threat than physical violence or in-person bullying. All with the same harmful and damaging effects.

Online Disinhibition

Interacting on the internet provides us with a sense of freedom and a loosening of social restrictions we typically feel when engaging in face-to-face communication. Conceptually, this is referred to as the online disinhibition effect.

Some might liken this to the revealing of a true self that’s not tied to social restrictions and general expectation. The positive definition would include this and allow for the expression of parts of yourself that feel unsafe to disclose elsewhere.

However, the negative side deals with the sense of freedom and anonymity that can lead to cyberbullying, issuing defamatory statements without consequence, online harassment, and a most of other issues.

Even a look at the browser Tor will show that online anonymity can be used for both profound good and bad.

In Closing

Cyberspace is an evolving entity that’s increasingly overlapping with our daily lives. It has changed our working lives, our relationships, our schooling, and even how we conduct and think about ourselves. With the influx of new devices and the prevalence of the internet, it seems that the line between digital and physical will continue to blur.

Bringing both good and bad, cyberspace and our relationship to it will continue to evolve. Today it seems that most of us existing in our relationship to the digital environment that surrounds us, and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

3D Tin Can Phones by ccPixs is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Jumpgate VR
by Jack Baldwin, The Lead South Australia is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Newton, Isaac
by Krauss, Jodocus Egidius is in the public domain. Van Gogh Self Portrait by Scott Ferguson is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Head Aphrodite of Cnidus Louvre by Marie-Lan Nguyen is licensed under CC 2.5. Tragedy and Comedy by Tim Green is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Kevin Wood is a freelance writer specializing in technology and human potential. When he’s not digging deep into technical topics, you might find him getting lost in the woods or scrawling lines of poetry in a notebook.