Proposal for an Accessible Conception Of Cyberspace


David H. Gleason and Lawrence Friedman


This paper addresses regulatory frameworks and the knowledge requirements of a citizenry that can hold governments, corporations and individuals accountable for their Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) decisions.

In this paper, we propose a conception of cyberspace that is widely accessible to a global citizenry that can hold governments, market actors and individuals accountable for the impact of their cyberspatial activities. We suggest that the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model authored by the International Organization for Standards (ISO), the basis of interoperability of computers on the Internet, is the appropriate framework for educating a citizenry. Furthermore, we note that the OSI model can be extended to address the personal and social effects of ICT. The extended OSI model has multiple points of entry for cyber-citizens, and provides a knowledge framework with a clear and easy path to increased understanding.

Cyberspace is an artifact of the activities of millions of actors. It continuously subsumes the decisions of those actors into a rapidly-evolving medium. Some of those actors have more of an impact than others: By and large, governments and market-leading corporations establish the cyber-structures within which users must operate. It is important, therefore, that a plurality of users have enough of an understanding of cyberspace that they can hold influential actors accountable for their decisions.

Cyberspace is akin to having an exoskeleton. There is a sense of self that one has in cyberspace that expands into the medium. So perhaps it is not so much a “space” or “place” as it is a mode of being.

This mode of being is intuitive to young people who grow up using technology. To older users, the medium may seem opaque and unnatural. Both generations, however, suffer from a limited understanding of how cyberspace actually works.

The notion of “being in cyberspace” does not exclude the physical medium, the storage of information, or the creation of artifacts. But it respects the notion that cyberspace, or any medium, is only meaningful in terms of its effects and consequences – its effects on people and its consequences in the world. For civil society to properly regulate cyberspace, enough people must understand the medium well enough to make informed decisions about its use.

The 7-layer OSI model, a structure developed by and for engineers, explains how ICT can take information from an intelligible form down to electrical signals, and then back up to presentation. The model is structured as follows:

The 7-layer OSI model

For our purposes, we suggest that three layers should be added to the model to elucidate the human side of
the equation:

[The three additional layers would be elaborated in detail in the paper. Examples of all layers would be
provided, along with an explanation of how each layer could be made accessible to non-experts.]

We suggest that a user could enter the model at whatever layer fit their aptitude and training. This would
encourage engineers toward better understanding of the impact of their activities, and it would encourage
young “gamers” to dig into the technology behind their play. For most citizens, it would provide a rubric
against which to measure their understanding and, therefore, their potential to influence policy. It is a
conceptual model with both breadth of coverage and depth of knowledge. Within this approach, cyberspace can
be described at many different levels, to whatever degree of detail is needed by a given individual.

Finally, from different entry points, a widely accessible lesson plan could be developed.

This paper attempts to address several questions: How do we make a conception of cyberspace broadly
accessible so that democratic regulation and management becomes possible? How would we teach anyone to
understand cyberspace? What is an appropriate response to the user’s plea: “How do I make sense of
cyberspace?” The paper will develop a framework that maps cleanly onto the engineering standards used to
create cyberspace. This framework, extended into the ethics of technology development, is used to build a
conception of cyberspace that can be made accessible to most users, helping them to understand both the
underlying technology and the experience of “being in” cyberspace. We conclude with recommendations for
helping a plurality of cyber-citizens gain the understanding they need in order to hold government and market
actors accountable.