Advanced information and telecommunication technology has brought human being into a new information age, resulting in the emerging of an informational, global, and networked society. In the 1990s, the rapid growth of the Internet has not only had strong impacts on the social and economical fields, but also restructured the organizations of global physical and virtual spaces. Despite the global changing of cities is obvious, our understanding of the urban dimensions of these technological systems is still poor. In recent years, the academic research on cyberspace has been becoming popular in many fields such as urban geography in the western countries. In technical and economic perspectives, this paper seeks to review the literature and give some consideration to the research of urban cyberspace.
Firstly, it defines the concept of cyberspace and summarizes the principal characteristics of cyberspace in comparison with physical space. Cyberspace is defined as a computer-generated landscape, i.e. the virtual space of a global computer network, linking all people, computers, and sources of various information in the world through which one could navigate. In fact, cyberspace is a metaphor used to understand computer networks. The Internet is a multi-layered organization, so cyberspace is layered in a physical, a network and an application layer as well as a layer of knowledge and action. Each layer displays its own type of spatial dependence. To a large extent cyberspace is embedded in, and often intertwines with the physical space and place, but some distinctions do exist between them. The most profound differences between the “two spaces” are the speed and contents of communications. Despite the “instantaneity” of communications, cyberspace is far from frictionless.
In recent years, there are four dominant theoretical perspectives to city—telecommunication relations: technological determinism, the intertwined approaches of futurism and utopianism, critical urban political economy, and the social construction of technology (SCOT) approach. These approaches suggest very different relationships between cities, the urban-rural interfaces and telecommunication.
Technological determinism is based on the liner notion that innovation leads to new technologies which are then applied and used on the urban scene. Futurists and utopianists generally take a positive, liner view in forecasting the social and political implications of these future shifts. While both technological determinism and various strands of futurology suggest a functional relationship between telematics technologies and their urban “impacts”, the political economy approach focuses on cumulative causation in explaining uneven social and spatial development within and between cities. Here, the fundamental casual link goes from capitalist political, economic and social relations through the design and applications of telematics technology to explanations of core-periphery patterns of contemporary urban and regional development. As an alternative to the macro perspective taken by radical political economists, SCOT approaches maintains that the use and application of various infostructures are developed incrementally and shaped by organizations and individuals through processes of social and political institutionalization.
On the other hand, urban studies also have provided some empirical evidence linking cyberspace and cities on three spatial scales: global, national, and city-level scales. Castells' term, the space of flows, best captures the new spatial form, “the material organization of time-sharing social practices that work through flows”. This theory is particularly useful to understand the economic geography of the Internet at the global scale, especially related to the concept of world cities or global cities. Universally it is evident that the existing urban hierarchy centered on “global cities” such as New York, London and Tokyo, is playing an important role in Internet content production. At the same time, new technologies cause new “disturbances” that can result in the emergence of new clusters so-called “network cities”.
On national level, all existing case studies focus on US and European countries. Using Internet domain name or IP address spatial mapping, some scholars describe the relative magnitude and density of urban Internet clusters in US, Germany, UK and Norway. On the other hand, some studies attempt to measure Internet backbone structure and performance. Network analysis techniques are applied to evaluate Internet connectivity, revealing large differences in levels of accessibility of cities and regions.
Research on spatial organization of cyberspace in metropolitan areas is scarce. Some scholars among them conclude that domain names has been significantly concentrating on the central business districts of cities, and more and more evidences show that the existing industrial structure of a region plays an important part in supporting the development of commercial Internet content production in US. In recent years, there are also some scholars who begin to care about the 'urban' design and planning of cyberspace, and striding forward to cyber-cities planning.
Finally, on the basis of the above reviews, the prospects of measurements and contents of cyberspace for further research are highlighted. With the further development in information and telecommunication technology, the second stage of “geographic exploration” is emerging.