Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

Malice, Crime and Secret War: How "Cyber" Became the Prefix of Evil

"No one owns it. No single organization controls it. It is run like a commune with 4.8 million fiercely independent members (called hosts). It crosses national boundaries and answers to no sovereign. It is literally lawless."

These were the words of Philip Elmer-Dewitt in his March 1995 cover story for Time Magazine's special issue, "Welcome to Cyberspace" (paywall). At the time, the lawlessness of cyberspace was for Elmer-Dewitt, like most commentators, a good thing. It was cyberspace's greatest virtue that in this unchartered, intangible territory, millions of cybercitizens were apparently, of their own volition, coming together and (mostly) being nice to one another.

A few paragraphs above, Elmer-Dewitt had already regurgitated the utopianist mantra of the booming 90s web: "In a world already too divided against itself - rich against poor, producer against consumer - cyberspace offers the nearest thing to a level playing field."

Back then, the newness and quaintness of this "cyberspace" was charming. Surprising in its growth, yes, but on balance cyberspace seems often to have been documented as more of a fascination or curiosity rather than a worry. Some consumer introductions to cyberspace, in fact, were downright corny.

The 1990s "Internet Users Guide" embedded below has been edited, brutally, to foreground the breezy, wide-eyed enthusiasm of our host. "After we get all that technical stuff out of the way," she announces in the opening seconds, "we'll hop online and check out some of the amazing things you can do and places you can go out there in cyberspace!"

Cyberspace was exciting, family friendly, economically beneficial, educational, (generally) safe, free, egalitarian, enabling, fun, inspiring and new. But it was also just a little bit strange. With the word "cyberspace" hanging around, and the prefix "cyber" becoming more and more popular, all World Wide Web activity started to look like it was being threatened with an inherent Otherness; an "out there" quality that was pleading desperately to be normalised.

The Online Etymology Dictionary's entry for "cyber" includes a quotation from the New York magazine in 1996 which suggests that the media were beginning to see this abundance of Otherness for what it was: "Cyber is such a perfect prefix. Because nobody has any idea what it means, it can be grafted onto any old word to make it seem new, cool -- and therefore strange, spooky."

What I and a few others have noticed in the last few years is that the same strangeness, this spookiness of "cyber" has begun to be used in an interesting new way - it's started to apply mainly, if not exclusively, to negative things. Suddenly, "cyber" has been found keeping very bad company.

" 'cyber' has begun to be used in an interesting new way - it's started to apply mainly to negative things"

In news reports and documentaries I started seeing and hearing more and more phrases like "cyberwar", "cybercriminal" and "cyber attack." As Ben Zimmer noted in the Wall Street Journal at the end of last month, "cyber" has largely been militarised in the wake of President Barack Obama's comments that US military superiority would be maintained "in all areas - air, land, sea, space and cyber." Perhaps uses of "cyber" in dystopian science fiction (think the terrifying Cyber Men of Dr. Who or Cyberdyne Systems in The Terminator) are creeping towards becoming a reality.

"Cyberspace" itself is, you will be unsurprised to hear, a word that is gradually falling out of common use. But a little analysis would seem to show that cyber-coinages which describe forces of destruction and malice are flourishing wildly. In my opinion, Zimmer stops short of investigating the true, rejuvenated strangeness of words that begin with "cyber". To me, what we are witnessing right now is the re-appropriation of cyberspace by a societal notion of evil itself. Deep within a friendly and public World Wide Web, "Cyberspace" remains - but as the new Dark Side.

Take a benign word like "cyberculture" and observe the Google Trends graph for its appearances since 2005:

There's just no need to talk about "cyberculture" any more. Cyberculture is just what we called human culture occurring online before we accepted that the "online" bit was normal, indeed quotidian. "Cyberspace" itself is redundant because the web is part and parcel of our lives - we only identify it as The Web when we want to make a point about its differentness:

But what about evil? Take a look at the graphs for "cyber attack" and "cyberbullying" for example:

"Cyber warfare" is on the rise, too. And very recently I've noticed the popularisation of "cyber thieves" following a string of news articles which have used the term, notably in this headline back in April: "Cyber thieves target Bitcoin owners."

A Google News Search for "cyber thieves" reveals an abundance of citations in the last six months and "cyber crime" itself has seen some interesting spikes in recent years.

The cyber thief is no ordinary thief. He or she or it traverses the rat runs and back alleys of the global network, lurking there in the darkness. The cyber thief may be one or many, traceable or untraceable - connotations of the word depend on a natural ambiguity and, of course, this particular phrase describes a perfect shadiness. All your sensitive online data and personal wealth lies vulnerable to the cyber thief in the night who without warning may at any moment come and take it.

So the future's here - and it doesn't like us. These excessively negative deployments of the "cyber" prefix seem to reposition the word into a sort of danger zone. "Cyber" equals "bad" or "untrustworthy". The act of constructing a dark and devious "cyberspace" which needs to be locked down has become highly prized by vote-hungry politicians, legislators and law enforcers. Of course there are important jobs to be done when it comes to making the web safe for all of us, but it's interesting to note how speeches and reports have capitalised on the Otherness of a word whose meaning no-one can satisfyingly pin down.

The mushiness of cyber's definition has been around for a long time. Indeed, the mid-90s euphoria over cyberspace, if anything, was a hysterical blip that momentarily attempted to domesticate the weirdness of all things "cyber." One only needs to go back a little further in time, to the 1980s and the coinage of "cyberspace" itself, to find meanings and connotations which are themselves overtly Other and disturbing.

William Gibson came up with the word "cyberspace" with the explicit intention of gesturing at somewhere foreign and full of unknown potential. "I wanted the sense of another realm," he said recently at a book reading in New York. There he explained that he was partly inspired by teenagers' fascination with 1980s video game arcades. Gibson vividly remembers, "the sight of kids playing very early huge plywood-sided arcade games, and the body language of just intense longing and concentration. And when I glanced into these arcades that I was probably afraid to go into myself, it seemed to me like they wanted to go right through the glass, they wanted to be right there with the Pong, or whatever."

"It seemed to me like they wanted to go right through the glass, they wanted to be right there with the Pong, or whatever"

From this world that Gibson candidly admits he didn't understand and couldn't relate to came the term itself. "Cyberspace. It sounded like it meant something, or it might mean something, but as I stared at it in red Sharpie on a yellow legal pad, my whole delight was that I knew that it meant absolutely nothing."

And this pure Otherness seems suitably divorced from previous uses of "cyber" in words like "cybernetics". Although indirectly related, the idea of guidance and governance at the heart of the Greek kybernetes (which influenced Norbert Wiener's definition of "cybernetics" in 1948) has more or less evaporated for Gibson by the time he expresses an interest in "cyber." As he commented, he liked it precisely because meaning itself was curiously absent (save perhaps for a vague association with systems and information).

Ever since 1982, society has written its own definitions onto Gibson's brilliant blank canvas. Today it looks as though we have cast "cyber" out to the lawless fringes of civilisation in an attempt to deal with its strangeness.

But ultimately the evolution of "cyber" in a modern sense encapsulates our own over-complicated relationship with the web. It's the story of how we have moved from vague notions of an Other-space; to a blissful utopia; and finally, now, to the dwelling-place of menace. "Cyber", simply put, has become associated with all those things we fear the most and understand the least.


Photo: "Cyber Empires box" by Digital Game Museum. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.


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