‘Cyber’ Is Here to Stay

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Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“We have so many things that we have to do better, Lester, and certainly cyber is one of them.” That was Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during last night’s debate, speaking about the need for stronger cybersecurity measures. At least, I think that’s what he was speaking about: The term cybersecurity never once left his lips — he just kept talking about “cyber.”

“As far as the cyber, I agree to parts of what Secretary Clinton said, we should be better than anybody else, and perhaps we’re not … So we have to get very, very tough on cyber and cyber warfare. It is a, it is a huge problem. I have a son. He’s 10 years old. He has computers. He is so good with these computers, it’s unbelievable. The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough. And maybe it’s hardly doable.”

And yet, as amusing as it was, this is how a considerable portion of the general population thinks about computer-security issues. “Cyber” is an inescapable part of our technological vocabulary. It’s impossible to get the cyber-toothpaste back in the cyber-tube. The New York Times, our paper of record, has an unfortunate habit of affixing “cyber” to anything remotely related to digital warfare — “cyberattack,” “cybertools,” “cyberstrike,” “cyberthreat,” “cyberoperations.” Even Clinton’s more articulate answers — “I think cybersecurity, cyberwarfare will be one of the biggest challenges facing the next president” — did little to convey that she understood the specifics. A substantial cause for all of this “cyber” shorthand is the debate format. If you think discussing foreign policy and economics is difficult to do in two minutes, try and boil down end-to-end encryption. “Cyberwarfare,” though a bit more specific, is still just a type of warfare.

In a way, “cyber” has a distancing effect, signaling, “I know this is an important issue, but I don’t know enough to be more specific than that. Cut me some slack.” The shrewd effect of Trump’s repeated “cyber” is that cyber is so vague as to be meaningless. To talk about cyber is to signal that you know that computers exist, and not much else. “The security aspect of cyber is very, very tough” is a correct statement, if you take “cyber” as a stand-in for “the entirety of digital technology.”

Indeed, lexicographer Kory Stamper told ThinkProgress, “the way Donald Trump uses ‘the cyber,’ it’s not really clear what he means by it … Sometimes he means cyber security. Sometimes he means cyber warfare or cyber terrorism. Sometimes it seems like he just means computers.” Trump brought up ISIS during his rambling answer, despite the fact that ISIS’s prolific, effective use of social media does not qualify as a cybersecurity threat.

The thing about vagueness is that, while it makes for unobjectionable rhetoric, it makes for terrible policies. Legislation lives and dies on its comprehensiveness, its specificity. In particular, computer legislation in the United States such as the CFAA is so outdated and vague (what is “unauthorized access”?) as to be dangerous to the people it’s meant to protect. Taking aim at the fog-covered world of “cyber” is not only ignorant, foolish, and futile, it poses significant risks for anyone who uses a computer. That’s pretty much everyone in this country.

While the literal meaning of the term is nearly useless, the feelings that “cyber” conjures up are particularly evocative, menacing even. More so than its functional equivalent, the word computers. Talking about computers is like talking about hammers — tools that only take on sinister purposes when wielded by sinister people. “Cyber” is something altogether different. It’s inherently a word that evokes fear, seemingly out of human control. (Of course, language is continually in flux. “To cyber” is a decades-old verb that means something … well, if you have to ask, you’re too young to know.)

The “cyber” prefix dates back to ancient Greece, where they coined the term cybernetics. Obviously, it was not applied to robots (Norbert Wiener did that in the mid–20th century). Our modern understanding of “cyber” is most clearly attributable to science-fiction writer William Gibson, who created the word “cyberspace” and popularized the term in his 1984 novel Neuromancer.

“Cyberspace” — the idea of an infinite digital void within which people and programs are constantly connecting, communicating, fighting, arguing, and transacting — is a powerful fallback whenever one is at a loss to talk about technology. Its vagueness is no accident. Even Gibson admitted as much in the 2000 documentary No Maps for These Territories. A frequently cited quote:

All I really knew about the word ‘cyberspace’ when I coined it was that it seemed like an effective buzzword. It seemed evocative and essentially meaningless. It was suggestive of something, but it had no real semantic meaning, even for me, as I saw it emerge on the page.

Gibson would be proven right again and again. In 2016, we are stuck in a transition period — one in which many of the people in power do not understand the intricacies of technology, and in which it is also unacceptable for politicians to not have a grasp on these things. (Not that our politicians need to be computer scientists, only that they need to, at the very least, give a shit.) As a tech-discussion panacea, “cyber” will stick around in our lexicon until people who believe that their 10-year-old son’s Minecraft prowess is comparable to state-sponsored hacking operations die out. And that will take decades, if not centuries.