The Problem with "Cyber-" (and Some Fixes)

The Problem: "Cyber-"

"Cybernetic" comes from the Greek "kybernetes," or "steersman". The etymology of "cyberspace" thus brings to mind a captain at the helm of a supertanker of bits--hardly an appropriate metaphor for the Internet. Different terminology could surely cast a more accurate and attractive image.

Even apart from its etymology, moreover, "cyber-" has negative connotations. Granted, few people associate the suffix with steersmen. Most do, however, associate it with "cyberpunk" sci-fi or with the pseudo-science of cybernetics.

William Gibson, the premier cyberpunk writer, apparently coined the term "cyberspace." Gibson may merit praise as a fine writer, but he hardly presents an appealing picture of technology's future. For a great many people, sadly, "cyber-" will bring to mind Gibson's gritty, dystopian world view.

To other people, "cyber-" will call to mind "cybernetics", the study of the principles of control and communication as they apply to the operation of complex entities. Though little more a buzzword in the free world, cybernetics drew a great deal of scholarly attention in the Communist Eastern Bloc. In 1989-90 I worked with young scholars from throughout newly liberated parts of Europe. Time and again these students showed ample knowledge of cybernetics--and utter ignorance of the Internet. Communist educational authorities regarded the the study of cybernetics both as an end and a means. On the one hand, it promised to rationalize and perfect their clumsy methods of social control. At the same time, it supplanted the study of computers, programming, and telecommunications--worrisome technologies in the eyes of Communist educational authorities. This woeful condition of cyber-ignorance especially characterized the more oppressive regimes, such as Romania.

Some Fixes

Terminology for the new digital intermedia should:

All else being equal, we'd naturally prefer the most attractive words that meet these criteria. Since "cyber-" fails on all counts, these alternatives merit consideration:

cyberspace  -->   the Internet (the most popular alternative);
the 'net (or simply "the net");
dataspace (as assonant as you care to make it!);
information space (accurate, if clunky);
the information ocean (a poetic usage); or
digital intermedia (my own coinage)

cyberlaw --> Internet law (the standby);
Net law (yes, actually used on occassion);
datalaw (again, assonant or not);
information law (perhaps too broad); or
infolaw (too trendy for my taste)

I usually favor the safe alternative, "Internet." To connote a slightly broader subject including both the Internet and other wired electronic media, I used "digital intermedia" in Fared Use vs. Fair Use: The Impact of Automated Rights Management on Copyright's Fair Use Doctrine, 76 N. Carolina L. Rev. 557 (1998), as well as in Book Review: Online Law: The SPA's Legal Guide to Doing Business on the Internet (Thomas J. Smedinghoff ed., 1996), 3 Rich. J. L. & Tech. 1 (1997). I have even used "information ocean," albeit in the uniquely appropriate context of Book Review: Henry H. Perritt, Law and the Information Superhighway (1996), 28 J. Maritime Law & Commerce 185 (1997).

Incidentally, I can think of no good excuse to use "information superhighway." But the many problems with that particular label merit another, separate rant. See, for example, my comments in the aforementioned review of Perritt's Law and the Information Superhighway.

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The Problem with "Cyber-" - - v. 07/99