Origins of the term “cyber”

I used to rail against the term “cyber.” As one who grew up during the transitional period between ARPANET and the Internet, “cyber” took on ridiculous meaning. One learned quickly to avoid anyone whose avatar — or blinking cursor back then — asked, “wanna cyber?” Visions of Max Headroom doing unspeakable things were, for me, mentally far too near.

Earlier this year, Fred Kaplan published an excellent book called Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War. It was this book that completely changed my mind.

I’m now happy to admit that the term, “cyber,” is actually really cool.

First, let’s look at the origin of the word. Wikipedia tells us that the cyber prefix comes from the word, “cybernetic.” This is cool in and of itself, because the word “cybernetics” dates all the way back to Plato. Digging deeper, we see that the etymology of cybernetics comes from a word familiar to the DevOps world: κυβερνήτης, or transliterated, kubernetesEtymonline confirms it:

cybernetics (n.)
coined 1948 by U.S. mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) from Greek kybernetes “steersman” (metaphorically “guide, governor”)

This is already pretty great, but the rabbit hole goes deeper. Back to Kaplan (pp. 44-45):

What to call these “other” threats? One word was floating around in stories about hackings of one sort or another: “cyber.” …the term stemmed from William Gibson’s 1984 science-fiction novel, Neuromancer, a wild and eerily prescient tale of murder and mayhem in the virtual world of “cyberspace.”

Kaplan goes on to describe how a Justice Department attorney named Michael Vatis had just read Neuromancer, and suggested they use the term during the development of the Marsh Report. This pleases me greatly, as Neuromancer is probably one of my top three favorite books of all time.

So there you have it — Plato, William Gibson, and Kubernetes all tied up in one awesome word. Now when you hear terms like cyberwar, cybercrime, cyber-anything you can rest assured that the term is not lame, but indeed, quite kick-ass.

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