The Incredible Drifting Cyber


It's been interesting how the prefix cyber has drifted in meaning over the years. Let's explore together.

I wrote two thirds of this article and then I discovered Annalee Newitz was way ahead of me and wrote about the same thing two years ago. Since my article has different details I decided to finish it and put it on my blog after all. There's plenty of room in cyberspace. But read Annalee Newitz's article too!

Ancient Times: κυβερνητική

The ancient Greeks had a bunch of "kybern-" words. κυβερνάω (kybernao) means "to steer", and the Greek words for ship's captain and government are related. κυβερνητική (kybernetike) was used by Plato to mean governance of people.

So kybern- stuff was about steering and governance.


In 1948 Norbert Wiener coined the word "cybernetics" in English based on the Greek word κυβερνητική. Wiener was a mathematician who worked on the automatic aiming of anti-aircraft guns during World War II. Wiener started to think about the general principles of control systems. I appreciate how he extracted some good from thoughts about guns.

A very simple control system most people are familiar with is a thermostat: when the temperature falls below a certain set value, it turns on a heater until the temperature is back at the required value again. We find many more complex control processes in living organisms: such blood sugar regulation as body temperature regulation.

Wiener called the study of control systems cybernetics, and investigated general principles behind control systems in a lot of different areas: from electronics to biology to psychology. He foresaw a lot of later developments in computer technology. Interdisciplinary thought like this can be very fruitful.

Wiener's work on cybernetics was quite inspirational in a range of fields, causing the meaning of the word "cybernetics" to become as stretched as "chaos theory" was for a while in the 1990s. Such is the risk of interdisciplinary studies.


At first we didn't have the cyber prefix. We just had cyb.

We move into the space age. In 1960, two researchers, Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, also known as the Klynes (okay I just made that up), published an article about the idea of adapting human bodies with cybernetic technology to make them more suitable for the environment of space. With the right combination of drugs and machinery we could adjust humans so they can deal with long duration space voyages. They named the resulting combined cybernetic organism a "cyborg".

They realized that such a cyborg might go mad floating in the vastness of space:

Despite all the care exercised, there remains a strong possibility that somewhere in the course of a long space voyage a psychotic episode might occur, and this is one condition for which no servomechanism can be completely designed at the present time.

Since the cyborg might refuse to take medication voluntarily, they can still pump them full of drugs remotely:

For this reason, if monitoring is adequate, provision should be made for triggering administration of the medication remotely from earth or by a companion if there is a crew on the vehicle.

It sure was a document of its time, including "space race" reference to possible competing Soviet research into the cyborg topic. Oh no, they might be ahead of us! The article concluded that:

Solving the many technological problems involved in manned space flight by adapting man to his environment, rather than vice versa, will not only mark a significant step forward in man's scientific progress, but may well provide a new and larger dimension for man's spirit as well.

Today we see many examples of what could be described as "cyborg" technology, though we aren't taking it as quite far as these researchers imagined yet. We don't have the technology.

Cyber in Science Fiction

The idea of the the human/machine hybrid predates World War II in science fiction, but these researchers gave it a name that stuck.

This is where the cyber prefix starts entering pop culture. Doctor Who in 1966 introduced the Cybermen, biological organisms that have replaced most of their bodies with cybernetic parts. They're cyborgs, and nasty ones: they proceed to forcibly convert victims into more Cybermen. In the 1980s a similar concept was introduced into Star Trek as the Borg. Just as Star Wars turned the older word "Android" into "Droid", Star Trek turned "Cyborg" into "Borg".

So cyber is about cybernetic organisms. Not all of it though: Cybernetics crosses into many disciplines, so it was easy for cyber to become associated with computers and robots as well: Cybertron is the home world of giant robots that can transform into stuff. It involves lots of explosions somehow. Or Cyberdyne systems, who create Skynet. It creates a Governator (government again!) that is sent back in time.

Cyberpunk and Cyberspace

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. In the early 1980s, the prefix cyber appears in a new subgenre in science fiction, Cyberpunk. Gone are the gleaming towers, the distant worlds and silver bodysuits of earlier science fiction imagery. Cyberpunk is "high tech and low life" -- the radical collision of high technology with the street. We know this today as today, though we're a lot less cool with our smartphones than the mirror-shaded cyber-implanted street toughs envisioned by Cyberpunk fiction.

The seminal work of Cyberpunk fiction is Neuromancer by William Gibson, from 1984. In it Gibson coins the word Cyberspace, which doesn't have boring HTML but instead uses virtual reality to navigate data, as that's just so much cooler.

Cyber was now associated with digital spaces. The Internet was coming. Now the floodgates are open and we're ready for the 1990s.

Riding the 1990s Cyber Highway

The Internet has a longer history, but it really speeds into popular consciousness in the early 1990s. One day it's all boring computer stuff nobody cares about except a few geeks like me, the next day you hear people exchange their email address in the bus. Journalists and academics, never afraid to write articles about neat new stuff they can play around with at work (and why not?) produce massive quantities of new words with the prefix cyber. Cyber is cool.

The Internet is bright and new. Nobody has heard of spam yet, and email viruses are still a hoax.

So we are homesteading the cyberfrontier, found new cybercorporations. Are we building a cyberutopia or a cyberghetto with a cyberelite? Will we one day all ascend into cyberimmortality?

You see where this is going. By 1999 people are calling the prefix "terminally overused". Cyber is now uncool.

To Cyber

The cyber prefix then takes a surprising turn and turns into a full-fledged word all by itself! In the late 1990s cyber becomes a verb: to have cybersex in online chat. "Wanna cyber?" Words like "cyberutopia" and "cyberelite" can now elicit a snicker.

It was not to last, though we should still pretend it is, as cyber is about to take a dark turn.

Cyber Turns Dark

Apparently blissfully unaware of the naughty meaning of the word, the cyber prefix has in recent years become re-purposed by serious people for bad stuff that happens online: cybercrime, cyberbullying, cybersecurity, cyberwar. Or maybe it is the other way around, and only with enough distance from fun naughty things can the prefix cyber still hold a useful meaning, and it's such an unfun word now exactly because there was an association with naughty stuff previously.

And after all, we've associated dehumanizing technology with bad stuff in science fiction since at least Frankenstein's Monster, and the prefix cyber has been used in that context for years. Cybermen are still bad guys.

This is a dark turn for cyber. I don't like living in a world of cybersecurity. I imagine at a cybersecurity conference overly serious people discuss about how to take more privacy away from citizens, in the shadow of ominous threats they don't quite understand. Unless they are busting into hotel rooms while you're nude. (really. In my own country, no less!)

Will the word cyber remain dark now that the dour people have clenched their fists around it? The word has been versatile so far, but I'm not optimistic. In any case we do need to get some of that 1990s cyberspirit back, and then we can perhaps, again, work on that 1960s new and larger dimension for the human spirit. Or at least have fun.