Against “Cyber”

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Among my friends and colleagues, my hatred of the “cyber” prefix is well known. I loathe cyber. Yet it has become the de facto term within public and academic discourses to refer to almost any topic related to human-computer interactions. Criminology does not escape from this trend. A multitude of books have emerged, largely over the past decade, with “cyber” branded clearly across the cover. A trove of articles can be found featuring “cyber” prominently in their titles. Even journals dedicated to “cyber criminology” have been produced such as the International Journal of Cyber Criminology which began publishing online in 2007.

The term “cyber” originally emerged from “cybernetics,” a term coined by Norbert Wiener and Arturo Rosenblueth in the 1940s (Wiener, 1948). The label cybernetics was crafted as a “neo-Greek expression to fill the gap” they saw in the sciences, which they derived from a Greek word for “steersman” (Wiener, 1948, p. 19). In a perhaps gross oversimplification, cybernetics was originally envisioned as the study of feedback and control mechanisms within systems. Cybernetics was essentially about creating ideal operations in systems through the reception, regulation, and processing of information (notably in the form of feedback). The term was later coopted in the 1980s by Bruce Bethke in his short story “Cyberpunk.” It was meant to be a flashy method of signifying the connection between the use of high technology and punk sensibilities. Cyber took off in science fiction literature during this period, most notably in the work of Willian Gibson (Neuromancer, anyone?) who himself coined the term “cyberspace.”

During the 1980s, public fascination with computers skyrocketed coinciding with the mass production of personal computers. Pop culture treatments of technology and its users, such as the 1983 film War Games only further intensified this enthrallment. Cyber began to gain popularity as a fashionable way to discuss anything digital. This period was also marked by corresponding increases in anxiety over computers and their users (War Games helped in this regard as well). As Yar (2014) argues, our society is laden with utopian visions of the wonders that computers and similar devices can bring—better living through technology. These visions however, are often accompanied by anxieties over the danger posed by technology and, more importantly, the people who have mastery over computers and networks (most notably hackers). In contemporary times, terms like “cyberspace” and, ahem, “cybersex” have fallen by the wayside as contrived or cliché. The dystopic connotations seem to persist, however, as terms like “cybercrime,” “cyberwarfare,” “cyberterrorism,” and even “cyberjihad” remain in our collective public and political lexicon.

When I was at DEF CON 21 in 2013 (DEF CON is the largest hacker convention in the world and takes place yearly in Las Vegas), I sat in on a panel that was discussing electronic rights issues, notably those concerning the then recent Snowden revelations. A representative of the Electronic Frontier Foundation stated that “the only people who use the term ‘cyber’ are those who don’t know any better or are trying to scare you.” There is a great deal of truth in this statement.

In this context, there are a few reasons why academe—and criminology in particular—has maintained an enduring love affair with “cyber.” The first is that cyber just sounds impressive. Cyber is easily deployed as a prefix to lend some sort of technological gravitas to the topic. Saying you study “cybercrime” sounds much more impressive than “I study Internet/computer-related crimes.” There is a certain panache. Confessing to studying “computer-crime” makes it sound as if one sits behind their desk and stare at lines of code all day. Declaring that one studies “cybercrime,” however, evokes images of an academic foot soldier on the frontlines of the war over digital order and chaos.

The second reason why criminologists cling to the prefix, related to the first, is that “cyber” has become part of the accepted nomenclature, particularly regarding “cybercrime” and “cybersecurity.” The term has become well-established and ensconced in the criminological canon. As the term is canonized, it will be easier to market and generate hits in search engines. It also tends to be viewed as inherently more interesting for the reasons described previously. A book entitled Computer-Based Crimes would likely elicit yawns from many. Nerd crimes? Who cares? But retitle the book to Cybercrime and suddenly the mind is filled with images of danger and disaster. Men sitting behind computers wearing ski-masks (seriously, this is not an uncommon image, look it up) pecking away at their keyboards to usher in financial ruin and even the apocalypse are conjured into the imagination. Such an image invites the hoarding of canned meats and bottled waters. It also may encourage book sales.

Thus publishers tend to prefer the term cyber for understandable reasons—it sells. For instance, a colleague and I approached a number of book publishers a couple of years ago with a proposal for an edited volume focusing on the application of criminological theory to computer/internet related crime issues (as the area of “cybercrime” is woefully lacking in the application of theory with very few exceptions). We chose to use “technocrime” instead of “cybercrime” in the title. We wanted to avoid the connotative baggage associated with cyber and elected to use “technocrime,” a term we appropriated from scholars like Stéphane Leman-Langlois (2013). Multiple publishers seemed interested in the idea but they all asked questions like “why not use ‘cyber?’” or “would you consider using ‘cybercrime’ in the title?” To each publisher we politely refused and were sent on our way (we eventually found a publisher, but it took a while). The point is that cyber is accepted and it sells. Even if academics want to avoid the term cyber, publication demands may make deviation difficult.

Thus I understand the practical reasons that cyber is used. It is the accepted nomenclature and it has the power to evoke an emotional response—or at least some interest. Yet, the connotations which have become associated with the prefix are exactly why I eschew it. “Cyber” is laden with fear and anxiety. You want someone to be afraid of technology? Evoke “cyber” and then pepper your language with warfare terminology (“defense,” “attack,” etc.). It is bad enough that criminologists are burdened with “crime” and all the symbolic baggage it brings (yes, Crime, put your suitcases up on the guest room. Please try to wash the linens immediately after they are soiled. Blood stains are hard enough to get out, thankyouverymuch). Attaching “cyber” to “crime” invites more irrationality to the discussion than I am willing to tolerate. The term is abused far too often as a mechanism of inflating self-importance, increasing book sales, or stoking public fear (just watch any public official discuss anything “cyber” and you’ll see what I mean) while contributing little (if any) conceptual precision compared to other terms (there isn’t even clear agreement about what “cybercrime” even means). As such, cyber has no place in honest criminological discourse, at least for me. That said, there are many solid scholars who use the term “cybercrime” (Majid Yar comes to mind, among others). Perhaps I am mistaken in my arguments. I would invite comments and criticisms below (or in the form of an Uprooting rejoinder!).

And for the record, I tend to prefer the terms “technocrime” and “information security” over “cybercrime” and “cybersecurity,” but I am amenable to alternatives.

Kevin F. Steinmetz
Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work
Kansas State University

References
Leman-Langlois, S. (2013). Technocrime, policing, and surveillance. New York, NY: Routledge.
Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics: Or control and communication in the animal and the machine. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
Yar, M. (2014). The cultural imaginary of the Internet. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

2 Comments

  1. While I agree with many of the points made in this article, I feel that cyber- is the perfect prefix for these scenarios. The people that typically write/study such things are in their late twenties and thirties, well beyond the mental point of being able to keep up with evolutions within the so-called “hacker” scene. As such, it only seems appropriate to use an archaic language convention from bygone days.

    Cybercrime “researchers” are often so eager to accept everything they’re fed at face value that it might actually be appropriate to use terminology more easily understood by the mainstream media drugged consumers to which they cater. As such, I propose that the terms be changed to iCrime and iSecurity.

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