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Cyber speak

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The word “cyber” is used as a prefix for many things which are scary. Menacing terms like cyber-warfare, cyber-terrorism, cyber-attack and cyber-intrusion are familiar to all of us. These neologisms trigger evocative images of death, destruction and chaos.

“Cyber” is now firmly entrenched in our language and mindset. The origin of the cyber prefix can be traced back to the 1940s when mathematician, Norbert Wiener, used it to coin the word cybernetics to describe the futuristic idea of self-governing computing systems. It has since spawned a multitude of cyber terms.

Today, it is a catchphrase to describe anything to do with the Internet and online activities. The cyber tag is everywhere and its popularity is growing. Our lexicon is now replete with cyber buzzwords covering everything from online shopping (cyber-Monday) to online behaviour (cyber-culture).

There’s even a TV series with a cyber name. The popular crime franchise, CSI, tapped into the cyber craze and launched CSI: Cyber. In this latest Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) spinoff, the evidence is mostly electronic rather than physical. The show features cyber-cops and a cyber-psychologist who investigate cyber-crime.

Some argue that we are experiencing cyber-overload. The ubiquitous prefix has become a cliché and its overuse is rendering the term meaningless. The label “cyber” has risen to the level of “information superhighway” and “web 2.0” making it a target for ridicule.

According to Wikipedia, there are over 450 words that begin with cyber. Our cyber vocabulary continues to grow as more and more things are given a cyber focussed name. We need a cyber decoder to understand terms like cyber-hygiene, cyber-hug and cyber-kittens.

Cyber has grabbed the attention of the mass media. News broadcasts regularly report on lurking cyber dangers. Meanwhile, newspapers feature alarming headlines like “cyber-criminals steal millions” or “cyber-bullying an epidemic”. The media play to our fear of online technology and this causes cyber-angst.

A writer for the science and technology website, Gizmodo Australia, believes that the word cyber has become a “linguistic drug” and that many in society are hooked on it. He writes:

If someone snatches a bag on the street, he or she is a criminal. If they snatch a database full of credit card info, they’re a cyber-criminal. If a guard chases the bag snatcher, he’s part of security. If a smart guy chases the internet thief, he’s a cyber security expert.

But here’s the rub: both of the thieves are criminals, and both of the pursuers are security experts. The internet should have nothing to do with how the events are communicated: it was just a tool used in the crime.

A growing chorus of commentators believe that the word cyber has become debased and that we need to hack away at cyber overkill. A good starting place would be the US government. A 2016 article by digital news site, Quartz, analysed every mention of the word cyber in Congress from the year 2000.

The article makes interesting reading. There were 80 distinct uses of cyber as a prefix. Among the more obscure words uttered by political leaders were cyber-squatting, cyber-patriot, cyber-introverts, cyber-actor, cyber-area and cyber-tip.

You would be forgiven for thinking that cyber can be slapped in front of almost anything. Certainly, virtually everything related to the Internet can be prefaced with the word cyber. Cyber makes something sound more official or threatening.

Cyber enables you to create “cyber-this” and “cyber-that” simply by adding a suffix. It can mean everything and nothing. The New York magazine was quick to spot this utility and offered the following opinion in the 23 December 1996 edition of its magazine:

Cyber is such a perfect prefix. Because nobody has any idea what it means, it can be grafted onto any old word to make it seem new, cool - and therefore strange, spooky.

One reason why cyber is overused is the lack of an easy substitute. Possible synonyms include electronic, networked, computerised, hyperspace and online. But none of these work as a prefix of evil or a prefix to support a salad of suffixes.

The good news is that our cyber-world won’t face cyber-Armageddon if we can’t find a word to replace cyber. This may annoy pedants who cringe at awkward sounding cyber words. However, my sense is that cyber is here to stay as it’s now part of the vernacular.

To quote a September 2016 article in the New York magazine:

“Cyber” is an inescapable part of our technological vocabulary. It’s impossible to get the cyber-toothpaste back in the cyber-tube.

On that basis, I should inform you that this blog was written with the help of a cyber-machine. So perhaps I should call this online column a cyber-blog. Just a cyber-thought!

Paul J. Thomas, CEO


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CEO Paul Thomas