Why cyber-clich

Steve Ranger's Notebook: Buzzwords and their baggage...

It's time to trundle the word 'cyber' off to the nursing home for tired old clichés, says silicon.com's Steve Ranger.

It doesn't matter if it's cyber security, cyber criminals, cyber attackers, cyber terrorists or cyber kittens: my heart sinks when I see these phrases in a headline in a newspaper, because it usually means the story will trivialise, sensationalise or generally miss the point.

Cyber - derived from cybernetic, which in turn derives from the Greek kybernetes, or steersman - was an elegant coinage to match the complex technology change of the late 20th century. Using cyber as a prefix in cyberspace, cybercafé and even cyberbully was a good way of showing how new technologies were changing the way we do everyday things. Smashing cyber on the front of everyday words was a good way of expressing the collision of tech and culture that was taking place.

Cyber cliche

'Cyber' has become so debased that it has now acquired unfortunate connotationsPhoto: Shutterstock

Indeed, William Gibson's 1984 definition of cyberspace from his classic novel Neuromancer is still something I find incredibly exotic and intoxicating:

  • "Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding."

It's this sort of stuff that inspired me to start writing about the way technology is changing and about business and society in the first place. But now I think it's time to consign cyber to the dustbin of history.

That's because in the quarter of a century since then, the prefix has become so debased it now is really used as shorthand for "something strange to do with technology which in my ignorance I find a bit threatening". It's now a piece of tabloidese far removed from its origins.

Cyber has declined into cliché. What once was a way of expressing the excitement of new technology is now effectively used to flag fear of technology instead. It feels old-fashioned, parochial and tired, probably because that which is cyber is so much part of everyday life now to even draw attention to it seems silly. If you use the word cyber too much, I'm going to assume you don't know what you are talking about.

So what, you might ask. What does it matter? All buzzwords finally get worn out from overuse and why is this one any different?

I think it matters because the way cyber is still used by most of the media is a reflection of a hostile attitude towards new technology. It is a source of anxiety. It is something out of control. It is something that should be stopped.

And so for me to use the word unthinkingly is to support implicitly this simplistic, reductionist view - a view that is pretty much the opposite of what I think. So cyber-bores, beware.

Agree, disagree? Let me know what you think by posting a comment below