How the 'cyber' story is shifting

When most of us see words like "cyberage" and "cyberspace," we don't think of times and places that are tightly controlled or governed. Nonetheless, that is exactly what the term "cyber" was supposed to connote.

American mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) may have been the first to use this increasingly ubiquitous English prefix when he coined the term "cybernetics" to refer to a science that has evolved into the comparative study of control and communications in living organisms and machines. He borrowed it from the ancient Greek term kybernao (to guide or steer), from which our English word "govern" is derived.

Microsoft's new Encarta World English Dictionary, said to mark "the first time World English and the Internet have been used in developing a new lexicon," lists nine cyberwords, some of which pick up nicely on the controlling or governing aspect of "cyber." For instance, "cybernation" is the use of computers to control manufacturing operations; "cyborg" (from cyber and organism) refers to a bionic human being.

Nonetheless, the governing or controlling sense of "cyber" may be losing ground. In recent usage, the term is showing up in contexts that make it synonymous with the Internet. For example, the new Encarta dictionary contains "cybersurfer" for someone who logs onto the Web a lot.

Webster's recent New World College Dictionary (1999) has six cyberentries, including "cyberphobia," a fear of computers and information technology, and "cyberpunk," which can refer to a type of violent science fiction or to the hackers who create insecurity in the digital universe.

These new cyberwords suggest a connection between the Internet and the control originally associated with "cyber." With computers threatening to track our every keystroke online, the World Wide Web may have become the new Big Brother - the ultimate controller.

It may be time to send in some cybercops.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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