The Thing to Understand About the Word 'Cyber'

Cyber is now less a term of art than a term of war.
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Cyber has come a long way since Norbert Wiener named the emergent field of systems, loops, and feedback, "cybernetics," as Ben Zimmer charts in today's Wall Street Journal

In a world in which computing is nearly ubiquitous, cyber now mostly indicates computing in a military context. It's less term of art than term of war. 

This new spin on "cyber" trickled all the way up to the commander in chief. Last year, Barack Obama told graduates at the U.S. Air Force Academy that "we will maintain our military superiority in all areas--air, land, sea, space and cyber." At the Naval Academy, as the Navy Times reports, midshipmen will be able to major in "cyber" (short for "Cyber Operations") this coming fall.

Mr. Obama's formulation of "air, land, sea, space and cyber" holds the key to why "cyber" is succeeding as a 21st-century noun. Military power used to be deployed in the traditional arenas of land, sea and air, eventually joined by space. Now that list must be augmented as "cyberthreats" become as central a concern as any other for national security. With fears of cyberterrorism looming, "cyber" has, in a way, returned to its dark science-fiction roots.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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