Today, cyber means war. But back in the 1990s, it meant sex — at least, the kind of sex you can have in a chat room. Why did the word change, and where did it originally come from?
It all started with "cybernetics," an obscure term popularized by a mathematician named Norbert Weiner in the 1940s. For his groundbreaking book Cybernetics, Weiner borrowed the ancient Greek word "cyber," which is related to the idea of government or governing. Indeed, the only time the word cybernetics had appeared before was in a few works of political theory about the science of governance.
In his writing, Weiner described what was at the time a pretty futuristic idea — that one day there would be a computer system that ran on feedback. Essentially, it would be a self-governing system. And for a long time, cybernetics remained the purview of information theorists like Weiner, and early computer programmers.
Science fiction author Pat Cadigan, whose novel Mindplayers is a cyberpunk classic, recalled that her first encounter with "cyber" was of a decidedly Weinerish variety. She told io9 that the first time she heard the term was when she was in high school in 1967, and somebody mentioned cybernetics. "I asked what cybernetics was. 'It has to do with computers,' was the answer. My eyes glazed over. For years, that was the only word I knew with the prefix 'cyber' in it."
But all that changed a little over a decade later. Cadigan recalled:
One morning in 1979, I was getting ready for work and Gary Numan's "Cars" came on the radio. Afterwards, the DJ said, "There's some cyberpunk for you." He was making a joke; in 1979, the punk movement was in full flower but the chaotic noise of punk music was starting to evolve into electronic noise.
Still, that joke quickly became a reality. In the early 1980s, the cyberpunk movement took over science fiction, spurred by the popularity of the film Bladerunner and William Gibson's novel Neuromancer. Authors like Cadigan, Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker were writing mind-blowing stories about the merging of humans and computers. Cyber became a catch-all prefix that could be added to any word to make it sound cutting-edge. Cadigan noted that cyber "sort of supplanted the term 'digital' in some ways as an indicator of something that was high tech."
The 1990s: Decade of Cyber
Cyberpunk was a mostly-underground artistic style in the 1980s, but suddenly in the 1990s everything was cyber. As more and more people got internet access, the alien world of cyberspace from William Gibson's work became a household consumer item.
Richard Holden, a lexicographer with the Oxford English Dictionary, recently researched the history of cyber for the dictionary. He told io9 that the 1990s were a time when use of the word underwent rapid diversification:
The Oxford English Dictionary entry for the prefix cyber- has evidence of its use going back to 1961 (in Cybertron, as it happens), but . . . it seems to have become particularly popular in the 1990s — we don’t have all that much evidence for its use before then. This seems likely to be a result of the invention of the World Wide Web, and the earliest evidence we’ve found for words like cyber-bully, cybercommunity, cybergeek, cyberlaw, cyberstalker, and, indeed, cybersex and cyberwar all comes from the early 90s. At that time you . . . seem to get a mix of positive and negative terms involving the prefix, which possibly reflects the mixed feelings people often have about the opportunities and threats a new technology can bring.
Ben Zimmer, who writes about linguistics for the Wall Street Journal, agreed with Holden, noting that the seemingly-incongruous ideas of cybersex and cyberwar "grew up side by side." The earliest recorded use of the term "cybersecurity" came in 1989, the exact same year when the word "cyberporn" was coined. But neither term was dominant. In the heady days of the 1990s "information superhighway," before people got used to the idea that shopping, dating, and work could exist online, adding the prefix cyber to something made it seem like it was taking place in the gleaming, pixelated world inhabited by futuristic youth.
Had the iPhone come along in the 1990s, it's likely that we'd be calling our devices something very different. Cadigan said, "Terminology-wise, I find it interesting that we never had cyber-phones. The mobile/celluar phone became the cell and then evolved into the smart phone, not the cyber-phone." Just as today everything from buildings to phones can be "smart," in the 1990s anything could be cyber.
The Cybersex Moment
Back in the days of AOL chat rooms, IRC channels, and text-only multi-user games, lots of people started having cybersex. Most of this furtive online activity involved no more than people talking dirty via text.
But cyber-pundits suggested that teledildonics and virtual reality sex were just around the corner. Soon, we would be having sex with chrome-plated dragon beasts in landscapes made of diamond flowers. And we would be stimulating our lovers 3,000 miles away with sex toys that plugged into both partners, sending the orgasmic shivers of one to the other via the internet.
Zimmer pointed out that Douglas Adams may have invented the idea of cybersex back in 1982, when he remarked in Life, the Universe and Everything that "Zaphod had spent most of his early history lessons plotting how he was going to have sex with the girl in the cybercubicle next to him." As more college age people began piling on to the internet in the mid-1990s, cybersex became trendy slang for what you did with your long-distance boyfriend using the university dial-up connection. And, like most slang, it quickly got shortened to cyber.
By the late 1990s, cyber verged on being a dirty word. "Wanna cyber?" did not mean "Wanna take down the national security infrastructure?" It meant "let's jack off on our private IRC channel."
"Cyber" meaning "cybersex" apparently took off in the AOL chat rooms of the mid-'90s. For instance, here is a Usenet post (on nyc.personals) from 1995 talking about AOLers "having cyber." Soon "to have cyber with" became "to cyber with," as the noun became a verb. Here is a 1996 example of "cyber" as a verb, from alt.romance.teen: "He also said it had to do with the fact I won't cyber with him. I told him it's because it's pointless and it can't be compared to the real thing." AOL launched Instant Messenger in '97, so it's likely at that point that lonely kids popularized the "wanna cyber?" come-on (along with the old "a/s/l" standby). Much of this cybertalk seems pretty quaint now.
Author Violet Blue, who has written extensively about sex and computer hacking, offered a pragmatic assessment of why cyber exploded as a slang term:
While it's true that 'cyber' has been a catch-all for 'internet' over decades, it fits that since 'internet' makes an awful verb, 'cyber' made a fine slang term for jacking off via the UI du jour. Now, more people think of 'cyber' as associated with evil hackers and nation state tech attacks than IRC wankers of yore or, say, teledildonics or the oncoming erotic applications of Oculus Rift.
An Unfashionable Word
As entertaining as it was, the erotic use of the term cyber was pretty brief. Perhaps the people who cybered in the 1990s grew up, and their slang terms were as dead as the Backstreet Boys to the next generation. Or maybe sexual slang is always ephemeral.
Holden said there was an overall narrowing of the use of the prefix cyber during the dot-com crash at the turn of the century:
When I was researching the cyber- words, it seemed to me that by the end of the 1990s the prefix had already become a bit passé, and most of the words it formed became a bit rarer, or at least less fashionable. This seems to be the case for quite a few words relating to the Internet and World Wide, such as Information Superhighway or surfing.
R.U. Sirius, editor of the legendary cyberpunk zine Mondo 2000, told io9 that by the century's end he was seeing ads on San Francisco train system BART that said, "Join the cyberpunks at AT&T!" This wasn't exactly a word that signaled youthful freedom and naughty indiscretions anymore.
Sirius said he associated the word cybersex with "cyberculture," and "I started hearing people who were part of the scene saying they were tired of the use of the word cyberculture probably some time in 1992."
But Blue thinks that cybering didn't just go out of fashion among the techno-hip. People lost interest in it because it represented the failure of a technology that we'd been promised:
I noticed that 'cyber' (sex) started to take a back seat to 'cyberwar' right between the failure of cybersex as a viable product - and the success of cyber-warfare as a very viable product. Stuxnet comes to mind.
We never got decent teledildonics and virtual reality mindfucks — but we did take down the security on a foreign nuclear power plant using the Stuxnet worm. Cyberwar just worked better than cybersex. And cyberculture just started to sound like that quaint thing hippies did in the 1970s with LSD and flowers.
War Goes Cyber
But if there's any institution that's known for being insensitive to changing fashions, it's the military. They embraced the cyber with a vengeance, and now the word is almost synonymous with things like Stuxnet and drones. "Why the techno-military-industrial complex (or cyber-military-industrial complex) has gotten stuck on the word, I'm not sure," Sirius said. "But since they're probably not too hung up on remaining all hip and contemporary, it may stick around for a long time."
Cyberpunk author and Wired columnist Bruce Sterling added with characteristic snark:
I think I know why the military calls it "cyber" — it's because the metaphor of defending a "battlespace" made of "cyberspace" makes it easier for certain contractors to get Pentagon grants. If you call "cyberspace" by the alternate paradigm of "networks, wires, tubes and cables" then the NSA has already owned that for fifty years and the armed services can't get a word in.
But there are other uses of cyber that have stuck around too — almost all of them negative. The Oxford English Dictionary's Holden speculated:
It may just be that the initial wave of optimism over the possibilities the Web might bring have faded, leaving only its perceived threats. Or it may just be that, in positive contexts, in hasn’t managed to remove the taint of unfashionableness left from the 1990s – something less important to the newspapers and other media outlets reporting on cyberbullying or cybercrime.
This is also in many ways a return to the roots of the term cyber, when it was first appropriated from Weiner's cybernetics by a group of angry dystopians in the early 1980s. "Gibson was writing about 'enemy cyber systems' way back in 1981 after all," Zimmer said. The Terminator series also put cyberwarfare on the map. "Cyberdyne Systems originally propelled the war machine of the future [in Terminator 2]," Blue said. "It was in 2008 that the Sarah Connor Chronicles [series] made Cyberdyne a made-for-TV household synonym with techno warfare."
Perhaps cyberculture and cybersex were just a brief, strange blip in the evolution of cyber. For one strange moment in the 1990s, it seemed like the internet could be anything — even a way to have sex. But as the reality set in, people grew disenchanted with the promise of cyber pleasures. Those unfulfilled promises of teledildonics began to feel awkward and embarrassing. What were we thinking? The internet might be for porn, but not so much for having sex.
What also became more obvious over time was the internet's dark side, full of trolls and bullies and people looking to make our lives miserable. But all those flaws in the feedback system Weiner once dreamed of made it the perfect vector for war. Because what else is war but exploiting your adversaries' vulnerabilities?
Still, the older meanings of cyber linger at the edges of our memory. When I asked Blue about the word's transformation, she immediately quipped, "Make cyber not cyber!" If the language around cyber continues to evolve as a military idea, however, we may be the last generation who will get her joke.
Annalee Newitz is the author of the book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.