Contesting "Cyber"

Introduction and Part I

Photo: Pexels / Cosmin Paduraru

Introduction

Over the last few decades there has been a proliferation of the term “cyber”, and commensurate levels of inconsistency. This series argues that the inconsistent application of the prefix “cyber” stems not only from confusion, as some scholars and policymakers have proposed, but also from contest. Our goal of this series is not to resolve conceptual disputes, but instead to understand how and why contests occur, and whether, once the lines along which contests occur are identified, resolution is possible.

As the prefix “cyber” has rarely been used alone, we place the concept of cyberspace at the centre of analysis, for two reasons. First, it is considered to be the "elemental" concept in the field, and demarcates the boundaries of relevant technical and social activity through an intuitive geographical metaphor. Second, selecting the concept “cyberspace” for analysis can be considered a least-likely (or least-obvious) study of contest. The attachment of the prefix “cyber” to various nouns has left cyber-related concepts with a variety of underlying normative connotations. On the one side, some concepts describe a clear activity or state of affairs, which are prima facie undesirable, like “cyber warfare” or “cyber threat”. On the other side, various concepts reflect a more positive degree of attractiveness—“cyber democracy” is a good example of this. The obvious normative aspects of these terms to which the cyber prefix is attached make these likely sites for contest, whereas “cyberspace” is seemingly more neutral. We suggest instead that it is the ominous calm at the heart of the storm, providing an excellent case in which to study the tension regarding the prefix more broadly.

Over the next six days, we will publish a series of blog post that show that cyberspace is contested in a number of ways: through its change in connotations from opportunity to threat; through the existence of substantive and implied definitions, with different rhetorical functions; and through competing understandings of the key historical exemplar for cyberspace: that of ARPANET. We therefore note that the prospects for agreement regarding cyberspace are low. Overall, this presents the choice of what we term, following Hirschman, an 'exit' rather than ‘voice’ strategy, to use other concepts instead. An initial post in this series was published last Friday at Slate’s Future Tense and can be found here.


PART 1. Cyber: not just a confused but also a contested concept.

Since the early 1990s the prefix “cyber” has become widespread. As often noted, its use stretches back to Norbert Wiener's coinage of “cybernetics” from its Greek equivalent in the 1940s. It is similarly canonical to cite novelist William Gibson as creating the “ur” metaphor for this prefix in the early 1980s by combining it with “space”. Almost three decades later in an interview with The A.V. Club, Gibson argued that “‘cyberspace’ as a term is sort of over. It’s over in the way that after a certain time, people stopped using the prefix ‘-electro’ to make things cool, because everything was electrical. ‘Electro’ was all over the early twentieth century, and now it’s gone. I think ‘cyber’ is sort of the same way”.

In contrast to Gibson’s prediction, a simple automated content analysis using Google Trends indicates that the popularity of the prefix “cyber” has remained stable (with a spike in November each year for “cyber Monday”). There are ever more applications of this prefix, to words such as crime, law, cafe, hate, bullying, attack, war, vandalism, politics, dating, security, and power. Today, more people enter the search term “cyber” into Google than the term “democracy” or “terrorist”. Needless to say, the term “cyber” has also gained in prominence in academia and policymaking.

The proliferation of this prefix has, inevitably, led to substantial inconsistencies in its use. On one level, these contradictions may stem from simple confusion. As Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA, remarked: “rarely has something been so important and so talked about with less clarity and apparent understanding than this phenomenon.” Scholars and policy-makers, among others, are not always consistent in their own usage of cyber-related concepts, and they sometimes reinterpret the definitions employed by others, especially when given a liberal dose of cross-disciplinary fertilization.

Many hold that such disagreement is primarily caused by the apparently abstruse and multifaceted nature of the phenomenon. For example, in a Foreign Policy article, Stephen Walt notes that “the whole issue is highly esoteric—you really need to know a great deal about computer networks, software, encryption, etc., to know how serious the danger might be,” concluding that “here are lots of different problems being lumped under a single banner, whether the label is ‘cyber-terror’ or ‘cyber-war’. If this is the case, more research can iron out the lack of clarity surrounding this relatively young concept, and then we can get to the one and only “meaning of the cyber revolution,” as Lucas Kello emphasizes in his recent book (and earlier article). However, in this article series we argue that the inconsistent application of the prefix “cyber” stems not only from confusion, but also from contestation.

In other words, the roots of disagreement are deeper than a mere struggle to absorb the collective knowledge of another discipline, but stem from underlying normative disagreements.

Understanding the nature and extent of this contestation of “cyber” is important for both policy-making and academic research. For policy-makers, the promise of what Joseph Nye Jr. calls “rules of the road” in cyberspace is much diminished if the very domain itself remains in question (also see the UK government strategy). Constructing effective international cyber-governance becomes more difficult—although not impossible—if the scope of what to be governed is fundamentally disputed.

For academics, if the roots of disagreement are deeper, then faith in a unified understanding of the cyber-issue is utopic; and further investigation of why and how broader political disputes are translated into problems with this proliferating prefix is urgently required.

Here we will explore what it means when we talk about cyber, and address the nature of contestation from various angles.


 

Authors:

Max Smeets is a cybersecurity fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. He is also a fellow in New America's Cybersecurity Initiative.

James Shires is a doctoral student in international relations at the University of Oxford, and a research affiliate at the Oxford Center for Technology and Global Affairs. His research focuses on cybersecurity in the Middle East.