Contesting "Cyber"

Over the last few decades there has been a proliferation of the term “cyber,” and commensurate levels of inconsistency. This report 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 is not to resolve conceptual disputes, but instead to understand how and why contests have occurred, and whether resolution is possible.

As the prefix “cyber” has rarely been used alone, we place the concept of cyberspace at the center of analysis, for two reasons. First, it is often considered to be the most basic concept in the field, drawing on an intuitive geographical metaphor. Second, “cyberspace” 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 one side, some cyber-related concepts are prima facie undesirable, like “cyber warfare” or “cyber threat.” Others are more positive, such as “cyber democracy.” The obvious normative aspects of the 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.

This report argues that cyberspace is contested in several ways: through a 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 conclude that, as the prospects for agreement regarding cyberspace are low, we should adopt what we term, following Hirschman, an ‘exit’ rather than ‘voice’ strategy, and use other concepts instead.


Contesting "Cyber"


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.

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.