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What Is War in the Digital Realm? A Reality Check on the Meaning of “Cyberspace”


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Credit: Wikimedia Commons/NASA

Cyber is everywhere: in political speeches, in newspapers, at dinner conversations. There’s cyberwar and cybersex and cybercafés (they still exist, I promise), and there’s the U.S. Cyber Command. Once in a while, there is a new surge of articles arguing that the word “cyber” is vague, dated and that we just should get rid of it in favor of more precise terminology.

That is wishful thinking: we might lack clear definitions of the cyber prefix, but for whatever reason cyber seems here to stay, which is why we should take a moment to explore what meanings and ideologies we have been infusing in this word to better inform our debates about technology.

Cyber’s most popular namechild certainly is cyberspace (always cited and never defined), and it has been here with us for more than 30 years. It’s time for a short review of its origins, its many variations and what’s hiding behind the term.

Cyberspace was a term brought to us by literature, and its trajectory traveled through poetry, academic analysis, politics and ideologies. It is now pervasively used by anyone who wishes to discuss security and democracy in a networked society. The stakes are crucially important. Using vague, misunderstood and meaningless language tools to articulate these debates hinders our ability to think critically about technology, something we can’t afford when we should be having informed debates about our expectations on surveillance, privacy or freedom of speech.

Origins in Cyberpunk
Given the lack of clear definition, it’s not surprising that the Wikipedia entry on cyberspace offers a very abstract explanation: that cyberspace is “the idea of interconnectedness of human beings through computers and telecommunications, without regard to physical geography.”

“Cyberspace” was popularized by novelist William Gibson, father of the literary genre known as cyberpunk. He didn’t mean to forge a political concept, though, and he later noted that his word was “evocative and essentially meaningless.”

In his 1982 short story Burning Chrome, the word cyberspace makes its first appearance as the name of a machine: the “workaday Ono-Sendai VII, the ‘Cyberspace Seven.’”

In his 1984 novel Neuromancer, it becomes more than a computer’s pet name and is described in more conceptual terms:

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.”

Read it one more time. This sentence has all the seeds of topics still being discussed today, it holds all the complexity of how cyberspace could be interpreted: Is it a thing, handled by its operators? Is it a space, an abstraction uniting the minds across all the nations? Is it a place, organized in clusters, or it is a political ideology, these hallucinations that take strength in consensus? Let’s explore all of the above.

Cyberspace is not a thing
You can’t “fix” cyberspace, and it doesn’t sound right to talk about The Cyberspace— cyberspace is not a thing. You can’t really use the term “cyberspace” to replace “Internet”: the first one is more abstract that the technology described by the last one. And since we’re here, “Internet” is not a thing either: it’s a set of protocols, a technology that enabling computers to talk to each other.

Could cyberspace be a “space”?
What it could be, though, is a metaphorical space emerging from the technology. “Cyberspace” could describe the abstract space in which the conversations of people using Internet are happening. It could be the name of the theoretical online salon, the public square that one can access in a couple of clicks, even though that opens questions like: whose space is it, who is ruling it, who is excluded from it, and are all the people thinking that they are in cyberspace truly in the same salon? This understanding is a fun conceptual alley to explore, and its road is paved with great academic research.

Could cyberspace be a “place”?
Now, what’s the difference between a space and a place? A space is much more of an abstract and moving concept than a place; a place is more structured, has rules, people, frontiers. A place is closer to the idea of a territory.

Europe can be analyzed as a space—its people share some sort of common history and principles, but when its frontiers and ideology are discussed, they evolve with various political projects. Tracing its borders, defining its rulers, declaring its principles, institutionalizing power in it, and making it a territory (the European Union) becomes a political act.

Calling a space a “place” is making a political statement; it imprints an ideology on it. This is why “cyberwar” is an ideological turn.

Can Cyberspace be at war?
The cyberwar rhetoric turns the abstraction of cyberspace into a new zone of combat—and aligns it with land, sea, air and space. Most of the definition problems around cybersecurity and cyberwar have to do with their first five letters: if you can’t define cyber, what are you going to secure? What are you declaring war on?

In 1996, The Advent of Netwar is described in a RAND report explaining that we must protect “The Net”, and that for such a task offense will be our best defense. These elements are deep at the core of the cyberwar rationale.

Cyberwar is the political ideology that proposes new principles for the space, new actors to rule it. Cyberwar is an ideology that hides behind the discourse of reality: there are, indeed, very real cyber-attacks, and there are security concerns for critical infrastructures connected to the network, but what does it mean to declare war on cyber? Cyberwar paints a metaphorical space as the subject of threats; it depicts the cyberspace as a proper place in which power has to be deployed and conquered.

Cyberspace as an ideology
It may seem that “space” or “place” is a minor distinction. But this small change in perspective indicates a significant change and an ideological turn. “Cyberspace”, by that standard, could also be seen as first ideology to take network society as a battleground.

By the mid-1990s, the word “cyberspace” had transformed from a vague poetical and literary concept into a concrete political utopia. John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace (1996) captures the significance of this shift. As Barlow writes: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

In this declaration, “placehood” is an aspiration made clear. Cyberspace is a “home” for the mind, where some will “gather.” Cyberspace is an alternative to state power, a place to build to escape authorities and rules of the state. It is a political utopia, both etymologically (ὐ – τόπος ,“no-place” in Greek) and philosophically (“an imagined place in which everything is perfect” writes the Oxford English Dictionary). Six years before that text, in 1990, Barlow had co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the first advocacy group for digital rights, who outlined this framework by calling itself the “first line of defense” of cyberspace’s “frontier”: very geographical vocabulary.

Cyberspace vs. cyberwar
Today, making cyberspace a harbor free of states’ influence seems like a lost battle. The unfolding debate on state surveillance, Internet censorship and the many other manifestations of state power exercising sovereignty over the network make that very idea sound foolish, or outdated.

It wasn’t back in the time – How did it look then? What was the Internet in 1996, and what did the space for conversation it enabled look like?

In its early days, Internet created a forum for like-minded intellectuals over privileged parts of the wired world, an infrastructure mainly used to share academic material. When developed in 1989, the World Wide Web (a specific application of Internet protocols enabling people to view and navigate pages on a browser) was the solution Tim Berners-Lee envisioned for sharing the CERN’s research papers to strengthen academic collaboration with other institutes. Publishing this research on paper proved to be very expensive because it needed to be constantly updated. If considering the development and adoption of TCP/IP as a landmark for the birth of Internet infrastructure, the 1996 Internet was a 14-year-old teenager. The Web was a six-year-old child.

At this time, there was not yet anything critical to steal or protect on the Internet. No real-world political battle was fought there yet—cyberspace, as a political project, still stood a chance. There was limited incentive for states to truly deploy power there, even if the intent had always been considered.

In March 1995, Time Magazine’s cover story Welcome To Cyberspace describes the new trends of the Net, at risk of “turning into a shopping mall”, but still concludes: “At this point, however, cyberspace is less about commerce than about community. The technology has unleashed a great rush of direct, person-to-person communications, organized not in the top-down, one- to-many structure of traditional media but in a many-to-many model that may – just may – be a vehicle for revolutionary change. In a world already too divided against itself – rich against poor, producer against consumer – cyberspace offers the nearest thing to a level playing field.”

This is not what the Internet looks like today. It changed a lot with its growth and democratization. There is plenty to steal and plenty to protect. People’s credit-card numbers, terrorists’ emails, nuclear plant and air-traffic control systems–they are all connected to the Internet.  And if you look to the ways in which states use the Internet for political advantage—as a tool of espionage, as a way of winning hearts and minds, or as a tool of war against other states—it becomes clear that cyberspace has been unable to realize itself as a bastion against state encroachment.

That, of course, is truly disappointing for those who aspired for the technology to provide a safe harbor from the state’s power. Yet, as history many times has taught us, we must oppose our principles to the ideologies that rise against what we believe in. If cyberspace is colonized by war, there is one essential question: what does cyberpeace look like?

Camille François About the Author: Camille François works on cybersecurity, cyberwar and cyberpeace. She is based at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where she is a Fellow, and at Columbia University Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies, where she holds a visiting scholarship. Prior to that, she worked for Google as a researcher, worked with various US and French Governmental Agencies, held a Fulbright Fellowship and used most of her free time for free culture and free software advocacy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:20 am 11/27/2013

    The cyberspace needs a set of laws and freedoms, among others limiting the power of government and big corporations. Otherwise it cannot develop its economic potential much more. People will be scared of internet snooping and cybercrime, companies will lose money to cyber-espionage.

    Countries which will provide it first will prosper economically. Countries which will not prevent cybercrime, government meddling or corporations bullying in cyberspace will fail economically.

    For now, cyberspace is like America’s Wild West where armed sheriffs enforce law on ad hoc basis. Or like a Third World state controlled by dictators, armed warlords and drug cartels. I think the era of a cyberspace where corporations, governments and criminals fight to grab the biggest piece of the cake has come to end.

    Link to this
  2. 2. ernieschell 9:03 pm 11/27/2013

    Very good article, Camille, and a good summary of the history of the Internet and The World Wide Web. But I disagree that the financial and personal data you suggest is linked to the Web needs to be. Yes, it most definitely needs to be in the Cloud, but the Cloud is not the Web. And if it has appropriate cloud security (you are the expert there) then it should be as secure as it needs to be.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Devonshire 5:16 pm 12/3/2013

    “Facebook users post 1.5 BILLION photos every month. That creates a reasonable suspicion that the country suffers from a narcissism problem and not a terrorism problem, and it is not a problem for law enforcement.”

    Washington Post Columnist George Will, in his column 2 years ago.

    “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

    Professor of Biochemistry at Boston University and prolific Science Author, Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)

    “Democracy cannot survive both technology and overpopulation.”

    The now late Professor Emeritus in Physics at University of Colorado and MIT, Al Bartlett

    Link to this

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