From Cybernetics to the web of Cyberspace – I

A look at the origins of the word ‘Cyberspace’ and questions around it.

Is Science a boon or a bane?” – a topic for essays in the past! Today, topics of more interest are “Is Cyberspace a boon or a bane? How about Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence?” Perhaps, in future, one can just ask the machine for an answer!

Without going too far into the future, it is interesting enough to look at cyberspace today and follow the influence of cyber technologies in society. Clearly, no surprise when we read reports of teenagers born in the internet age fearing of a life without internet. While the pros-and-cons of cyber technologies are being analysed by policy makers, it is obvious – Cyberspace is here to stay.

What is “Cyberspace”?

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It was André-Marie Ampère who first introduced the word cybernétique in French in his book Essai sur la Philosophie des Sciences in 1834. However, the word cyber got closer to its current meaning in the 1940s, from the word Cybernetics, coined by scientist Norbert Wiener in his book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine. Cybernetics originated from the Greek work ‘kybernḗtēs’  (also spelt kubernetes), which meant ‘steersman’ or ‘rudder man’ The verb version meaning ‘to control’ or ‘to steer’ was used in the context of the new science of controlling machines and even people, using a set of interconnected control and communication systems.

A decade later, the shortened form of ‘cyber’ started getting prefixed to form new words like cyber-punk, cybernetic organism (which later got shortened and popularised as ‘cyborg’), etc. It was only in the 1980s, the word ‘cyberspace’ was popularised by William Gibson in his science fiction novel ‘Neuromancer’ in a very imaginative way as “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding….

The compound word Cyberspace is also sometimes used differently with a hyphenation like ‘cyber-space’ or with cyber as a prefix as ‘cyber space’. Based on sources from Google Ngram Viewer, the compound word ‘cyberspace’ is more commonly used.

The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) defines cyberspace as a complex environment resulting from the interaction of people, software and services on the Internet by means of technology devices and networks connected to it, which does not exist in any physical form. The Indian National Cyber Security Policy 2013 defines cyberspace as a complex environment consisting of interactions between people, software, and services, supported by worldwide distribution of information and communication technology (ICT) devices and networks.

Based on various definitions by different countries and organisations like that initiated by New America, Cyberspace can be summarised as:

  • It is a complex environment comprising of a global network of interdependent IT infrastructures, telecommunication networks, storage systems and computer processing systems, which form a part of the Internet
  • It enables exchange of information and interaction of people and machines like computers where information can be created, deleted, stored and processed
  • It is a mix of public and private virtual space without borders

Every node that is connected to this cyberspace, be it a machine which works independently or a human connected to it through some device, is reachable from another node located anywhere. Access to the node depends on the access permissions and security walls built around it. Due to the exposure to malicious attacks and cyber-related crime, security of data and identity are becoming crucial. Do we have sufficient data about cyber incidents and able to measure the economic cost of such incidents?

Cyber Security is gaining importance over the past decade. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2015 report, cyber risk is one of the top ten global risks. Many other related terms are often used in the context of Cyber Security like Cyber attack, Cyber crime, Information Security or IT Security, Data Security, Cyber Defence, Hacktivism, Cyber bullying, etc. What do they all mean and how different is each from the other? Is there a common definition used globally for all?  What is its trade-off with Privacy and Freedom of Expression?

Moreover, efforts are being made to analyse how the new dimensions of such extensive real-time connectivity without borders is changing the way people go about with their decision making. What do studies in cyber sociology teach us about the behavioural changes seen in people when using or interacting in cyberspace?

Cyberspace technologies have helped transform businesses and have fuelled economic growth during the last 15 years. The extent of its reach is expedited with increasing adoption of mobile devices, giving instant access to the internet both indoors and also outdoors. Social media and social networks are changing the way people interact and get access to information and respond. How are social media and networks influencing governance, balance of power, social and political stability?

In this new series of blogs on Cyber Security and related topics, we will explore the above questions. In the next part, I will provide an overview of the penetration of internet in India and also, broadly define Cyber Security, Cyber Crime and Cyber Defense in the context of National Security.

Sudeep Divakaran is a Research Scholar at Takshashila Institution

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