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From Cybersex to Cyberwar: The Origin of 'Cyber'

By Wesley Fenlon

The term cybernetics has been around for 70 years, but only in the 1980s did "cyber" become a popular prefix.

What if our smartphones were cyberphones? And our smart cars were cybercars, and our smart thermostats were cybertherms? If those pieces of technology had existed in the early 1990s, they probably would've had very different names, as the "cyber" decade saw the once-futuristic prefix attached to just about everything. io9 published a great history of the word "cyber" on Monday that traces its history from its earliest incarnation in the 1940s to its modern-day usage, which is almost exclusively cyberwar.

Today no one refers to the Internet as cyberspace unless they're making a deliberate throwback to the sci-fi of the 1980s. But the word cyber existed for decades before it came into common pop culture, or even counterculture, usage. io9 writes that it 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.

Photo credit: LIFE

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."

Over the next thirty years, a word that had Greek roots slowly became more associated with computers. But it wasn't in common usage, and it wasn't until around 1980 that the word "cyberpunk popped up." By the end of the 80s it was a huge sci-fi counterculture, trading in utopian futures for gritty depictions of humans and computers colliding. Cyber, by that point, was definitely a computer term, and William Gibson solidified "cyberspace" as a virtual World Wide Web-like place.

Interestingly, io9 actually found a slightly earlier reference to cyberpunk, predating any of the popular literature and the 1980 story by Bruce Bethke actually titled Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk author Pat Cadigan heard the term on the radio in 1979, as a DJ referred to Gary Numan's song "Cars" as "cyberpunk."

The meat of the story, and the history of cyber's popularity, lies in the seedy underbelly of late 90s chat rooms.

With the exponential growth of the internet, the word became a prefix for tons of things, but cybersex dwarfed them all. By the late 90s, cyber was a verb. You didn't have cybersex; you cybered. io9 writes: " 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."

But by the early 2000s, cybersex and cybering were fading out of popular usage. There are a lot of possible explanations, but author Violet Blue offered io9 a good one: Cybersex didn't really work. Webcams were still crappy, and most cybering was just dirty chatting in an IRC chatroom. When the term failed to live up to its sci-fi promise, it started to fade away.

Cyberwar, on the other hand, became more and more practical. Check out the rest of io9's article for more of cyber's sexy, punky history.