The long history of ‘cyber’

My Observer piece on Thomas Rid’s alternative history of computing, The Rise of the Machines: the Lost History of Cybernetics:

Where did the “cyber” in “cyberspace” come from? Most people, when asked, will probably credit William Gibson, who famously introduced the term in his celebrated 1984 novel, Neuromancer. It came to him while watching some kids play early video games. Searching for a name for the virtual space in which they seemed immersed, he wrote “cyberspace” in his notepad. “As I stared at it in red Sharpie on a yellow legal pad,” he later recalled, “my whole delight was that it meant absolutely nothing.”

How wrong can you be? Cyberspace turned out to be the space that somehow morphed into the networked world we now inhabit, and which might ultimately prove our undoing by making us totally dependent on a system that is both unfathomably complex and fundamentally insecure. But the cyber- prefix actually goes back a long way before Gibson – to the late 1940s and Norbert Wiener’s book, Cybernetics, Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, which was published in 1948.

Cybernetics was the term Wiener, an MIT mathematician and polymath, coined for the scientific study of feedback control and communication in animals and machines. As a “transdiscipline” that cuts across traditional fields such as physics, chemistry and biology, cybernetics had a brief and largely unsuccessful existence: few of the world’s universities now have departments of cybernetics. But as Thomas Rid’s absorbing new book, The Rise of the Machines: The Lost History of Cybernetics shows, it has had a long afterglow as a source of mythic inspiration that endures to the present day…

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