A Rant on the Prefix "Cyber-"

Though not a language fascist on the order of William Safire, I find distasteful the wanton misuse of the prefix "cyber." The observant reader will have noticed the proliferation of cybercrap; lately it seems that no human endeavor -- from sex to pets to crime --  is safe from the creeping prefix. 

Lets get to the source of the problem. The term stems, it must be supposed, from Norbert Weiner's neologism "cybernetics," which he coined as the title of  his 1948 book. I'll let Norbert explain: 


...as happens so often to scientists, we have been forced to coin at least one artificial neo-Greek expression... We have decided to call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether in the machine or the animal, by the same Cybernetics, which we form from the Greek or steersman.

Got that, folks? Cybernetics describes a scientific field, and a rather dry and technical one at that. Not to say that it isn't highly useful: any system that exhibits feedback or self-regulation is a proper subject. This includes the decidedly low-tech steam governor, as well as slightly more advanced systems such as you, dear reader, who can most likely balance a broomstick on end by judiciously moving your palm in the direction the broom is falling. (Before you start feeling too special, note that any organism that exhibits homeostasis -- yeast, say -- counts as well.) This is not to demean the field, which is responsible for much of the magical technology of the century. Exhibit A: the Saturn V rocket, intrinsically no more stable than an upended broomstick, made it to the Moon and back on the virtue of course-correction feedback. Exhibit B might be the atomic force microscope, which can limn the very contour of atoms: a feedback loop keeps a submicroscopic needle a fixed distance away from the surface to be measured. 

The problem, natch, is that the ignorati have hijacked a useful term of art and imbued it with connotations of the digital, the up-to-date, the web-enabled, the Wired. There is, of course, nothing particularly digital or even modern about the term. The insult is compounded when formulated as a prefix. Thus your cruise-control Camry is cybernetic -- didja know you drove a cybercar? -- and the thermostat makes your dwelling cybernetic as well. (Hey baby, come up and check out my cyberpad!) Perhaps the ultimate irony is that "cyber" now seems to be a particular favorite of those poor souls who name weight loss schemes. Yes, regimens designed to subvert homeostasis (in this case body mass regulation) are named after a discipline specifically concerned with homeostasis.

As a vision of the cyberfuture, consider the suffixes "-orama" or "-omatic." What once connoted modernity and technological sophistication now exude a curious whiff of age: the linguistic equivalent of Cadillac fins. In the future, I hope and pray, "cyber" will seem as faddish, as antiquated, and as idiotic as platform shoes.