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There Are No More Cyberdissidents

Shouldn’t we stop using the prefix “cyber”? It is becoming increasingly irrelevant, in an age where our online and offline lives have become so deeply entwined.

The term cyberspace does have a certain cachet. Ever since the science fiction writer William Gibson coined it in his 1984 novel "Neuromancer," it has screamed subculture: evocative of something edgy, something avant-garde.

Since the prefix has become more mainstream, it is now more evocative of a new danger, something for society to panic about. So instead of bullies, we have cyberbullies, who rather than using tried-and-tested tactics of peer pressure and general unpleasantness, are using (gulp) social networks. And instead of good old procreational sex, we have cybersex, with all its connotations of loveless basements and general grubbiness.

"Wired" recently had a good piece on the use of “cyber” and the fears it can evoke:

How can you tell the difference between a real report about online vulnerabilities and someone who is trying to scare you about the security of the internet because they have an agenda, such as landing lucrative, secret contracts from the government?

Here’s a simple test: Count the number of times they use the adjective “cyber.” Nobody uses the word “cyber” anymore, except people trying to scare you and trying to make the internet seem scary or foreign. (Think, for instance, of the term “cyberbullying,” which is somehow much more crazy and new and in need of legislation than “online bullying.”)

When was the last time you said, “I saw this really cool video in cyberspace” or “My cyber connection is really slow today”? Of course, no one speaks like that anymore. The internet is no longer distant or foreign (though it thankfully remains beautifully weird). It’s familiar and daily. It’s the internet. It’s so ordinary, stopped capitalizing it more than five years ago.

But when it comes to scaring senators, presidents and the nation’s citizens into believing the Chinese, the Russians or Al Qaeda are stealing all our secrets or bringing down the power grid, the internet somehow morphs back into "cyberspace.”

Other Internet-related prefixes are likely to desert us, as well. For instance, "e". When snail mail is dead, what other kind of mail is there? Calling yourself an e-business is a little like calling yourself a telephone-business if you happen to take some orders over the phone. And soon, e-books will just be books, as paper books are hollowed out for recycling, their empty shells sold mostly as decor.

With the heady growth of the mobile Internet, these prefixes become increasingly redundant as we live in a constant state of connectivity. The concept of “going on the Internet” is now as quaint as the idea that to talk to someone on the phone you both had to be in the rooms where the phones were tethered, like dumb beasts. From web designers in San Diego to farmers in Ghana, using the Internet is (and will be) as familiar and mundane as buying bread.

William Gibson, writing recently in "The New York Times" about Google, uses the metaphor of colonization:

Cyberspace, not so long ago, was a specific elsewhere, one we visited periodically, peering into it from the familiar physical world. Now cyberspace has everted. Turned itself inside out. Colonized the physical. Making Google a central and evolving structural unit not only of the architecture of cyberspace, but of the world.

All of this is understandable. Our use of prefixes is just a linguistic sleight-of-hand in dealing with the indefinable. Those objecting to the use of tech-related prefixes have been around for a while. In their book "Wired Style," first published in 1999, Constance Hale and Jessie Scanlon called for restraint in the use of the prefix “e” and “cyber.” (For newer tech-related prefixes, check these out.)

Which brings me to the term cyberdissidents. Even though this blog is focused on the way people living in repressive societies use the Internet to skewer their governments, cyberdissident has already outlived its usefulness.

Apart from the negative connotations that "cyber" can evoke generally, the term implies that cyberdissidents are somehow confined to their online worlds: launching campaigns from their basements and rarely taking to the streets. It advances the notion that their work online detracts from “real” activism, rather than amplifying it. The louche ones are the clicktavists, the real campaigners are out getting bloody in the streets. (This fits into the narrative that online campaigns are somehow less worthy than the good old days of letter writing in dingy church halls.)

The problem with that red-herring of a prefix "cyber" is that it makes us focus on the form of dissent rather than its function: We focus on the fact that activists are using computers rather than what they're doing with those computers. (Kathleen Parker in "The Washington Post" falls a little into this trap in this piece on social media in the Middle East.) An ineffective, poorly executed campaign is an ineffective, poorly executed campaign whether it uses social networking or not.

So I promise, from now on, I will try to avoid using the term “cyber," except in instances where I can employ it for shock value.