In my last post, I promised to return to the topic of how and how not to begin creating better definitions, metaphors, and analogies with which to think about the panoply of malicious activities in/through cyberspace that are lumped under the increasingly controversial term, “cyberwar.”  In the next several posts, I will provide some admittedly preliminary, but hopefully useful thoughts on this topic.  But before diving into cyber issues proper, in this post, I’d like to begin by stepping back and making a case for why language and rhetoric are important.

In response to the ongoing controversy over defining “cyberwar” and determining if it even exists as a problem serious enough to warrant the level of attention has received recently, Tim Stevens has written,

words matter when it comes to describing risks and threats, and they frame the debates thus engendered. Crucially, of course, they help shape the responses of politicians and practitioners tackling the situations in which they find themselves.

This is not a particularly controversial stance and I find myself a bit baffled why some people might find it odd that I think declaring a de facto cyberwar against Russia and China, amongst others, might not be a particularly useful line to take. [For more from Stevens on this issue, see this and this.]

Stevens is absolutely right.  And there is a long tradition of work in the humanities and social sciences to back him up.  Which is why I too “find myself a bit baffled” when I hear the proverbial “less-talk-more-action” type of arguments advanced by some cybersecurity experts.  Maybe I have spent too much time in post-linguistic turn academia, but the importance of language in general, and definition and metaphor more specifically, is not exactly a new or particularly controversial position.  Sociologists, psychologists, rhetoricians, linguists, and historians of science have all noted the importance of language, metaphor, and definition to our very understanding of the world around us.

Our experience with reality is fundamentally mediated, and increasingly so via technologies of various types.  This is especially true at very large and very small scales (think astronomy or particle physics), but also liminal spaces or large sociotechnical systems that cannot be experienced completely or directly (think cyberspace, but also large infrastructure systems like power grids, interstrate highway systems, etc.).  But scholars have noted that language itself serves as perhaps the most important mediating “technology” of all.  Not only collective action, but also collective experience of reality is fundamentally mediated through the use language.

This is not just the case in the world of everyday experiences, but also in the “hard” world of the natural sciences, and military affairs too.  Historians and sociologists of science have made a convincing case that language plays a crucial role in the production of knowledge about the natural world.  Scientists themselves, and especially those in the emerging fields of chaos and complexity, will admit as much.  One prominent complexity theorist goes so far as to claim that “Science and thinking progresses…by metaphors” (p. 680).  Military theorists [PDF] and historians also increasingly recognize the importance of language.  This includes “technoscientific” metaphors, including computing and nonlinear science metaphors.  And it also includes “cyberspace,” definition of and vocabulary related to which occupied center stage in the Army’s recent “Cyberspace Operations Concept Capability Plan 2016-2028.”

And what humanists, social scientists, natural scientists, and military professionals too are all learning is that our use of language, metaphor, and definition shapes our understanding of the problems we seek to solve, opening some possible options for solutions while simultaneously closing off others.  In the case of malicious activities in/through cyberspace, someone who thinks what is happening now in cyberspace is “war” will likely think of very different solutions than someone who thinks what is happening is primarily about “espionage,” “crime,” or even “political protest.”  For example, it seems reasonable to suggest that had malicious activities in/through cyberspace never been framed in terms of “war,” the creation of a military “cyber command” would have been much less likely.  War metaphors, then, emerge as an important “condition of possibility” for a military cyber command.

Now just to be clear, I am not saying that we will be able to create the one true definition of “cyberwar.”  Language has a tendency towards imprecision, and it is certainly possible to have multiple interpretations of reality, all of which are only ever partially correct and not even mutually exclusive.  But we must always strive for precision nonetheless, work for better and against worse interpretations.  Though it is possible that we could say just about anything, that does not mean that we should, and certainly not that all interpretations or uses of language are equally valid.  This is the essence of the linguistic cybersecurity “double-bind” in which we find ourselves: We can’t define precisely, but we must try anyway, because the stakes are too high.  This is especially the case when we begin to talk of “war” or any kind.

(In upcoming posts, I will continue this topic by identifying what we need less of in cybersecurity discourse, as well as potentially more fruitful historical analogies with which to think about cybersecurity.)Technorati Tags: , , , ,