In 1899, you might have been forgiven for thinking the automobile was only a rich-man’s toy. A horseless carriage was for flat garden pathways. The auto was far less reliable than a horse. This was new technology, and rich people are always into their gadgets, but the automobile is a technology that isn’t going to go anywhere. The roads are too terrible, they don’t have the range of a horse, and the world just isn’t set up for mechanized machines rolling everywhere.
This changed. It changed very quickly. By 1920, cars had taken over. Industrialized cities were no longer in the shadow of a mountain of horse manure. A highway, built specifically for automobiles, stretched from New York City to San Francisco. The age of the automobile had come.
And here we are today, in the same situation, with a technology as revolutionary as the automobile. People say self-driving cars are toys for rich people. Teslas on the road aren’t for the common man because the economy model costs fifty thousand dollars. They only work on highways anyway. The reliability just isn’t there for level-5 automation. You’ll never have a self-driving car that can drive over mountain roads in the snow, or navigate a ball bouncing into the street of a residential neighborhood chased by a child. But history proves time and time again that people are wrong. Self-driving cars are the future, and the world will be unrecognizable in thirty years. There’s only one problem: we’re not calling them the right thing. Self-driving cars should be called ‘cryptocybers’.
Language are hard
There is no doubt that various technologies are being called the wrong thing. For example, what is ‘crypto’? Is ‘crypto’ short for cryptography, or does it mean cryptocurrency? This was a heated debate last year when Bitcoin broke $20,000 USD. Those in the cryptography camp created flashy websites. Researchers at Johns Hopkins are teaching their students that cryptography is a hill worth dying on. Stephen Levy wrote a book titled Crypto, and it’s not about currency.
But just because journalists say something, doesn’t mean it’s right. Cryptobros have appropriated the term. It’s a question of something I like to call, ‘the aunt test’. Talk to your aunt. She watches cable news, and somehow still reads the local paper. She talks to people in the hair salon. Her thoughts on any subject is what the majority of people think. You’re too tapped into the bleeding edge to know what normal people think, but your aunt… your aunt thinks ‘crypto’ means those bytecoins or something. She thinks they’re only good for buying drugs on the Internet. She’s not wrong. If that’s what everyone thinks a word means, than that’s what it means. That’s how language works.
Crypto doesn’t mean cryptography. It also doesn’t mean cryptocurrency. It means ‘hidden’. We’ve gone over this before. The word ‘crypto’ has meant ‘hidden’ since before the invention of writing. If that sounds absurd, you’re right, but it makes sense: it’s in The Illiad or The Odyssey, and those were an oral tradition for a few hundred years before they were written down. Crypto means hidden, be it hidden writing or secret money.
Other words are frequently misused in the tech community. ‘Drone’ is a fighting word if you talk to the right people. The preferred term is a UAV, UAS, RC plane, or other initialism. Again, this is pseudolanguage. The word ‘drone’, as applied to aircraft, was first used in 1934 because a biplane sounds like a cloud of bees. The usage continued to include all unmanned aircraft, from cruise missiles to spaceships. Bob Woodward applied the term to unmanned aircraft raining literal Hellfire in 2001. The word ‘drone’ doesn’t only mean unmanned military aircraft carrying weapons; the word ‘drone’ has applied to every conceivable aircraft at some point in history. Technologists, it seems, do not make good linguists, and even worse classicists.
On the Subject of Cryptocybers
The subject at hand is what to call self-driving cars. Unfortunately, we have a word for self-driving cars. It’s ‘automobile’. The prefix ‘auto’ comes from ancient Greek, meaning ‘self’. ‘-mobile’ again comes from ancient Greek and means ‘moving’. An automobile is self-moving.
But what do we call a self-driving car? Is there a prefix that means driving? Obviously the ancients had no word for driving a car, but did they have a word for piloting a ship? Yes, it’s ‘cyber’. The root ‘cyber’ is another word that has been distorted by technology, being coined in the late 60s and popularized by William Gibson in the 1980s. From cyberspace we get cyberpunk, cybertechnology, and cybersecurity. But what does it mean, and where does it come from?
The modern origin of ‘cyber’ comes from cybernetics, brought to the world in the book The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener. Wiener, a genius and a polymath, worked on fire control systems for anti-aircraft guns during World War II. This work led him to realize it was the messages in a system that were important, not simply the information in a system. Wiener’s insight was that the messages themselves steered the system. There was a Greek word for ‘steering’: cyber was the future. It’s where we get ‘government’ and ‘governor’ — the cybernḗtēs steers the society, and the cyberneticist studies control systems. The terms ‘cyberspace’ and ‘cybersecurity’? Well, technologists don’t make good linguists, after all.
So we have a word for ‘steering’, which is half of what a self-driving car does. How does it do it automatically? ‘Auto’? No, that’s too obvious. Maybe we can loop Polish into this and call it ‘robocyber’? Nah. You never see the real driver of a self-driving car. In fact, most people really can’t comprehend it. It’s hidden, and we know what Greek for ‘hidden’ is, don’t we? Self-driving cars are cryptocybers — hidden drivers — and they’re going to change the world.
We’re on the cusp of a revolution with self-driving cars, the only thing missing is that we’re not calling them the right thing. This isn’t new; generally, credit for first automobile goes to Karl Benz in the year 1885. The thing is, it wasn’t called an automobile at the time. That word was first coined, in French, a decade later. And so we are with self-driving cars. They exist — there are DIY robot cars rolling around tracks every weekend, and we will soon have fully autonomous cars. These machines will change the world, just like the automobile. Transport will be simple, automatic, and safe. Cities will change. Traffic will be a thing of the past. These machines will be driving down the cryptocyber superhighway, and the world will be a better place.