For more than a decade, the United States military has conceptualized and discussed the internet and related systems as “cyberspace,” understood as a “domain” of conflict like land, sea, air, and outer space. How and why did this concept become entrenched in U.S. doctrine? What are its effects? Focusing on the emergence and consolidation of this terminology, this article makes three arguments about the role of language in cybersecurity policy. First, I propose a new, politically consequential category of metaphor: foundational metaphors, implied by using particular labels rather than stated outright. These metaphors support specific ways to understand complex issues, provide discursive resources to some arguments over others, and shape policy contestation and outcomes. Second, I present a detailed empirical study of U.S. military strategy and doctrine that traces the emergence and consolidation of terminology built on the “cyberspace domain.” This concept supported implicit metaphorical correspondences between the internet and physical space, yielding specific analogies and arguments for understanding the internet and its effects. Third, I focus on the rhetorical effects of this terminology to reveal two important institutional consequences: this language has been essential to expanding the military’s role in cybersecurity, and specific interests within the Department of Defense have used this framework to support the creation of U.S. Cyber Command. These linguistic effects in the United States also have implications for how other states approach cybersecurity, for how international law is applied to cyber operations, and for how International Relations understands language and technological change.
Note the changed time.
Jordan Branch is Assistant Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. He is a former fellow at the American Council of Learned Societies, and has held positions at Brown University and the University of Southern California. His publications include The Cartographic State: Maps, Territory, and the Origins of Sovereignty (2014, Cambridge) and articles in International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, the European Journal of International Relations, International Theory, and Territory, Politics, Governance.