Lost in the loop
5 April 2009
Copyright 2009. Diligent Media Corporation Ltd.
Inhabitants of cyber space essentially conform to peer opinion and willingly become nodes of loose information, argues a new book on cyber space. The idea, supported by studies and familiar scenarios, smacks of paranoia but cannot be ignored, finds Malvika Tegta
Wake up, and by force of habit you log on to Facebook or check your inbox, even before your ablutions. Your buds at Twitter must know the latest, after six hours of having logged off to sleep. In office, conversations resume the same tone with the usual suspects, who’ve become as adept at multi-tasking as you, that they juggle between the five Excel sheets and six browser windows, chatting with three people at a time, handling streams of information and responding to them in a matter of seconds. If you are away, there’s always the Blackberry assurance that you haven’t been disconnected from a larger, more vivacious virtual world. And if it happens to be that freak day of low work load, when even the Gchat pals aren’t available, you key in a thought right off the top of your head, into the Google search box, “What kind of cuts and colours make a big backside look not so big?”
This virtual life, excessively reliant on information and networking, may seem as old as a decade. But in Cyburbia – The Dangerous Idea that’s Changing How We Live and Who We Are, writer James Harkin harks back to the genesis of the idea called cybernetics, of which, the Internet is the most definitive and recent manifestation. With a storyline that makes incredible links through history, Harkin tells us that cybernetics, championed in its early days by the biggest fans – academics, scientist, hippies and tech geeks – has become not quite what they envisioned.
He takes you along what is essentially the story of cybernetics, from the time it gained ground in World War II, when German airplanes took over the British skies in random haphazard formations, and rained bombs to the British Army’s dismay. Enter Norbert Wiener, who proposed an information/feedback loop, wherein elaborate calculations would predict the trajectory of the German planes. That information on the position of planes would be fed to the gunners on ground, who could then shoot the planes down. In time, cybernetics – the ethos – thrilled the counter culturists, the hippies, who were breaking away from the authoritarian establishment to live in communes. To them, cybernetics, by linking one person to another through information loops, meant a flat world. They believed that if the world did not rely on centralised media and, instead – as they did with a catalogue whose content was totally driven by its readers – if society was driven by a loop of information and feedback by individuals, the system would become self-correcting. Authentic information was seen as a tool to alter social consciousness.
Then came the academics who argued that the ‘Message is the Medium’, that the society is shaped largely by the ‘pace and scale’ of the media. With electrification of information, its pace would amplify and it would become an extension of the human mind.
The spread of computers, and the coming of the computer mouse, changed the way life was traditionally arranged and the way organisations functioned – linearly. As individuals willingly became ‘nodes’ in the web of loose information, heavily invested in what the writer calls ‘peer to peer communication’, be it Napster, eBay, Bit Torrent, Facebook, chats, Twitter, MySpace, the cybernetic dream turned sour. Authenticity of information no longer remained paramount. For a space synonymous with individualism and self determinism, where each user wades her way through a universe of words and ideas to decide what was top quality, the residents of cyburbia essentially ended up conforming to peer opinions, and were caught in “self perpetuating feedback loops”. They were living with the risk of attention deficit syndrome, forging loose ties with online ‘friends’, encouraging the kind of storytelling in conventional media that engages their restlessness, stuck with lower productivity and so on. A medium that seems free and democratic, argues the writer, is in fact highly deterministic; that by having us thoughtlessly hooked on to a whirl of information loops, it doesn’t strengthen the user but itself.
While the anti-determinists would argue that to call it a ‘dangerous idea’ smacks of paranoia, this book packs in studies and familiar scenarios that are anything but specious. There’s plenty of interesting trivia that builds the author’s case and is probably aimed at the new pack of information junkies that the age of the Internet has bred. If not for revelations – there are few to be found here – the book is valuable for its overhead view of the larger picture that may help one at least understand the anxiety of having to live without the window called Google/Internet for whatever constitutes a short while.