Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea That’s Changing How We Live and Who We Are
By James Harkin
Little, Brown / Knopf Canada, £17.99 / $24.32 (hardcover)
Right now, you’re probably too busy bidding on eBay, cruising Second Life, emailing on your Blackberry, SMS-ing a friend, poking someone you don’t really know on Facebook and updating your Twitter feed to tell everybody that you’re doing all this absolutely right now… to actually have any time to bother reading this review. It’s a wonder you got this far. And I won’t be offended if you don’t make it to the end. I count myself lucky, because I have no idea how you’re going to have the time to read James Harkin’s Cyburbia (published in North America as Lost in Cyburbia); which is a pity, because it happens to be an entertaining, sceptically intelligent analysis of the history of the Internet revolution that steps back from the breathless boosterism of the dotcom decade to examine the novel, often unintended consequences of a network culture that is now a living reality, rather than the stuff of techno-prophecy.
Harkin’s approach is to excavate the early conceptual speculations that presaged the Internet and then see how they live up to the reality of Web 2.0, socially networked life today. He traces network thinking back to the emergence of cybernetics in the 1940s and 50s, and the American mathematician Norbert Weiner, whose work on anti-aircraft gun-control systems turned the engineering concept of ‘feedback’ into the idea of human–machine interaction. Though Weiner has faded from view, his cybernetics provided the core metaphor on which all subsequent Net-utopianism has relied – the idea that through better, more fluid communication, humanity might evolve into a state of harmonious equilibrium instead of destructive imbalance. What started out as a technological speculation to improve the efficacy of military systems became, by the 1960s, a broader enthusiasm for the social potential of then-emerging mass-communications technologies. Harkin assiduously tracks the evolution of Net-utopianism through the influence of academic-turned-pop-theorist Marshall McLuhan, and of ‘electro-hippies’ such as Net guru Stewart Brand. ‘For McLuhan’, Harkin argues, ‘the birth of this new electronic medium held out the prospect of pooling our human consciousness in a single global brain or global village’.
Harkin’s history of the pre-Net is the story of a wildly idealistic view of technology waiting for the technology to catch up with it. When it finally does so, in the last decade, the results are surprising. The strength of Harkin’s book lies in how he uses the theory of feedback to interpret the recent history of the mass-migration to ‘cyburbia’. While the early Net-utopians saw only the positive, harmonising potential of feedback, Harkin shrewdly catalogues how our emerging networked communities produced unexpected real-life negative-feedback effects. Like auction site eBay, which recently eliminated the ‘negative feedback’ function after it realised that buyers and sellers were tending to leave only positive feedback for fear of getting bad feedback in retaliation; or the 1996 email forwarding of a simply untrue account of racially tinged comments made by Tommy Hilfiger during an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show – the only problem being that Hilfiger had never appeared on Oprah. Most interesting are those examples where centralised, professional media attempt to integrate user-participation into decision-making situations; like Penguin Books’s disastrous 2007 experiment in collective novel-writing, A Million Penguins. Its editor is quoted ruefully observing that the online book ‘was not the most read, but certainly the most written novel in history’. Even the recent BBC Strictly Come Dancing viewer-voting debacle gets a look-in.
Although Harkin doesn’t quite spell it out, Cyburbia’s underlying theme is that it might be worth trying to rethink, in light of recent evidence, how we understand questions of cultural quality and of social leadership in an era of chaotic digital communities: the ‘wisdom of millions’, it turns out, is no substitute for having a good artistic idea, being able to inspire others or making informed decisions and acting on them. These are awkward questions for the peculiarly narcissistic, distracted, user-centric cultures of the Net. Still, if you’ve read this far, there’s a chance that those are questions still worth asking. And if you haven’t read this far, I’ve just updated my Twitter feed: it says, ‘Cyburbia by James Harkin is really good. But don’t take my word for it.’ J.J. Charlesworth