15 February 2009
Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea That’s Changing How We Live and Who We Are By James Harkin
LITTLE BROWN, pounds 17.99, 274 pp
Twitter is the latest internet fashion. For the uninitiated, it is a social networking service that allows you to make short,140-character long, comments (or ‘tweets’) which are read by your ‘followers’ – people who sign up to receive your twitterings.
Twitter hit the headlines after it became a means of getting information to the outside world about the Mumbai terrorist attacks. It was on Twitter, too, that the world first saw pictures of the downed plane in the Hudson, in New York, after a passer-by took photos on his mobile phone and posted them online.
Usually, though, Twitter has a much more mundane existence. As I write this, someone has just twittered ‘Hoping someone says hello to me.’ A few minutes later she writes, ‘Very well, then! I shall get on with my work, I’ve survived worse!’ To which I respond, ‘OK, I’ll say hello.’ Inane does not begin to describe it.
For James Harkin, that exchange would sum up the essence of the social web. What drives our online social lives is simply the desire of people to ‘keep in the loop’. We don’t want to feel left out. So we twitter, say the most banal things, simply to keep in touch. Welcome to the strange world of Cyburbia.
‘Just as the train and the car gave rise to the suburbs in the 20th century’, Harkin writes, so ‘the communications gadgetry of mobile phones and the internet has precipitated a mass electronic migration to Cyburbia at the beginning of the 21st.’ Cyburbia, Harkin writes, ‘is where we go when we hitch ourselves to electronic information for long periods of time’. It is the world of Facebook and Second Life, Google and YouTube. We imagine that we are creating here an exciting new electronic frontier, but we have simply carted the world of Terry and June into cyberspace. Cyburbia is the electronic version of little people living little lives, a place with digitised twitching curtains and an online Neighbourhood Watch.
The origins of Cyburbia lie in the theories of American mathematician Norbert Weiner who, in the 1930s, coined the term ‘cybernetics’ to describe the study of ‘control and communication in the animal and the machine’. Humans, Weiner suggested, were essentially messengers, constantly adapting themselves to a continuous information loop.
Weiner’s ideas were picked up by the Sixties counter-culture, for which cybernetics suggested the possibility of putting people into direct communication with each other outside the reach of central authority, helping to enhance their sense of a shared human consciousness and of tuning into something beyond their immediate selves. Both the figures and the spirit of the counter-culture, much of it centred around San Francisco, spilt over into the nascent computer industry, in the 1970s, and eventually into the development of the internet in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the internet spawned new ‘peer-to-peer’ technologies, such as Napster, the music sharing service, that allowed large numbers of people to communicate with each other directly. And these in turn morphed into commercial social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Harkin is good at excavating not just the path by which an engineering heuristic became transformed into a social model, but also the contradictory sentiments that motivated its evangelists. They were besotted by new technology and yet dismayed by what they regarded as the cold rationality of the modern world. Networking for them possessed an almost spiritual appeal. ‘The medium is the message’, as the high priest of the Sixties cybernetics fad, the deeply religious Marshall McLuhan, put it.
The irony, Harkin shows, is that the attempt to link everyone into a single organic information loop has created a cyberworld in which we are more distant from each other. As more and more people join sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the networks grow stronger but the links between individuals remain weak. ‘What becomes more powerful’, Harkin observes, ‘is not us but Cyburbia itself’, warning apocalyptically of ‘the danger … that drawn together in a network of loose electronic connections, and drawn slavishly to Cyburbia for our inspiration, we end up with something not unlike an electronic chain gang.’
Harkin is a fine guide to the alleys and dark spaces of Cyburbia. He is no technophobe, but his pessimism, like the Cyburbia analogy itself, sometimes becomes overstretched. What is missing here is the social context of networking. It is not the internet that has made us more isolated from each other. Rather, we have migrated to Cyburbia because the real world has itself become more atomised and because we have lost faith with the possibilities of social change. That’s why Facebook and Second Life appear so enticing. The internet has become a refuge for lost Utopians rather than a means to transform our real lives. If the medium has become the message, it is largely because the message itself has become so faint.