Is Twitter making us twits? There’s no doubt that our time online changes us, but is it ultimately harmful?
30 May 2009
The Globe and Mail
LOST IN CYBURBIA
How Life on the Net Creates a Life of its Own
By James Harkin
Knopf Canada, 274 pages, $29.95
I enjoy occasionally reviewing books because I read them cover to cover.
Usually I attack a book differently, almost like a website – darting back and forth from the table of contents to chapters, referring to the index constantly, checking sources on the Web and communicating with others online to get their thoughts. I do this because I have found it to be the most effective way of understanding a thesis.
When reading for a review, I submit to follow someone else’s narrative, uninterrupted.
James Harkin would approve, because he is worried that in the time we spend online we are losing something.
His breezy history of the theory of cybernetics had the (no doubt intended) effect of making me reflect on my own time spent online and how it changes me as a person. But in the end, I remain unconvinced that our growing immersion in the digital world is harmful.
Cybernetics is nearly 70 years old, dating back to the group of mathematicians and scientists who tried to help the British anti-aircraft gunners shoot down Luftwaffe bombers. Their job was difficult because bomber pilots were constantly zigzagging, making it impossible for gunners to get a reliable bead on their position. Eccentric math genius Norbert Weiner built equations that factored in the evasive actions of the pilots. Constant feedback loops could be built that provided continuous data to gunners to give them the upper hand against the pilots who were trying to shake them off.
Although his work was too late to be deployed in the war, Weiner’s technological solution resulted in a whole new philosophy of man and his relationship to machines. “Cybernetics predicated the birth of a new kind of man, armed with communications technology like both the aircraft gunner and bomber pilot, which had as its feature the ability to be rapidly responsive to the continuous stream of messages and ever ready to adjust his movement to all this feedback,” Harkin writes.
Harkin – who is director of talks at the Institute of contemporary Arts in London – tells the story of how this concept passed through the influential hands of Whole Earth Catalogue founder Stewart Brand and a collection of countercultural hippies and activists in the 1960s. As one of these, I was fascinated by the idea that infinite feedback loops could enable human systems and organizations to correct their course for a better world. Many of these activists went on to be founders of Silicon Valley and the Internet industry.
Marshall McLuhan became an aficionado as well, arguing that we would soon need to dance to the intense rhythm of an electronic information loop linking everything and everyone. This “electronic interdependence” might eventually restore the community of tribal village life and even precipitate the rise of a global village and a new era of understanding.
For Harkin, it hasn’t played that way.
En route, we were dropped off in Cyburbia, a place where we spend too much time hooked to other people in weak ties via a continuous loop of electronic information. The architecture of the cyber suburbs is traceable to the plans laid out long ago by the gurus of cybernetics.
And like the suburbs, we’re all stuck in “a peculiar no man’s land,” populated by people who don’t really know each other, gossiping, having illicit encounters and endlessly twitching their curtains.
Ironically, Harkin says, McLuhan was right in his famous aphorism, “The medium is the message.” The content of media was less important than the effect of just having it around. And despite the book’s claims to provide a balanced portrayal of life on the Web, the reader is left with the unmistakable impression this new medium called the Internet has created a state of limbo where the human condition is suffering. At least for now.
To Harkin, many gamers are Electrified Zombies. We spend our time in a loop of meaningless relationships with people we barely know. Young people acting as peers have become thieves of music and other intellectual property and, to our detriment, we’re all being misled by relying on peers rather than true authorities and filters of knowledge. The Web enables bad guys to collaborate, from the schoolboy killers of Columbine to terrorists who use cybernetics to organize through decentralized models. Porn is everywhere, and we’re “drinking the cocktail of voyeurism and exhibitionism.” Our privacy is being destroyed (true) and we’re all hopelessly creating useless content with myriad blogs read only by ourselves. We’re losing our ability to move through information in a linear way (like reading a book) and we may be losing our attention spans.
But Harkin is no Luddite, and his discussion of these issues is as sophisticated as it gets. He is an active user of the Web, and his analysis is deep and even subtle.
He rejects the moniker of “Net Addiction,” correctly pointing out that our enjoyment, even craving, for the information loop is very different from an addiction to, say, heroin.
When it comes to the dangers of so-called multitasking, he writes that we should have some perspective “before we convict our computers and mobiles of turning us into fidgety stoners with the attention span of baby goldfish.” He writes: “Unless your job is writing symphonies or performing complex medical operations, it is highly unlikely that you need to give your undivided attention all of the time,” noting that many of us find multitasking on the Web to be a relief for under-stimulation.
And he’s right that we should all wonder how dancing around in Google’s information loop might affect the way we think and remember things when we leave our search engines behind.
The book is strongest in telling the story of cybernetics. And many of Harkin’s analyses are fascinating, such as what he calls cyber-realism – non-linear storytelling that exploits cybernetics principles, exemplified by the movie 21 Grams.
But he completely ignores the power of the Web as a engine to bring people together for positive outcomes, from building and strengthening real friendships to solving many of the problems facing us all. Those who have suffered in isolation from a rare disease, say, but who can now collaborate on http: //www.patientslikeme.com, would find his critique one-sided. And if they knew about cybernetics, they might conclude that Harkin’s book misrepresents what has become of the vision of its founders.
For sure, we all need to manage how we manage our time and make sure we have balance in our lives, cherishing face-to-face engagement with those for whom we truly care. And it’s good for all of us to reflect on how to design our lives to ensure that the digital experience is enriching.
As such the book is a useful reminder.
If you buy it, try switching off Twitter and Facebook and read it from the beginning to the end, as I did. It’s a good narrative.
Follow Don Tapscott on Twitter@dtapscott. He is the author of 13 books on new technology in society, most recently Grown Up Digital.