Review: The Independent (UK), 7 March

An interesting review in Saturday’s Independent, by the author of The Play Ethic Pat Kane. Unlike some of the critics, Kane gets the jokes too. It’s not online yet, so here is is below.

The Independent, 7 March 2009.

Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea That’s Changing How we Live and Who we Are by James Harkin (£17.99, Little Brown)

Reviewed by Pat Kane

Doctor Who’s Cybermen, as any fool knows, are half-organism, half-machine and all steely logic and brutality (with door handles on their heads). Their aim is to conquer the universe by turning all living creatures into versions of themselves. Thus cyberized, the victims are fated to endlessly communicate with each other in metallic tones, pursuing their dispassionate mission of universal domination.

There is an element of James Harkin’s elegant re-framing of our current internet culture that is warning us about the Return of the Cybermen. So much of our celebration of the Web is cast in democratic and civic language – new communications networks giving voice to the previously voiceless, or organising tools to the currently disorganised.

But Harkin wants us to pause, and consider the deep nature of the systems we’re hooking up to. How much are we their helmsmen – or they ours? And do we realise just how steeped in military imperatives our Facebook sheep-throwing actually is?

Harkin makes a convincing case that cybernetics – the study of how systems (mechanical or organic) hang together through flows of information – is the birth-discipline of the internet. But he constantly asks us to keep in mind its own founding moment: as a solution (devised by MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener) to help British guns shoot German bombers out of the sky in WWII, improving their accuracy by speeding up the input of enemy data to the gunners.

The great interest of Cyburbia, despite all its overly-familiar citations (Wiki-Google-YouTube-blahblah), is in Harkin’s dogged pursuit of this abstract and etiolated methodology, as it has infiltrated all manner of events over the last seventy years.

What’s particularly interesting is that cybernetics seems to inspire and way-lay in almost equal measure. Those who are gripped by it seem to fall into a visionary trance about the ability of information flows to make a better world, by keeping all its members “in the loop”.

There is a good Northern Irish mordancy about Harkin’s perspective. He profiles figures like Marshall McLuhan: the professor had cyber-inspired dreams that the “Second Coming of Christ” would be manifested by electronic media, but could only vouchsafe this to the pages of Playboy magazine.

And Harkin’s mapping of the cybernetic ideal to historical change can be very sharp. He notes how computers and networks became a real substitute for the failures of hippy drop-out culture, promising a better platform for authentic-living-through-communication (hello, Jobs and Gates). This near-theological belief in the power of interactivity is traced all the way up to the 23 year-old founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, who told a 2007 audience of investors that “today, together, we’re going to start a movement”.

But it’s the nature of the actual “movement” on these social networks – too often, no more than a kind of perpetual mutual grooming exercise, mammals clicking mouses – that Harkin wants to warn us about. He touches on a wide range of research about the way that the Net can encourage herd behaviour, and tends to reward early entrants with disproportionate influence.

The neuroscientists’ lament that young brains might be losing certain powers of concentration, as they bounce around between cybernetic media, is partly answered by Harkin’s claim that “we are now map-makers, feeling our way through Cyburbia”. Yet he is too weakly ironic about how the powerhouses of this realm are harvesting commercial data from all our map-making.

Lawrence Lessig’s provocation that we need a ‘cyber-passport’, whereby we could predetermine the amount of information we emit when we go online, is nowhere addressed here. If, as Harkin says in conclusion, “we should use the medium for our own purposes rather than following slavishly in its thrall”, we should also be sharp enough to address our own data passivity vis-à-vis the likes of Google.

While we struggle against the fate of being cyberbunnies, Harkin is to be commended for keeping a gimlet eye on the real-life cybermen. One chapter records the persistence of the allure of cybernetics in the US military – and how the idea of American “net-war” in the middle-East has ground to a halt, in the face of insurgencies and guerrilla tactics that make a virtue of their random, unsystematic nature.

As Harkin says, “how could an idea aimed at understanding computer networks explain the complex affiliations in Iraq’s largely tribal society?” Perhaps, he suggests, that cybernetic myopia even helped to construct the spectre of the “Al-Qaida Network”, where the street-level reality was much messier. Time, indeed, for the Cybermen to wrest off their double-handled helmets.