Review: The Mail on Sunday, 22 Feb. “Invasion of the real cyber-men.”


22 February 2009
The Mail on Sunday


by James Harkin
In common with many novelists who work from home, I spend about two-thirds of my day trying to dream up witty “status updates” on Facebook. When I get tired of that, I go to MySpace and send “friend requests” to strange-looking people in North Dakota. Several times a day I might play chess on the internet or check my sales rankings on Amazon. At no point do I do any actual work.

James Harkin would recognise me as a slave to Cyburbia, the term he has coined for the global village of, well, idiots like me who are forever chained to our laptops, BlackBerrys and mobile phones. In his intriguing new book, Harkin argues that our hypnotic fascination with computer technology is not only affecting the way we live, but also changing basic human nature.

Twenty years ago, there was only a handful of ways to communicate: you could make a phone call or send a fax or a letter. If you wanted to be really cutting edge, there was always the pager.

How times have changed. Twenty-first Century man Twitters and Bebos; he Orkuts and he instant-messages. In an age when many of us complain about the dangers of the surveillance society, we are happy to send our most intimate thoughts out into the ether. There is, Harkin writes, an “almost gravitational pull that grips people and pulls them back, again and again, into Cyburbia”.

Harkin traces the growth of Cyburbia to a Second World War anti-aircraft expert, Norbert Wiener, who thought of gunners on the ground as part of a loop, reacting to a constant stream of information about an enemy pilot’s movements. It was Wiener who came up with the term cybernetics, from the Greek word “kybernetes”, meaning helmsman or pilot. Harkin also blames hippies. In the Sixties, a generation of radicals were drawn to the computer industry in California, spurred on by the possibilities of a technology that would allow people to communicate freely without interference from the state.

It’s an intriguing thesis, albeit not particularly new. Harkin’s book sometimes has the rather dry tone of a PhD thesis, but it is fascinating when he discusses the dangers of life on the electronic superhighway. He cites the case of a group of 28 Americans asked to spend two weeks without access to the internet. They were so reliant on computers that many of them had forgotten that old-fashioned resources such as the phone book and newspapers even existed.

“Many of them complained about the inconvenience of dealing with paper documents such as airline tickets,” Harkin writes. “Without Google to see them through dull afternoons in the office, many were at a loss to know what to do.” One man was so eager to be reunited with his computer that he told a researcher: “I’m even looking forward to seeing spam.”

“Internet addiction” is now recognised by the American Journal Of Psychiatry. It’s just as bad here: 233million man hours are wasted every month by British workers on social networking sites.

Other developments have been more sinister. Cyburbia has become a meeting point for assorted freaks and weirdos, from Islamist radicals posting information about how to construct home-made bombs to anorexics giving one another tips on how to lose weight.

Then there was the extraordinary story of David Pollard, whose four-year marriage ended after he enjoyed an extra-marital affair in the computer-generated world of Second Life with a woman he’d never actually met.

Harkin shudders for the future of mankind, but perhaps he’s overly anxious. By and large, the internet has surely been a force for good, both as a business and marketing tool, and as a means of staying in touch. Talking of which, it’s time I was off. I haven’t checked my Facebook page for over an hour.