We all need to be in the loop. The Times (London), 18 February 2009

On December 20 last year, a Boeing 737 preparing for take-off in Colorado skidded off the runway, tumbled into a ravine and injured 38 people. Just moments after the accident, while his fellow passengers sat reflecting on their good fortune to be alive, Mike Wilson knew what to do. “Holy f-ing shit,” he messaged his electronic acquaintances on his iPhone. “I was just in a plane crash!” The stereotypical response for anyone who survived an aeroplane crash used to be to reach for a cigarette, even if he or she didn’t smoke. Then came the mobile phone and the opportunity to phone or text our loved ones. What Wilson did, however, was something very different; using an application called Twitter, he sent a series of thoughts – each of 140 characters or less – to a network of thousands of people around the world.
Twitter is the latest social networking craze to have won over the mainstream media, and using it is like sending out a universal text message to the whole planet, or to whoever wants to listen. For many, this orgy of technologyenhanced wittering is simply something that we indulge in during our spare time at home, in the office or in transit, but it’s not without its uses. Veteran Twitterers report its usefulness as a way of soliciting advice, assistance or directions; only this week Lance Armstrong, the cycling legend, turned to the Twitterati to post an appeal for his stolen bike. Celebrity users such as Jonathan Ross relish it because it allows them to forge a more direct dialogue with their viewing public, often to the quiet irritation of those in charge of their public image.
Twitter’s coming of age, however, is generally dated to the Mumbai terror attacks at the end of November, when minute-by-minute updates of the unfolding chaos zipped around the world by eye-witnesses armed with Twitter on their laptops and mobile phones. It was given another fillip on the geopolitical stage in January, when the Israeli Government used Twitter to snipe at the mainstream media and get across its reasons for invading Gaza.
Evidence of Twitter’s cultural impact and its exponential rise in popularity are easy to find but discovering why anyone should want to dedicate time informing everyone in the world what he or she is up to at any given moment is harder to fathom. The answer, though, lies in the idea of “being in the loop”.
To most of us, the phrase means no more than being “in the know”, privy to information known only to a privileged inner circle; to be cut out of the loop, by contrast, was to be distanced from your colleagues and excluded from a hallowed circle of power. The idea of being “in the loop”, however, is older than you think. It can be traced back 70 years to an idea called cybernetics, whose progenitors imagined was the perfect human society – one that would see us all hitched to an electronic information loop defined by a continuous cycle of messaging and feedback among all those involved in it. Writing in the dark shadow of the Holocaust, Norbert Weiner, the American mathematician and father of cybernetics, convinced himself that society was in danger of spiralling out of control; and that only by putting us into constant touch with each other could he prevent it from careering towards collapse.
From there the idea passed to the media guru Marshall McLuhan in Toronto, who predicted as early as the 1960s that a whirring electronic information loop was going to shake modern society to its foundations, tying everyone and everything together in a “new electronic interdependence”.
The impact of this electronic information loop coursing through all our veins, McLuhan thought, could only enhance our ability to understand one another.
It would, he felt sure, precipitate the rise of a “global village” and a new era of greater responsibility and understanding.
In the late 1960s, the same idea was borrowed by some veterans of the counterculture from San Francisco’s area to fill the vacuum left their radical politics. thecounter- culture such as Stewart Brand saw cybernetics a means of information around control of the authorities putting ordinary people into direct communication with each other.
Thosehippies slowly morphed into electro- hippies, and many of them in the development of the industry and the in the 1970s and 1980s. after the collapse of the com boom, however, when the huge fibre-optic information cables that had been laid in the ground to give us lightning new broadband connections to the net were abandoned by the companies that had built them, did ordinary people show any interest in spending time on online social networks. Over the past seven years, millions of us have quietly migrated to a vast electronic suburb to spend vast tracts of our time messaging and responding to a constant stream of information from our electronic ties. When we inhabitants of Cyburbia return there compulsively to check for updates, we are not only trying to be more efficient and more productive, but to ward off a persistent fear of falling out of the loop.
When Twitter put this global information loop in our pockets, the site became the apotheosis of the cybernetic idea. Now that the information loop is fully built, however, the sometimes fanciful prognostications of the gurus of cybernetics have failed to materialise.
Instead, like a giant online video game, we are confronted with a continuous information loop that demands our rapid response to everyone we know and to many that we don’t. Stories of our attachment to it are not difficult to find – of people firing off rude or insulting e-mails without allowing themselves time to think, for example, or of people using whole evenings chatting or flirting with many different strangers at the same time, or of people staying up late at night to bid against each other on eBay. Sometimes the pressure of that stream of information is literally breathtaking. In March last year, The American Journal of Psychiatry took account of some of this international evidence to announce that it had added “internet addiction” – people’s excessive use of the net followed by anguished withdrawal – to its list of mental disorders. Even though the stream of information that comes from our myriad ties is much more pressing than other kinds of media, however, it is not very helpful to think of users of electronic media as addicts.
The best way to imagine all this is as the corollary of a new kind of self that many of us now inhabit – one whom craves being in the information loop via e-mail, text message and online networks at all times, and whom is continually opening that information loop and then vainly trying to slam it shut by firing rapid bursts of feedback. This new kind of involvement that we have with our electronic media is much more intense and more pressing than even McLuhan could have imagined. If watching TV was the media equivalent of being stoned, life in Cyburbia often seems like the crack cocaine version.
Today’s breathless internet gurus would have you believe that all this makes us and our organisations more agile, more efficient and more responsive. Not necessarily.
The delivery of a continuous stream of messages might well be slowly stretching our brains, turning us into creatures who are better at doing many different things at once. Preliminary studies from neuroscientists and psychologists, however, suggest that in the meantime our brains are likely to become strained and confused if we make too many demands on them. Beyond a certain point, in other words, the productivity bonus that we get from responding to many different streams of information on our information loop at the same time levels off, and begins to slow us down. No matter – many of us enjoy it all the same. The reason why we’re so keen to switch through a range of information streams and constantly jump around between them, in any case, is not at all about doing things more efficiently – it is simply that we have come to appreciate being in the loop for its own sake.
When McLuhan argued that “the medium is the message” nearly half a century ago, he meant that the content of a medium is often less important than the difference it makes in us just to have it around. It was a good point, but McLuhan didn’t live long enough to see his aphorism twisted around. The world we now inhabit is one in which messages are rapidly becoming the medium – electronic messages sent back and forth between us at breakneck speed on a never-ending electronic information loop. During his darker moments, he seemed to have an inkling of where all this might lead. The coming global electronic village, he feared, might not give rise to a village-like harmony after all but precipitate a new kind of voyeurism. The danger, he once announced, was that that we would emerge into “a world in which you don’t necessarily have harmony but an extreme concern with everyone else’s business, and much involvement in everybody else’s life”.
The medium through which he chose to deliver that particular message was television, but if he were alive today, he would have posted it as a tweet.