Book review - Cyburbia: The dangerous idea that's changing how we live and who we are, by James Harkin

James Harkin is right to berate internet obsessives for losing touch with who they are, but his argument takes on the tones of paranoia, argues Marcus Warren.

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Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

Cyburbia: The dangerous idea that's changing how we live and who we are
James Harkin
Little, Brown
£17.99

Few people have a kind word to say about suburbia and, unlovely and unloved as it is, who can blame them? Acacia Avenue and the like are - it's all there in the etymology - sub urban; inferior, in other words. Venture out beyond the centre of our cities and you soon discover, as Gertrude Stein said of her birthplace, Oakland, California, 'that when you get there, there isn't any there there'.

Cyburbia applies these and other prejudices about this 'elsewhere' to the new world where many of us spend more and more of our lives: the internet. Online, as in the 'burbs, it argues, little people lead little lives, curtains twitch and neighbours swap tittle-tattle and disapprove of anyone who dares to be different. In one snobbish but hilarious image, the book even writes off bloggers en masse as 'bedroom bunkered pyjamadeen'.

The author is most emphatically not a resident of this wasteland. The James Harkin on Facebook who most closely approximates him boasts a mere seven friends. No-one of that description tweets on Twitter and the book's own website, www.cyburbia.tv, prominently displays 'No comments'. As Digg, the content aggregator that he would no doubt dismiss as one big exercise in groupthink, jokes in similar circumstances: 'It's quiet in here... can you hear the echo?'

Harkin is, however, good value as our guide through Cyburbia's highways and byways. He knows its history too, and indeed excels at tracing its origins in the post-war science of cybernetics and the counter-culture of the 1960s and '70s. And he also numbers Marshall McLuhan as one of its fairy godfathers. McLuhan it was who observed that 'the medium is the message', an insight that has come true in a way that his contemporaries could never have imagined.

More than just a tour guide, Harkin is also our minder through the badlands of Cyburbia. We need security out there. We've gone further than McLuhan ever allowed: more than just the message, the medium has become an end in itself. That, at least, is the book's contention; hence its subtitle: The dangerous idea that's changing how we live and who we are.

Yes, who doesn't sometimes feel tethered to an 'electronic chain gang', a slave to technology rather than master of it? As we stopped simply reading from line to line down a page and began to jump from link to link, our mobiles metamorphosed from simple phones into computers in their own right. With added GPS, dial-up became broadband and Facebook statuses made way for Twitter tweets. The pace at which we live and those lives themselves have gone hyper.

And they have done so at the cost of burned-out circuits - our own - and what Harkin describes, quoting a former Microsoft researcher, as 'continuous partial attention'. Many of us know we spend too much time in that state of mental limbo between the office, our digital lives and our family and friends. And he is right to berate us about the risk of losing touch with who we are in this digital hinterland.

But Harkin overstates his case in his image of us all as mere nodes in a huge online informational loop. Maybe, when Facebook was at the zenith of its popularity, its more enthusiastic evangelists believed their own hype and thought they were mapping the social world. But Facebook is not the world as we know it, nor its atlas; nor is it the same as the internet itself.

Rather than being a closed system that imprisons us, the web is much more sprawling, diverse and liberating than its critics allow. You don't have to take Google's 'Don't be evil' mantra at face value to accept that the internet's transformative power has been, on balance, hugely for the good.

Harkin sometimes sounds as paranoid as any deluded conspiracy theorist in the most whacko chatroom. Journalists who include search keywords in their copy online 'find themselves strapped uncomfortably into our electronic id', he argues, citing 'anecdotal evidence' that this sinister practice actually goes on. Apparently, 'if this were to become commonplace, it would bring the global electronic information loop promised by the gurus of cybernetics to a terrifying denouement'.

Well, as editor of the UK's fastest-growing newspaper website, I can assure you that my colleagues are encouraged to take account of what the strongest search terms are for any story they write. That's part of the basic hygiene of modern journalism. So I for one like Cyburbia, privet hedges and all. No-one's really in charge out here, but we prefer it that way.

Outsiders may look down their noses at us and what they disparage as our Stepford Wives existence. But give me our leafy, wide open spaces over the alternative any day.

Marcus Warren is the editor of Telegraph.co.uk.

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