Window to cybernetics
Reviewed by Akshay Kumar

Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea that’s Changing how we Live and who we are
By James Harkin.
Little, Brown, London.
Pages 274. Rs 495.

TODAY, as a barrage of information highways penetrate through the unconscious of human mind, each one of us is willy-nilly turned into a traveller or a jockey in the "cyburbia". Electronic inter-activism has generated a vision or rather a mirage of unprecedented global integration. James Harkin attempts an unofficial biography of this overwhelming reach of cybernetics from its tentative beginnings in the early 1940s to its advanced march in the 21st century. The overarching narrative is built around the seminal contributions made by Norbert Wiener, Stewart Brand and Marshall McLuhan towards the evolution of what is now heralded as cyber-age.

Wiener, a mathematician, in order to devise an effective mechanism for anti-aircraft guidance system, worked on the principle of continuous feedback according to which information about a system’s output is fed back into it in a loop so as to improve its performance. It was Wiener who adapted the Greek word kybernetes, which means ‘helmsman’ or ‘pilot’ to deal with the new regime of information loops and the messages that flow therein. Other than warfare, the possible source of modern-day cyber-rage, as identified by Harkin, is the counter-culture or hippie culture of the 60s. The proliferating information channels provided routes to subvert the official and canonical ways of representation. The radicals of the New Left, hippies, student activists and peace-workers resorted to a new portable do-it-yourself technology to puncture the aura of authority and its objective power. Computers turned out to be the natural successor to LSD, and acting very much like a new drug, these desktop machines offered window to new progressive and eclectic ways of thinking.

Stewart Brand’s The Whole World Catalogue proclaimed as publishing sensation carried a hotchpotch of articles and features about new gizmos and other consumer products culled from different sources. It was profiled in the Time magazine for its remarkable success in the market. Different groups of people soon started swapping information with Brand, and thus, in a very short time, a community of peers, feeding information and receiving information, came into being. With the arrival of the Internet and mobile phones, the peers entered into an "electronic tie" which generated a vision of the arrival of a well-connected global village. The Whole World Catalogue stood transformed into WELL (Whole Earth Lectronic Link), a primitive form of Internet inter-activism. What started off as a part of anti-authoritarian, non-elitist, counter-cultural movement soon engulfed the entire global space in its stride. The Whole World Catalogue in a way becomes a befitting prototype of the present-day ubiquitous ‘world wide web’ (www). Harkin’s discussion on the catalogue, however, should have been more elaborate and illustrative.

Carried away by the invasive potential of the new portable technology, McLuhan anticipated the arrival of media-saturated society, which would undergo experiences of a new form of tribalism in the so-called global village. Harkin takes a critical view of McLuhan’s overt romanticisation or mystification of the virtual space. He argues that instead of utopia, the new form of tribalism points towards some kind of apocalypse in which life threatens to be overexposed, and where all sense of interiority is lost irrevocably. Instead of the emergence of any new enlightened global consciousness, what comes out in the cyber-space is a printout of our collective electronic ID. Harkin’s own language acquires a negative hue in the latter part of the book as he begins to dwell microscopically on the "dangerous" aspects of cybernetics.

Besides dealing with the three innovators as major lamp posts of the discourse of cybernetics, Harkin’s book maps the journey through important cyber events such as the arrival of networking sites like YouTube, Second Life, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc. One of the significant aspects of Harkin’s account is that he ventures to spell out the poetics of story-telling in terms of what he describes as four elements of cyber realism viz. the puzzle, loop, multiplicity and tie. The chapters on non-linearity, multiplicity and feedback lend a critical edge to an otherwise descriptive book.

The book does offer a cryptic account of cybernetics along with its emerging poetics of culture and sociology, yet by all means it does not attain the philosophical profundity that one comes across in the writings of Baudrillard, Virilio or even Toffler. The book has plethora of terms such as "cyburbia", "electronic ectoplasm", "electronic ID", "electronic reverie", etc., but none actually lasts long in the mind. Baudrillard’s theory of "simulation", McLuhan’s dictum of "medium as message", Virilio’s notion of "speed as metaphysics" and Toffler’s thesis of "third wave" continue to form the baseline of emerging theory of cyberculture.