Lost in Cyburbia

By James Harkin

You have to wonder what they – Christopher Lasch, who published The Culture of Narcissism in 1979, and Tom Wolfe (still with us), who branded the 1970s as “The Me Decade” in a famous 1976 essay – would have to say about the current cultural scene. This is, after all, the generation that saw “You” named Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006. There was even a shiny patch on the cover meant to represent a mirror. What “You” did to earn this award was upset media hierarchies with the Web 2.0 explosion in user-generated content (think YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, etc.) being published on the internet. This was, or at least seemed to be, democracy in action.

In fact it was nothing of the sort. The message was that the content so produced was all a bunch of worthless crap – worthless in a literal economic sense since no one was being paid for it. Which is not to say there wasn’t any money being made. Far from it. The big money, however, would go to the enablers and people who ran the networks. They would be the ones in control and the ones to reap the rewards. “You” might have thought you were a player, but that was an illusion. In Lost in Cyburbia James Harkin provides a telling anecdote, almost a parable really, about the 1968 film Ping Pong. The film consisted of a primitive simulation of a ping-pong game, the audience being provided with their own paddles and balls to whack at the screen in a crude facsimile of interactivity:

One easy interpretation of this game of table tennis played between viewer and screen in Ping Pong . . . was that it was an attempt to rouse viewers from their traditional passivity as spectators and involve them in the action. But all was not as it first appeared: the artist saw it very differently. What she had created was a game whose direction was dictated entirely by the director and whose aim was to make people aware that their participation was being manipulated from above. Whacking balls back and forth at dots on a screen, those who played along with the film thought that they were deeply and actively involved in the information loop. The screen, however, wasn’t playing ball. The appearance of the dots on the screen had been choreographed far in advance, and the players were being taken for fools.

“You” are merely traffic – which means that while you are doing your thing the corporate powers-that-be are doing theirs, which is to say monetizing and gathering marketable information about you. This may not be as sinister as it sounds (though I’m inclined to think it’s rather more), but in any event it should tell you something about “your” importance in the grand scheme of things.

Which leads us back to narcissism. Not narcissism as commonly understood, a sort of ego-strutting loudmouthery, but as Wolfe and Lasche viewed it: a pathologically low sense of self-esteem. The denizens of Cyburbia are, primarily, the lonely, the marginalized, and the bored. If Web 1.0 was the Revenge of the Nerds, what was its 2.0 version but the Revenge of the Pathetic? Or rather their exploitation.

In the cultural geography of James Harkin’s book, Cyburbia is the entire virtual online community. It is not the global village or egalitarian community imagined by cyber-utopians of the counterculture and theorists like Marshall McLuhan. Rather, what the successors to these early visionaries created was something that “looked more like a vast electronic suburb in which there was little else to do but spend vast amounts of time chattering and looking at ordinary people’s lives.” Which is just what you would expect lonely and bored people to do.

This is probably being harsh, and certainly much harsher than I think Harkin would allow. Nevertheless, I think it’s a point worth addressing because it undercuts the whole notion of an information loop – the theory of cybernetics that Harkin is writing the “unofficial biography” of. Cybernetics ideally results in a self-equilibrating system, making use of the feedback provided by the information loops to maintain and improve its functioning. But a loop, like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link. So what if the human link is entirely self-absorbed, uninterested in the better functioning of the system of which it is a part? What if, as Colin Robinson recently opined in an essay in the London Review of Books, a connection between the links is only an illusion in a world where

People bowl alone, shop online, abandon cinemas for DVDs, and chat to each other electronically rather than go to a bar. In an increasingly self-centred society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.

In the Time magazine story that anointed You the person of the year, Lev Grossman suggested that the internet offered a chance “for people to look at a computer screen and really, genuinely wonder who’s out there looking back at them.” But what if, instead of wondering, they don’t care? Another parable from Harkin’s book: When Penguin UK invited web users to collaborate on a “group novel” the whole project fell to pieces after six weeks. Here’s the punchline:

Putting a brave face on the alphabet soup that resulted from all this activity, the editor responsible for the project, Jon Elek, noted that his book was “not the most read, but certainly the most written novel in history.” That was putting it mildly. It became apparent that one of the reasons for the novel’s incoherence was that not even the masses of novelists who had queued up to help write the book had bothered to read what had gone before. They were too busy writing.

Too busy, or simply more interested in “being read rather than reading.” So much for feedback loops. Not even porn was to be spared from the narcissistic desire to be the star of one’s own blue movie. “What many people wanted,” Harkin concludes a section documenting the decline in studio pornography, “was nothing less than to be in a porn movie.” So that they could watch themselves, one presumes (“being seen rather than watching”). More and more the creation of a universal consciousness is starting to look like what Allan Bloom meant by the closing of the American mind, a narcissistic withdrawal into a seamless web of self. And for those with low self-esteem and addictive personalities, that is a tempting drug indeed.

You have to dig a bit in Cyburbia to construct oppositional arguments like this because Harkin, while registering the odd caveat, is an internet booster. Even in his conclusion the warning signs are lightly passed over:

our brilliant new technology for communication is still young and we are only just getting the hang of it. Just like teenagers growing up in post-war suburbia many of us inhabitants of Cyburbia are growing bored, and are longing to be transported somewhere more exciting. If we use the medium for our own purposes rather than following slavishly in its thrall, we can imagine new ways of working, exciting new kinds of art and culture, new ways of organising ourselves and getting things done. What we need now are new storytellers capable of awakening our interest with narratives that allow for greater freedom of movement, employers canny enough to give us tasks that absorb our divided attention, teachers clever enough to whet our appetite for making associations, guides bold enough to take us by the hand through the fog of electronic information and show us something new.

There is much to flag here. The medium, I would argue, is being used for human purposes, just not democratic, egalitarian ones. The idea that cybernarratives must allow for more freedom seems, at least to me, to argue for disposing with storytellers altogether. But the real kicker is the desire to be shown “something new.” You have to blink at that. The Internet as we know it today is still only a little over a decade old and yet already “us inhabitants of Cyburbia are growing bored”! We have surfed the billion-channel universe at high speed and in HD, we have demanded an up-to-the-second news cycle, we have gone wireless and can now take the Internet with us everywhere, using devices scarcely larger than a credit card, and . . . it’s not enough! We need something new!

When did the Internet get so small?

Review first published online May 4, 2009.