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Book Review

Book Review: by Lang Reid


The catchy title took my fancy as I scoured the Bookazine shelves this week. Written by James Harkin, Cyburbia (ISBN 978-1-4087-0113-3, Little Brown, 2009) is a fairly weighty tome at around 300 pages.
Harkin does not let the reader spend much time in deciding whether to purchase this book. On the first page of the Preface I was confronted by an “avatar”, not the kind of word I use every day, though Harkin would have me believe there are literally hundreds of thousands roaming cyberspace hidden behind their own personal avatars.
On the third page “cybernetics” which is, “the idea of ourselves as messengers navigating an endless loop of information.” It is this “loop” writes Harkin, which is so important today that people ask not to be left out of the “loop” and indeed become afraid of being left out.
Now, for most of my generation, all these loops and cybernetics is something that seems to have bobbed up recently, and can be blamed upon the internet. Not so, says Harkin, the concept goes back to a mathematician called Norbert Wiener in the 1940’s, whose work on developing anti-aircraft guns led him to information loops that included the enemy pilot’s evasions, the gunner on the ground and the directions given to the gun, called a flight path predictor. An information loop was being made, which included the gunner as the messenger. Mind you, author Harkin writes of German bombers doing 3,000 miles per hour. I think that’s one zero too many, which the sub-editor should have picked up.
Fast forward to the 60’s and Harkin introduces Charles Manson and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district spawning alternative (and counter) cultures. This was the next step towards a new style of information loop. One that did not necessarily stand up to logical examination. LSD counters logic in that type of circumstance.
The next step, according to Harkin came through a magazine called The Whole Earth Catalog, where the editor, a Stephen Brand, invited the readers to communicate with each other, producing larger and more convoluted loops.
This was followed by Marshall McLuhan in the late 60’s and his “sweeping prognostications about how electronic media were about to change the fundament of society”. McLuhan had met up with Timothy Leary the LSD evangelist, and free association thinking was primed to accept all new developments as breakthroughs. Harkin describes his subjects in an almost painterly way, and not at all as part of an e-loop!
Fast forward to 2007, the internet is in full swing (and generally reliable if you are outside Thailand) and Facebook arrives on the scene. A new way of interacting in a peer to peer fashion, like downloading music on Napster. By 2006, 87 percent of Canadian undergraduates were having sexual relationships via webcam! Now, how ‘loopy’ is that?
At B. 595 it is an informative and thoughtful book. It certainly poses some questions, and in places needs leaps of faith to come to Harkin’s conclusions, but I did enjoy it, and felt by the end, that I had understood a little bit more about being in the loop.