Trapped in ‘Cyburbia’

A fascinating new book argues that today’s internet culture springs from the anti-authority, anti-objectivity outlook of the 1960s counterculture, and puts the case for people escaping from their all-consuming ‘Second Lives’.

Jennie Bristow

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‘The first time I began to wonder about our whole approach to understanding digital communications, I was having sex on Second Life.’

With an opening line like that, even the most determined technophobe would find it difficult to resist joining James Harkin on his guided tour through ‘Cyburbia’: ‘the place where we go when we spend too much time hooked up to other people via a continuous web of electronic information’. The Western world’s journey to Cyburbia is an intriguing tale of technology, idealism, disconnection and the quest for intimacy. The story of what we do when we get there is by turns funny, uplifting and profoundly disturbing.

In technological terms, Harkin argues that the foundations of Cyburbia lie in cybernetics, ‘the idea of ourselves as messengers navigating an endless loop of information’: the theory and practical application of which has its origins in the military. Cybernetics was, Harkin claims, ‘given a new lease of life and an enormous fillip when its ethos was borrowed by counter-cultural agitators amid the air of global rebellion in 1968’, and became the ‘poster boy’ for the computer industry and the internet when these hippies turned into nerds.

Harkin’s explanation of the intellectual links between the Sixties counterculture and the philosophy and practice of Noughties networking is persuasive:

‘When they left their lives in the city behind, the hippie and alternative movements wanted to wash their hands not only of racism, the arms race and the war on Vietnam, but the whole hierarchical edifice of Western society and its spurious ideas about authority and objectivity… Little by little, and without anyone really noticing, a movement to raise people’s awareness of social ills had turned in on itself, and morphed into one whose aim was to forge a more direct kind of communication between like minds.’

Examined in this light, many of the distinctive features of modern internet usage begin to make some sense. The disdain for authority and objectivity, for example, is illuminated by the Wiki-style preference for the views of one’s peers over official sources of information: as Google found out in 2002, when its expert-led Google Answers service was ‘a miserable, unpopular flop’. Even when it comes to that hugely popular internet consumer product, pornography, companies had to face facts about why their revenue was suffering: ‘The reason why people were going to peer-to-peer porn sites wasn’t only because they wanted stuff for free… What people wanted, it seemed, was nothing less than to be in a porn movie, or to watch other people appearing in movies of their own.’

The rise of peer-to-peer porn has other fascinations, too. When people go looking for sex online, what exactly are they hoping to find? Harkin’s journalistic experiments with having sex in Second Life may not have affected his first life very much, but as he points out, ‘daydreaming in Cyburbia could have real consequences’: a survey in 2007 found that two thirds of British adults spent time ‘wilfing’ (‘what was I looking for?’) on the internet, and one third of the men said that wilfing had a damaging effect on their relationships. I remain intrigued by the findings of a survey conducted for Saga in 2008, which found that one quarter of adults believed that flirting in an online chatroom constituted infidelity (1). And indeed, in November 2008, the national newspapers reported that a British couple were seeking a real-life divorce after the wife found her husband’s online alter ego becoming affectionate with another avatar (2).

There is probably very little science in these surveys, and to old-fashioned types who believe that cheating on one’s partner can only really be done with someone who exists in the flesh, such findings seem merely funny. But the strangely disembodied search for sex online reveals something about the peculiar quest for intimacy in today’s culture, in which people exhibit an extreme, obsessive form of coming-togetherness while hiding behind a carefully-constructed façade of Self.

Starring in your own porn movie, or recording your daily life through a webcam in your bedroom, may seem like an activity suited only to the supremely self-confident. More people are likely to take pride and comfort in their growing lists of Facebook friends, or the number of people with whom they communicate in chatrooms. But if you follow Harkin’s thesis, all of these manifestations of online interaction are part of the same trend, in which ‘messages are rapidly becoming the medium’ and staying connected is all that counts. Within Cyburbia, we have the capacity to create an astonishing number of friends, with whom we can present an endless number of different identities. What is lacking is the sense of what it all means.

In an impressive article for the New Atlantis journal in 2007, the American writer Christine Rosen interrogated the self-regarding character of the virtual friendships exhibited on Facebook and similar sites, and characterised this trend as the ‘new narcissism’ (3). Users of online social networking are ‘committed to self-exposure’, she writes: ‘There is no room for reticence; there is only revelation.’

These narcissistic ‘friendships’ are, argues Rosen, a world apart from real friendships: ‘The use of the word “friend” on social networking sites is a dilution and a debasement, and surely no one with hundreds of MySpace or Facebook “friends” is so confused as to believe those are all real friendships.’ The ‘impulse to collect as many “friends” as possible on a MySpace page’ is, according to Rosen, not an expression of the need for companionship but an expression of the need for status: both in the way that flaunting oneself online is a form of showing off, and to the extent that the desire to list your friends reveals a degree of insecurity and anxiety.

Rosen’s argument is compelling, and the difference between real, human friends and the names amassed in one’s Facebook network is important to bear in mind. But as our online and offline worlds become more intimately connected, it is increasingly difficult to accept that people’s frenetic online social networking is not, in fact, a search for genuine companionship. When people reach out to one another, they do so in ways that are culturally validated as normal and desirable. The fact that we live much of our lives in the endless loop of Cyburbia is connected to the trends towards individuation and self-absorption in the ‘real world’, where there is a genuine struggle going on about how people make sense of themselves and their relationships with other people.

Rather than seeing online friendships and sexual encounters as something distinct from real relations of intimacy, it may be more useful to see the model of Facebook friends as something that both gives expression to, and shapes, the way that individuals make connections with each other in contemporary society. Amy Taylor, the wife in the Second Life divorce, said of her husband’s internet ‘infidelity’: ‘It may have started online but it existed entirely in the real world and it hurts just as much. His was the ultimate betrayal. He had been lying to me.’ Is this a case of a couple losing the distinction between fantasy and reality – or merely taking the narrow obsession with fidelity, lying, betrayal and hurt in ‘real’ relationships to their logical conclusion?

This is where we get to the real question of Harkin’s book, which is about what makes us human and, in relation to our brave new online world, which are the potentially dehumanising trends. Harkin doesn’t attempt to resolve this question, but his sensitivity to balancing the progressive excitement of this new technology against the uses to which it is being put at least gives us pause for thought. What distinguishes human beings from the electrical systems that gave rise to cybernetics is, he argues, ‘not that we are capable of cycling through an endless feedback loop but that we can progress with some kind of purpose’:

‘Pay too much attention to that information loop and the danger is that we lose sight of the reason why we are there in the first place. Like a wind-up toy placed on the floor, we go around in circles.’

The great potential of the internet is the way that it gives human beings the means to get more from each other, reaching across geographical boundaries and physical limitations. The great danger of Cyburbia is that we end up seeking, and finding, increasingly less from more and more people, until all we end up with is a mirror for our own insecurities. It really is, as Harkin suggests, time to move.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and editor of the website Parents With Attitude. She writes spiked’s monthly guide to subversive parenting. Email Jennie {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”here”}.

Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea That’s Changing How We Live and Who We are, by James Harkin, is published by Little Brown. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(3) Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism, by Christine Rosen, The New Atlantis, Summer 2007

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