Monday, 18 February 2013
James Harkin describes his 2009 book, Cyburbia: the dangerous idea that's changing how we live and who we are, as the unauthorised biography of cybernetics and its related discipline, network theory. Although cybernetics is a multidisciplinary field, Harkin defines it through Norbert Weiner's understanding as, 'the study of messages as a means of controlling machinery and society'. In the context of the digital age, this is understood as a closed information loop involving us, our computers and the internet.
Norbert Weiner (1894 - 1964), a mathematician at MIT features prominently in the book, along with Marshall McLuhan (media theorist and author of The Medium is the Massage: an inventory of effects, 1967) and Stewart Brand (writer and 60s counter-culture and tech industry thinker).
I found the section about Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog extremely interesting. The idea that cybernetics made the leap from its initial military applications to a societal role through being co-opted by American hippies involved in counter-culture is pretty, well, far-out. Those involved in the counter-culture thought that technology would play a major role in building the kind of society that they craved. Technological advances had the ability to remove the elite and hierarchy from communication making it peer-to-peer and truly egalitarian.
James Harkin brings the seventy year old story of cybernetics full circle in chapter 9, with a discussion of network theory and the use of new technologies in the military. He goes into quite a lot of detail about the 250 million dollar Millennium Challenge played out by the US military in 2002, which was designed to prove the necessity of technology in the theatre of war, although it seemed that these war games actually proved that all the high tech gadgets in the world could not assure victory.
My reading enjoyment was somewhat marred by annoying typos, e.g. 'give' instead of 'given', 'One the one hand' instead of, 'on the one hand', etc. The text could have done with closer editing in addition to proof reading as, unfortunately, not all the errors were simple typos. On page 18, in reference to the Nazi bombing of London, it says, 'the most advanced German bombers flew over their targets at speeds above three thousand miles per hour and at altitudes as high as thirty thousand feet', this should read 300 mph. I know the Third Reich was militarily advanced, but 3,000 mph is around Mach 4!
I found Nicholas Carr's effort much more enjoyable to read, not only was it written in an accessible journalistic style, it also dealt with subjects of more interest to me personally: the history of writing, printing, ebooks and hypertext, neuroscience and lots about Google.
I was interested to discover that both books, The Shallows and Cyburbia, received rather unfavourable reviews, in particular, from the Guardian Newspaper. As a lay reader, who is not a computer science, or tech industry expert, I found both books worth a read and the reviews that slated them so critical they bordered on conceit. Just because I am reading non-fiction it doesn't mean that I am dealing with fact. I may not have agreed with every hypothesis put forward in these books, but I certainly came across ideas and assertions worthy of further contemplation and research. Each book left me with ideas to debate and discuss with friends and with a reading list to explore.