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Web-crazed zombies all?

Vikram Johri  |  New Delhi 

Which is the single largest recruiting ground that terrorists use to lure gullible people into their nefarious dens? Mosques, I hear you say. Only that is wrong. It’s websites, hundreds of thousands of them, says James Harkin, Director of Talks at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, in this stimulating new book.

Even as we cheer on young Iranian students using Twitter and other Web 2.0 technologies for raising their collective voice against Iran’s botched electoral outcome, Harkin cautions us to keep in mind the many dangerous side-effects that this openness has entailed.

He does so by pointing us to the visual, albeit very real, domain of — “the place we go when we spend too much time hooked up to other people via a continuous loop of electronic information.”

Harkin begins by introducing the concept of cybernetics whose founder was the redoubtable Norbert Wiener of MIT, who famously declined to join the Manhattan Project. Derived from control theory, cybernetics is the study of closed systems, where the feedback from the system is fed into a loop, resulting in the system modifying itself based on the feedback input.

During the Second World War, Wiener was distressed at the failure of British anti-aircraft gunners to shoot down German aircraft hovering the British sky. The problem was the circuitous routes that the German aircraft took to dodge detection. The British tracking system was just not up to the task of factoring in the bomber’s zigzag motion in its calculation.

Wiener, working with complex mathematical models, came to the conclusion that the information feedback loop between the Luftwaffe bomber and the anti-aircraft gunner was not fast enough, resulting in rising failures. If only the bomber’s movement was suitably estimated, Wiener calculated, the accuracy of the gunner’s aim would improve dramatically.

While Wiener’s work would have little bearing on the British war effort, his ideas came to be rapidly accepted in the broader social sciences, especially among the countercultural idealists of the 1960s. These pioneers imagined the establishment of a global “electronic village of authentic information and perfect understanding” based on cybernetics.

One such pioneer was Marshall McLuhan, the man who coined the memorable phrase: “The medium is the message.” McLuhan, Harkin reminds us, was the progenitor of the idea of the internet, predicting the setting up of a giant electronic loop which will connect things and people in a smorgasbord of anytime connectivity.

Harkin dovetails the rise of the internet to cybernetics by exploring the way Google searches — the search results on the website’s first few pages drive our knowledge/views on any given topic. The more popular a site, the higher its chance of being shown on the first page of search results, resulting in an endless loop where a few, highly-visited sites govern our consumption of ideas.

It is in this vein that Harkin builds his central argument. The internet has engendered a herd-like instinct which dresses up McLuhan’s original dictum in a less glamorous interpretation. The content, never much important, is less so today—so long as one feels connected to a wider community. Which is why, Harkin seems to chide, seemingly normal adults can waste hours playing childish games and scoring themselves against one another on Facebook.

Welcome to Cyburbia, where youngsters share music and movies illegally on peer-to-peer networks, even as governments struggle to contain newer, more blatant forms of piracy. “The peer-to-peer architecture started out as a hippie cri de coeur at the conformism of post-war American life, but the layout of encourages us to conform to the opinion of our electronic peers,” Harkin laments.

The rise of has entailed the easy availability of porn, much of it free and user-generated. The other tragic manifestation of the internet, in Harkin’s view, is the global rise of opinion-making, with sundry blogs bloviating on serious topics with no editorial control.

However, in Harkin’s view, none of this compares with the curious case of so-called medieval terrorists using the latest technologies to spread their message of hate, or down-and-out lonely souls exploiting the internet’s seductive anonymity to enter suicide pacts.

But is this the whole picture? Clearly not. The rise of the internet has brought about several positive transformations, and the abuse of any technology cannot be reason enough to decry it. If the internet allows terrorists to group, it also lets ordinary citizens in non-democratic societies to get their views across. Why else does China set such great store by banning websites?

Perhaps then, it is enough to take Harkin at his word, and support him on how the ubiquitous use of the internet is playing havoc with not just our attention spans and social lives, but also our freedom to know and choose. Indeed, a new question is already upon us: What next?


James Harkin
Hachette India
274 pages; Rs 495

First Published: Fri, July 03 2009. 00:05 IST