To make any sense of James Harkin’s Cyburbia—The Dangerous Idea that’s Changing How We Live and Who We Are, one has to begin with a curiously difficult task: defining the concept of cybernetics—the central concept in the book. The best this writer could find online was the transcript of an oft-quoted lecture by the late Stafford Beer, a renowned proponent of cybernetics, delivered at the University of Valladolid in Spain in October 2001. And even Beer, early in his lecture, tells this joke:
In the loop: (left) Harkin mentions Cybersyn, a project in Chile; he likens cybernetics to the task of an anti-aircraft gunner. AFP Photos
“…it concerns three men who are about to be executed. The prison governor calls them to his office, and explains that each will be granted a last request. The first one confesses that he has led a sinful life, and would like to see a priest. The governor says he thinks he can arrange that. And the second man? The second man explains that he is a professor of cybernetics. His last request is to deliver a final and definitive answer to the question: what is cybernetics? The governor accedes to this request also. And the third man? Well, he is a doctoral student of the professor—his request is to be executed second.”
Essentially, cybernetics is the study of communication and control within any complex system.
The best way to explain this is to use the example Harkin alludes to several times in his book: that of the anti-aircraft gunner. Looking up at the sky, he sees the path of an enemy plane. He must process this information and then aim his gun before he shoots. Depending on the result and the continued flight path, he makes fresh estimations and fires again. Thus the gunner works within a loop of action and feedback in order to achieve his goal: blasting the plane out of the sky.
Cybernetics looks at similar feedback loops in all kinds of systems. And I mean all kinds of systems. Beer, for instance, once almost built an entire communication and control system for the Chilean government in the early 1970s, called Project Cybersyn. Managers sitting in Cybersyn’s futuristic control room could, via a network of telex machines, monitor and send orders to various factories all over Chile instantaneously.
What Harkin is trying to do in Cyburbia is to extend the idea of cybernetics to the way in which human beings today are part of a highly socially networked society—where we constantly receive pieces of information via Facebook, YouTube, thousands of blogs, etc. The crux of Harkin’s idea is to speculate on how being part of this always-on, un-curated network is beginning to change us.
Harkin’s effort, at first glance, is hugely relevant. As mentioned in the book, most people already know how newspapers are struggling to survive as readers have several free sources of news and information. Nobody really knows the impact this can have on societies. Or, at a more basic level, how dependence on virtual Facebook-y ways of interacting with friends can affect our more traditional ways of being social.
There are at least two ways to tackle these questions. You can either go the pop science, Freakonomics way, and reduce these networks and information loops down to a set of representative anecdotes. Or, you can go the hard core theoretical way, and investigate it for answers using ideas such as cybernetics.
Harkin wants to do both. And fails.
So Cyburbia, while endlessly anecdotal, leaves the reader highly dissatisfied at the end. This is infuriating for a book that is such a challenging read. The author engagingly begins each chapter with an anecdote—about anti-aircraft guns or Project Cybersyn—but what follows is a confusing, semi-congealed mess of theory and interpretation.
You’ll find yourself flipping back and forth between pages ever so often, trying to make sense of disparate themes. And you are constantly looking, unsuccessfully, for the one thing promised on the cover: “the dangerous idea that’s changing how we live and who we are”. I found no such thing.
Joel Comm’s Twitter Power— How to Dominate Your Market One Tweet at a Time, thankfully, is a much better read on cyberspace that somewhat helped overcome Cyburbia.
Comm’s book is a comprehensive guide for beginners to that thing everyone is talking about: Twitter. The book’s tag line might lead you to think it is targeted at marketing types looking to push their brands. In fact, it is a very accessible guide to personal Twitter usage as well.
Skip Comm’s musings on social media and go straight to Chapter 3: “Getting Started the Right Way on Twitter”. The three following chapters concisely outline everything a novice needs to know to sign up on the micro-blogging service, build an attractive profile and then nurture a set of followers. Comm’s advice is free of jargon and effective. And best of all, he writes with a jocular simplicity that makes you want to play along. The remainder of the book is targeted at corporate users, but still stays simple and jargon-free.
Usually I am loath to recommend any book that promises to teach social networking—Twitter and Facebook are all community-driven platforms that inherently handhold novices when they start. But Comm’s Twitter Power is well worth a look. It won’t take too much of your time, and while all technology guidebooks are prone to rapid obsolescence, I don’t see this one running out of relevance any time soon.
And while you are on Twitter, would you please avoid thinking how dangerously cybernetic you are and just have fun?