January 28, 2011 5:55 pm

Caught in the web

An illustration of the earth viewed on an iPad

The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate The World, by Evgeny Morozov, Allen Lane, RRP£14.99, 432 pages

Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other, by Sherry Turkle, Basic Books, RRP£16.99, 384 pages

Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?: The Net’s Impact on Our Minds and Future, edited by John Brockman, Harper Perennial, RRP£9.45, 448 pages

The internet has come a long way since Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, turned on the first web server in Geneva on Christmas day 1990. Today, 2bn people are online; 800m of them are on Facebook. Every minute, 24 hours worth of video is uploaded to YouTube. Google, a company founded only 15 years ago, has a market capitalisation just short of $200bn and a mission statement that it intends “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – something no one thinks unlikely or even remarkable. We now bank, shop, communicate, work and date through the internet. The internet has come of age. It is as defining an achievement for humanity as the Enlightenment or the industrial revolution.

But as the web’s youthful potential and teenage brashness give way to a more grown-up, complicated and multifaceted personality, our reaction to it has also changed. Our enthusiasm is tempered by a realisation that it is not simply an exciting force for good, as it was first seen. This year’s opening salvo of books about the internet does not laud web entrepreneurs or predict jetpacks and digital utopia. Instead, Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion and John Brockman’s collection of essays all soberly assess the current state of the internet and ask: are the changes the internet brings to our society and our human nature actually beneficial?

I first went online as a 12-year-old in 1988. The web had not yet been invented but by dialling into bulletin boards – message boards accessed by dialling a special number with a modem – I could join a tiny community of people who knew that they weren’t just going to change the world, they had invented a new one. In his 1994 book, The Virtual Community, Howard Rheingold, the writer and historian of the early internet, wrote of one of these new online worlds called “The WELL”: “There’s always another mind there. It’s like having the corner bar, complete with old buddies and delightful newcomers ... except that instead of putting on my coat, shutting down the computer and walking down to the corner, I just invoke my telecom program and there they are.”

For me as a teenager this was heady stuff. The web was a place where your opinion, your intelligence and your supposed erudition were what mattered, not your age or your appearance or your location. It was a place where, as Stewart Brand, founder of The WELL, said: “Information wants to be free.” But above all, it was a place where you could hope for, plan for, and be part of a better world – albeit only on your screen and in your mind. Later, as a blogger in 1999, as the inventor of the word “podcast” in 2004, and as a multiplatform reporter for the BBC in 2007, I was living the dream of my youth: spreading my ideas frictionlessly around the world.

Yet, what was once the preserve of a geeky few is now an almost universal experience in the developed world. Online friendships are no longer the preserve of the geek, today almost everyone you know has tens if not hundreds of Facebook friends. Cyberspace is where many of us spend most of our time. Because of our very prominent connection with the web, it’s tempting to extrapolate our early enthusiastic feelings about being online into a form of cyberutopianism.

 

“We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies,” says Sherry Turkle in her latest book on our relationship with technology, Alone Together, “yet we have allowed them to diminish us.” In this beautifully written, provocative and worrying book, Turkle, a professor at MIT, a clinical psychologist and, perhaps, the world’s leading expert on the social and psychological effects of technology, argues that internet use has as much power to isolate and destroy relationships as it has to bring us together.

Social networks and online communications, Turkle posits, offer such a pleasing simulation of social contact that we commonly mistake it for the real thing. “Virtual places offer connection with uncertain claims to commitment ... People know this, and yet the emotional charge on cyberspace is high. People talk about digital life as ‘the place for hope’, the place where something new will come to them. In the past, one waited for the sound of the post – by carriage, by foot, by truck. Now, when there is a lull, we check our e-mail, texts and messages.”

The compound effect of all these online relationships – the massive global interconnectivity so loved by the cyberutopians – is that “networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone”. The quality of the interaction is the emotional equivalent of junk food; it may fill you up but it hardly nourishes.

Such a danger might have been acceptable when social networks were self-selecting in their membership: the only people capable of getting on to a bulletin board in the mid-1980s had already followed a steep learning curve and weren’t limited in their social lives to the online world. But today, the network is everywhere, and our children are “Digital Natives” who are continually online.

So Turkle rails against what she sees as the falsely consoling effect of cyberspace – whether it is the quality of online relationships or the emotional crutch provided by the scope for endless self-reinvention. “It’s not uncommon,” she writes, “to see people fidget with their smartphones, looking for virtual places where they might once again be more.”

These false relationships, and the comfort they provide, are made solid by a parallel invention to the web – the social robot. The first of these, Turkle writes, was named Cog. Human-shaped, with a simple face, Cog was built to look at people as they moved around the room: “Cog ‘noticed’ me soon after I entered the room. Its head turned to follow me, and I was embarrassed to note that this made me happy – unreasonably happy. In fact, I found myself competing with [a colleague] for the robot’s attention.”

That was in 1994 and, since then, the field of emotional, social robots has boomed. The ageing population in Japan, requiring company, has prompted a series of robots that can be given to the elderly or infirm, to provide at least a simulation of companionship. One, called the Paro Therapeutic Robot, is a furry seal that can detect movement, touch, temperature, sound and so on. You can train it to remember its name, and it will look at you as you speak to it and purr when you stroke it.

 

Whether or not our experience of the internet and the digital world will change us is not in doubt. But not everyone agrees with Turkle’s view that these recent inventions diminish us. In his new book, editor and literary agent John Brockman has collected answers from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Brian Eno to a single question originally posed on his website, Edge.org: “Is the internet changing the way you think?” The 164 contributors are as thoughtful as commentators at the web’s imminent 21st birthday ought to be. Hope, that cyberutopian hallmark, spreads throughout this book.

As W Daniel Hillis, the legendary computer scientist, says in his response to the question, when we’re faced with a world of unimagined digital complexity, we must admit that: “We have embodied our rationality within our machines and delegated to them many of our choices, and in this process we have created a world that is beyond our own understanding ... We have linked our destinies, not only among ourselves across the globe, but with our technology. If the theme of the Enlightenment was independence, our own theme is interdependence. We are now all connected, humans and machines.”

For the cyberutopians, this massive interdependence isn’t simply a personal advantage or a business opportunity. It is a vehicle for political change. The summer 2009 protests in Iran led the way. As the Tehran youth took to the streets, the microblogging service Twitter was seen by an increasingly excited western blogosphere as playing a key part in the protests. The US state department was so enamoured by the idea of a Twitter revolution – cheap, modern, bloodless and remotely enabled – breaking out in Iran that it contacted Twitter’s management to persuade them to postpone some scheduled downtime: without the freedom of the internet right there, right then, how could freedom ever hope to return to Iran at all?

But as Evgeny Morozov, a young researcher at Georgetown University, says in his piercing new book The Net Delusion, the role of Twitter in the Iranian protests was as short and fleeting as a tweet itself. According to a study by international news network al-Jazeera quoted by Morozov, there were only 60 active Twitter accounts in the entire country before the summer’s unrest. When the Iranian authorities clamped down on the internet, provoked as much by the western hype as anything, that number dropped to six. The fact that Iran was a “trending topic” on Twitter wasn’t a reflection of true revolutionaries at work: it merely amplified a hopeful echo chamber in the west.

 

As we know, the protests came to nought. But the decision by the state department to ask Twitter to postpone its maintenance might have had long-lasting ramifications, according to Morozov. “Suddenly, the Iranian authorities no longer saw the internet as an engine of economic growth or as a way to spread the word of the prophet,” he writes. “All that mattered at the time was that the web presented an unambiguous threat that many of Iran’s enemies would be sure to exploit. Not surprisingly, once the protests quieted down, the Iranian authorities embarked on a digital purge of their opponents.”

Despite the internet’s northern Californian liberal roots, and the fine intentions behind social networking, inventions of this nature always have dual uses. The ability for anyone to publish online gives us a beacon of free speech and democratic values, but that in turn gives us WikiLeaks, a form of free speech that the state department could do without. While the internet’s ability to spread news and images has helped fuel this month’s revolution in Tunisia, and the protests in Egypt this week, the very same technology allows for the spread of far-right propaganda, or jihadi recruiting messages.

The state department’s apparently naive understanding of the all-pervading social network comes from a combination, Morozov says, of both cyberutopianism and internet-centrism, the idea that the internet and free online communication can emancipate the world, no matter who the oppressed or where or what their culture. As he convincingly – and, for cyberutopians such as me, deflatingly – argues, it’s not as simple as that: all technologies have dual uses, and political change is hard.

Indeed, perhaps the harshest words from Morozov are to the “slacktervist” generation, the Digital Natives whose political engagement is seemingly limited to joining a Facebook group or changing their Twitter icon to the shade of the cause du jour, as the supporters of the Iranian protests did when their icons went green. This, he says, is merely self-promotion, and “it seems unlikely that such narcissistic campaigners would be ... prepared to make sacrifices that political life, especially political life in authoritarian states, requires”.

That we have a human tendency to give too much credence to signals of connection, where there is really little or none, combines with the illusion that action in virtual life is as potent as action in physical life to make the heart of both Turkle and Morozov’s timely works.

Turkle warns that we are in “the still centre of a perfect storm. Overwhelmed, we have been drawn to connections that seem low risk and always at hand: Facebook friends, avatars, IRC chat partners. If convenience and control continue to be our priorities, we shall be tempted by sociable robots ...”

For Turkle, this would be bad news, something to be countered by a strict diet of going offline, disconnecting and experiencing reality. And yet, while I might wish for a contraction of my world – a day without e-mail or to trade the most wonderful online conversation with strangers for a simple hug – I think back to the excitement I felt as a 12-year-old, listening to the modem tones that signalled my entry into a virtual world. What all three of these books make clear is that the web has grown into a complicated adult. Our relationship with it may be becoming increasingly dependent but it’s up to us to learn how to live, and prosper, together.

Ben Hammersley is editor at large of Wired magazine and head of digital at Spring, an international design firm

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