Over the summer of 2007, Facebook exploded across London. By the autumn, one-in-seven Londoners had posted their pictures and profiles online, proving that the web was no longer an arena for geeks and gossip hounds, music buffs, porn-addicts and lonely hearts. Or, at least, it was no longer just for them. It was for everyone. On a mass impulse many of us jumped on-board the electronic merry-go-round. Did we do it in a spirit of adventure or resignation? Was it inevitable or had we gone mad?
Cyburbia by James Harkin is a swift-moving history that provides a concise answer: yes, we are nuts and worse, we can no longer opt out. Click, by the self-proclaimed internet data junkie Bill Tancer, only reinforces this fact: our lives have changed irrevocably.
If one single factor changed the face of the internet, it was broadband. Once the internet was switched on all the time, everyone from toddlers to maiden aunts became intimate with it. We began bidding on eBay, playing contract bridge or World of Warcraft, singing along to CBeebies, sharing photos and rewriting Wikipedia. By this time, the history of computing had already moved through two distinct phases.
In the Eighties, computers were little more than fancy calculators with added typewriter functions. The Nineties brought email and online shopping to create a kind of alternative electronic reality. With broadband, there came a third phase. The world that computing makes possible could no longer be thought of as parallel to the real world: the two had merged. The web is now the platform on which we live our lives. From this point on, the story of computing is no longer the history of a machine. It is the story of a culture – our culture – though it is barely five years old.
Bill Tancer’s job is selling intelligence to businesses. His big claim is that he is not dealing in predictions but arbitrage: he knows when the market has moved before you do because he gets his information at an earlier stage. His company, Hitwise, has access to millions of internet searches. He is the guy to go to if you want to know the number one question in America (“How to tie a tie”; the 51st question in more dapper Britain).
In Click, he describes how he honed his arbitrage skills predicting the winner of the American version of Strictly Come Dancing. Tancer noticed the high number of searches for one of the last remaining dancers and took this as a sign of interest in her dancing skills. But he failed to notice the interest came from young men searching for hot pictures of a female wrestler competitor. Since then, Tancer has learnt to pay closer attention to the trail of clicks that take internet users from one site to another and his arbitrage talents have significantly improved as a result.
The trail of connections is the key feature of the new web. This is because we are no longer consumers of product – browsing sites as we may once have browsed shops or television channels. Many of us actively produce and pass on information, thus letting everyone else know what we find interesting. Search engines such as Google rank sites by popularity and so exponentially increase the responsiveness of the web to new information. Tancer suggests only one per cent of us regularly produce content, but another nine per cent do it irregularly; for instance, older people tend to edit Wikipedia, passing on their knowledge to callow youths.
Harkin’s Cyburbia leaps off from this idea: that the new web is an endlessly responsive source of information. The word for this process is “feedback”, a term invented by the mathematician Norbert Wiener, who developed the idea while attempting to improve air defences during the blitz. Wiener began to think of the theatre of war as a single system – he saw the business of tracking bombers, plotting coordinates, and aiming anti-aircraft guns – all the while, the Luftwaffe would alter their courses in response – as part of the same big picture. Harkin argues that the maths that developed out of Wiener’s insight – known as cybernetics – now underpins the internet.
He also argues that Wiener was responsible for a cultural shift that led his followers to see feedback loops everywhere, and then develop the tools to make the loops tighter and the feedback swifter.
According to Harkin, Wiener’s earliest disciples were hippies of San Francisco and his book tracks their path from kitchen‑table publishing to huge software companies, arguing in the process that it is no accident that San Francisco is the Hollywood of computing.
By charting the story of our new lives from the London blitz to the summer of Facebook, Harkin is inclined to see the web as a kind of warfare, a place where we are twitchily avid for information, devouring it as though our lives depended on it.
If war is his starting point, it is little wonder his conclusion suggests we are all shell shocked. But Cyburbia is a persuasive book, and a brave step in thinking about the mess we may have all got ourselves into.