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War, Web 2.0 and the Fail Loop

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Cyburbia The Twitterings of Web 2.0 may seem a million miles from battlefield skirmishes in Lebanon, but they both have something in common. Both illustrate perils of continuous electronic feedback loops.

To most of us, the idea of being in the loop means no more than being "in the know", privy to information known only to those in a privileged inner circle; to be cut out of the loop, by contrast, was to be distanced from your colleagues and excluded from a hallowed circle of power. The general idea of being "in the loop", however, is older than you'd think.

It can be traced back seventy years to an idea called cybernetics. What the progenitors imagined was the perfect human society would see us all hitched to an electronic information loop defined by a continuous cycle of messaging and feedback among all those involved in it.

Writing in the dark shadow of the Holocaust, the American mathematician and father of cybernetics Norbert Wiener convinced himself that society was in danger of spiralling out of control; and that only by putting us into constant touch with each other could he prevent it from careering towards collapse. From there the idea passed to the media guru Marshall McLuhan in Toronto, who predicted as early as the 1960’s that a whirring electronic information loop was going to shake modern society to its foundations, tying everyone and everything together in a "new electronic interdependence." The impact of this electronic information loop coursing through all our veins, thought McLuhan, could only enhance our ability to understand one another. It would, he felt sure, precipitate the rise of a "global village" and a new era of greater responsibility and understanding.

In the late 1960's, exactly the same idea was borrowed by some hippie veterans of the counter-culture from the San Francisco Bay Area to fill the vacuum left by their radical politics.

Through cybernetics, the bohemians of the counter-culture like Stewart Brand saw a means of routing information around the control of the authorities and putting ordinary people back into direct communication with each other. Those hippies slowly morphed into electro-hippies, and many of them went on to become enormously influential in the development of the computer industry and the net in the 1970's and 1980's.

A life in the loop

Only after the collapse of the dot-com boom, however, when the huge fibre-optic information cables which had being laid in the ground to give us lightning new broadband connections to the net were abandoned by the companies which had built them, did ordinary people show any interest in spending time on online social networks. In an entirely spontaneous flight over the last seven years, millions of us have quietly migrated to a vast electronic suburb to burrow under the control of mainstream authorities and spend vast tracts of our time messaging and responding to a constant stream of information from our electronic ties.

I call this place Cyburbia. When we inhabitants of Cyburbia return there compulsively to check for updates, we are not only trying to be more efficient and more productive, but to ward off a persistent fear of falling out of the loop. But what does it really mean to spent vast quantities of our time hitched to an electronic information loop along with everyone else?

Today's breathless and very well paid internet gurus would have you believe that all this makes us and our organisations more agile, more efficient and more responsive. This isnt necessarily so.

The delivery of a continuous stream of messages might well be slowly stretching our brains, turning us into creatures who are better at doing many different things at once. Preliminary studies from neuroscientists and psychologists, however, suggest that in the meantime our brains are likely to become strained and confused if we make too many demands on them. All this is common sense but, buoyed up by fanciful cybernetic ideas about the electrifying power of information, institutions and companies are prone to forgetting it.

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