Jihad versus McWorld

BOOKS THINKERS WAR OF THE WORLDS: The Assault on Reality by Mark Slouka, Abacus pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
THE Luddites are here. Kirkpatrick Sale punctuates a lecture on the evils of computers by smashing one on stage; politicians and journalists fume over Internet porn; and now, up pops a liberal humanist handwringing about how technology is divorcing us from the real world and will lead to schizophrenics in the streets and Nazis in the academies.

Mark Slouka's warning is one of the first to come from the left. Traditionally, conservatives have mistrusted new technologies (by which Slouka means the Internet, its tributaries and Virtual Reality) because they are inherently anarchic and impossible to censor.

Slouka's critique is different. His objection to new technology is based less on its content, more on the nature of its use. The rush to wired- ness, he argues, cuts us off from the physical world we all inhabit. The proliferation of alternative electronic realities and simulacra will eventually rob us of the ability to distinguish between the real and the fake, between truth and a lie.

A consequence of interconnectedness is the submergence of individuality into what Kevin Kelly, a technoevangelist and a particular bugbear of Slouka's, has called a "mind". That, to Slouka, sounds uncomfortably like Nazism. "All the worst we've been, from the Mongol invasions to Majdanek to My Lai, we've been as groups ... The human hive, as a concept, threatens to destroy the great counterforce to these periods of mass psychosis, namely the individual's capacity to feel compassion, loyalty and love for others."

Slouka drops in on a cyberspace discussion forum, but doesn't like what he reads. Their anonymity and fluidity, blurring gender and personality ("on the Internet," runs the cartoon, "no one knows you're a dog") and reliance on text as the sole means of communication, alarm him. "Multiple personality disorders were not my idea of a good time; I'd lived the better part of my life in New York."

The rhetoric of the techno-evangelists is, in many cases, alarming. Slouka quotes Gregory Stock raving about a new "Metaman" arising as a fused gestalt of humanity, and Bruce Mazlish suggesting that mankind should eliminate animals as redundant.

But this rhetoric is also a symptom of a new technology finding a use for itself. Inventors and pioneers seldom guess accurately what their inventions will be used for: the anarchic, frontierless Internet itself began as a way for the American military to communicate after a nuclear war; even Bell thought the telephone would be used for bringing concert music into the home, something only belatedly coming true. In this transitional phase it is not surprising if those struggling to describe and thus to define something for which no vocabulary yet exists sometimes lose their verbal footing and deploy unattractive metaphors to describe the new in terms of familiar things that are not a real parallel. (Compare "horseless carriages" and "wireless telephony" as initial stabs at describing cars and radios.)

Slouka boasts of not reading science fiction, which may not hamper him in lecturing in literature at the University of California, but is a profound disqualification when it comes to writing about the culture of new technologies. If he read a bit more widely than E M Forster, whose story "The Machine Stops" forms part of his case for the prosecution, he might recognise Kelly's "hive mind" as little more than bargain-basement complexity theory souped up with a spin on Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End. This novel, which ends with the remnants of mankind fusing into a group mind and taking to the stars, was a favourite text of LSD pioneers. Now it influences the technoboosters, who have arisen from the same culture and are in some cases the same people. Timothy Leary turned on and booted up, and John Perry Barlow, one of Slouka's chief antagonists, made the long, strange trip from Grateful Dead lyricist to Republican cyberpunk.

The metaphors shaping the net come primarily not from cultural theorists, fun though Slouka has in quoting them, but from sf novels, most notably William Gibson's Neuromancer and Neal Stephen- son's Snow Crash. Both books dwell - as good science fiction always has - on the human consequences of technology and altered realities. Slouka's battle is already being fought, and fought by people who work on the electronic frontier rather than making flying visits.

Ultimately, Slouka's book is an updating of the old-fashioned drug panic. But such panics are doomed to failure if they just reiterate that drugs separate people from reality, without recognising that separation from reality is precisely the attraction. Slouka sees new technologies as a retreat from society, from face-to-face contact. But society has already retreated from face-to-face contact, because of stretched geography and diminished time; new technologies, paradoxically, allow people to claw back some connectedness from a world increasingly inimical to it.

Benjamin Barber, another American critic, has identified the two contrasting forces in the world as Jihad (the tendency to fundamentalism, nationalism and parochialism) and McWorld (the tendency towards bland homogeneity and technology). Slouka's polemic is a compellingly written and wittily argued attack on McWorld, but it ignores Jihad. The electronic frontier, at its best, is a way round real frontiers; we may spend an increasing amount of time working and relaxing there, but fears - or hopes - that it may become our home are premature.