James Harkin: No escape from the electronic loop

The intensity of our involvement with everyone else has created a new fear

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The Devil comes in many forms, and knows how to keep up with the times. Thankfully, so do the other side. Only a few months ago the Pope was using his channel on YouTube to warn against our "obsessive" use of mobile phones and the net. This week came the news that senior Italian Catholic clerics are urging their flocks to give up texting, Facebook and Twitter for Lent.

Whatever its failings, the Holy See knows a thing or two about moral weakness. There is now plenty of scope for temptation. More than half of the world's population, according to a UN report published earlier this week, now use mobile phones. This should be cause for celebration, especially in the developing countries where mobiles can leapfrog inadequate infrastructure and jump-start economic development.

Being in constant touch with each other can have human advantages, too. On Tuesday, the search for two missing snowboarders in the Swiss Alps was assisted by Twitter and then played out live among its users; information about the pair culled from the social networking service helped to save one of their lives.

The intensity of our involvement in electronic media, the Pope should know, can pay moral dividends too. The phenomenal rise of social networking operations like Facebook, a panel of American experts reported early in 2008, perfectly mirrored a correspondingly downward turn in people ogling online pornography.

When Facebook encountered problems with its server and become unusable for a short period in 2007, there was a correspondingly large spike in the numbers visiting porn sites. The only conclusion to be drawn was that people, and especially young people, were usually too busy ogling each other and sending messages to each other online to want to get off.

This is all very well, but what about the dangers of being in constant electronic touch with each other? The intellectual architects of our world of continuous electronic communication – media gurus like Marshall McLuhan - believed in the power of electronic communication with an almost religious fervour. Our new electronic ties, they felt sure, were going to propel us into a higher state of spiritual communion. With a bit of luck they might even precipitate the rise of a "global village" and a new era of greater responsibility and understanding.

One can't help noticing, however, that this place hasn't turned out as they imagined. We humans have always been a little nosy, and prone to showing off. Now, however, the intensity of our involvement with everyone else on this continuous electronic information loop are magnified out of all proportion. When we are moved to fire off a never-ending stream of status updates to tell our electronic ties where we are or what we are doing ("James is writing an article at home"), we do so to ward off a persistent fear of falling out of this loop.

It is easy, however, to become snagged in this continuous information loop rather than turning it to our own advantage. In staring out the window on to Cyburbia, the danger is that we might spend so much time following other people on Twitter, or checking their updates on Facebook, that we don't get around to doing anything original on our own. And that really would be a sin.

James Harkin's Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea That's Changing How We Live and Who We Are is published by Little, Brown


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