Where would you like to start?
With a book by a professor at MIT called Sherry Turkle: Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, which was published in 1995. It was really one of the first academic and, even more, one of the first popular and accessible looks at how the web is transforming who we are, and how we view ourselves. Ultimately, what she postulates is that, because we’re interacting via computer-mediated communication, because this internet is in many ways a faceless medium, we use this as an opportunity to express ourselves and our identity in new ways: in ways that perhaps we’d wanted to express ourselves but, because of our being in communities and experiencing real world consequences, that we don’t. For example there was a research study done in the 1960s that identified that people will open themselves up to a stranger on a train and tell them deep personal information they would never tell their closest friends, partially because they have this sense that they can confess.
This is something that has existed throughout history, of course – like the Catholic confessional, there’s a kind of human instinct to divulge your deepest secrets – so what Turkle did was to look at some of these online communities. And in this book she created a really compelling series of arguments and stories about how these spaces are transforming how we present ourselves, and what it is we are able to do with this anonymous environment. For that reason I just absolutely fell for it – it was so unbelievably eye-opening.
Isn’t 1995 pretty early for this kind of a study?
Absolutely, although academics tend to be early adopters of new technologies, and the original internet connected academic institutions. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and even economists: anybody who was looking at human sciences really glommed on to this, and started to observe emergent community and communication experiences in these spaces, even pre-web – this is when people were using bulletin-board systems and not the nice shiny browsers that we’re using today. So people were already thinking about virtual group dynamics in this space at a very early stage. Interestingly, Turkle now seems to have fallen out of love with her old theories and when we interviewed her for The Virtual Revolution she was a lot more cynical and a lot less welcoming of many of the ideas that she presented in Life on the Screen.
Your next book?
This one’s more journalistic and more accessible, but it deals with similar things. It’s called My Tiny Life by a journalist called Julian Dibbell, who is a fascinating observer of online communities. The first chapter of this book was originally published in the Village Voice in 1993, called ‘A Rape in Cyberspace’, and it quite literally changed my life. It was his first-person perspective of how an online text-based community called LambdaMOO created what’s described as a ‘consensual hallucination’. LambdaMOO was a very early online community, just after the web started, populated initially by idealists who thought: right, we’ll reject what we have offline and create this utopian society online, and we’ll do it in a very equal and libertarian way, in which there will be no hierarchy and everyone will have a say, man. Many early adopters of the web were part of this movement, and they thought that – perhaps like people in existing offline communities like Christiania, the freetown in Copenhagen – they could create their own utopia that preached equality. ‘A Rape in Cyberspace’ documents how this idealistic society moved from being this utopian ideal into an environment in which people decided that they needed regulations, they needed rules, they needed very fixed community structures. This was inspired by a particular act one of the participants engaged in: he used a computer hack to take over the characterisations of two of the female participants who were in this space and then forced them, using his technological prowess, to ‘perform sexual acts’ on his character’s person, in a (virtual) public place.
What is documented so beautifully in this book is how actions in these online environments can have a profound emotional impact on the real, offline individual. Julian Dibbell brought to the fore the link between the individual at the computer and what was happening online. And I think this is just as relevant today with reputations being smeared across the web on Facebook or on forums. Now the outcome of this was it turned this sort of free and easy hippie ideal into a society in which everybody came along and demanded the death penalty of this character – ie, removing his account and never allowing him to come back on again – and it created these debates, and an economy came out of this, and it created a hierarchy that ultimately led to the evolution of this environment in such a way that it was never the same again. I found that such a fascinating read – it was so compulsive you couldn’t put it down. Ultimately, what it does is reflect what we are, because look at this fascinating new world: it’s full of freaks, full of people like us, and it’s an environment that we have hewn in our own image.
Isn’t it a tradition of all utopias to be destroyed from within and without?
Absolutely. What I find fascinating about the documentation of this kind of thing on the web in particular, is that we’re seeing again and again with this new technology (and with previous new technologies, like the telegraph), that anything new initially suggests we can create this new society in which we’re all equal, man, and having a big group global hug and group global consciousness. In fact, we as human beings can only bring to these spaces what it is that we’ve experienced before. There is something about us socially that demands these structures.
Tell me about Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
This is a fascinating book, published in 1996, and it’s a cyberpunk vision of a technological future, in the vein of William Gibson. The author creates an extraordinary vision of an all-encompassing virtual environment in which we will interact though avatars, but at the same time he describes the back doors, and the fact that there is a control hierarchy: there is an underworld and an overworld, as it were, of the social engineering that goes into the development of these spaces. Ultimately, the people who create them are the gods of these worlds, because they have the technological know-how and prowess, and they exploit the system for their own gain.
While it’s a work of fiction, again I think it’s relevant when you look at things like Google and Facebook, Amazon and Twitter and all of the contemporary social environments. There’s a reason why Rupert Murdoch spent such a phenomenal amount of money to buy myspace, and it’s because he then had ownership of the infrastructure, which gave him the power and the control over the hundreds of thousands of millions of people that were using his technology. That’s why I like Snow Crash so much: because it exposed that phenomenon of what they were thinking and what they do, and the pure data that they have access to. Perhaps not in an explicit way, but certainly that’s how I read it.
It’s up to the gods of these technologies whether and when to inform you what they will do with that data.
Exactly. Yet it’s so ironic, because the entire dotcom industry preaches transparency. That, in and of itself, has created a movement throughout the whole business sector where people are now demanding transparency. And yet it seems that the transparency that has changed and revolutionised the workplace and the culpability of companies is not necessarily what the people who ushered it in are themselves practising. They believe they have the right solution – we can clean it up later, but for the moment it’s the best solution. Interesting concept, but when you’re dealing with so much data – especially in the case of Google – and so much private information, it can truly become dangerous.
Your fourth book.
Neuromancer by William Gibson is the seminal cyberpunk book: it’s the thing that the web is based on. It’s a pretty typical cyberpunk story, being the one of somebody wronged, who has to jack into the mainframe to clear his name. The main characters are pretty distasteful, but because they’re part of this society that is in and of itself a dystopian environment, they’re using these technologies to make these worlds better. They create a real romance around what technology is and what technology can be, and I think that’s really stoked the fire of so many young technologists from the first generation to the most recent generation of technologists who were reinventing things and creating the web 2.0. They’re trying to do things in a very interesting way. It’s idealistic, but in a way that’s very knowing.
Your fifth book?
Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age by Duncan Watts, who until recently was at Columbia University – he’s now at Yahoo Research. Watts has been looking at the small world phenomenon to identify whether the web itself has shrunk our world, and in fact it hasn’t. That’s the lovely thing about it: we still have the same number of friends as was outlined in Stanley Milgram’s experiment in the 1950s, where he coined the term ‘small world’ and identified the six degrees of separation phenomenon. Watts has been running an experiment for the past few years: if you sign up you are given the name of somebody randomly – clear across the world or next door – and tasked with becoming connected with that person via e-mail or instant message (it all has to be online), like a treasure hunt. These online environments certainly hyperinflate the number of acquaintances you might be exposed to. Now, you would think that that would make Watts’s experiment a lot easier, that it would be easier using all of your potential weak ties to go from points a to b faster, but it’s not. We still do have those six degrees of separation, even by e-mail, with somebody who’s in, say, Brazil. When it comes down to it, ultimately we do still have the same number of friends and the same number of connections between two points in the world.
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