Book Review – Cyburbia (or a history of Cybernetics and Cyberspace)


I have to admit that picking up Cyburbia was a bit of a random act – and I almost didn’t. But if you can get past the title and bizzare introduction, this book turns out to be a rather dense, but interesting history of our online society and cybernetics.

Norbert Wiener, the originator of cybernetics, is a constant feature through the book along with a cast of other familiar people, places and online things. The famous Ebbsfleet United crowd management experiment even gets a mention.

Once you are past the introduction, the books works through a logical sequence of chapters titled The Loop, The Peer, The Tie, The Network Effect, Peer Pressure, Non-Linear, Multiplicity, Feedback and Network Failure.

As I said at the begining this book is pretty dense, so its hard to pin point a particular insight or seminal moment. As a result, I think its fair to say that there aren’t a lot of answers in this book, although the general tone is both a little sceptical whilst also being ultimately optimistic. The author, James Harkin, eventually manages to pull together his thesis into a satisfatory conclusion at the end of the book.

Its worth considering that cybernetics has its origins in Wiener’s attempts to create a better anti-aircraft gun, through the use of feedback loops. However, human-computer interaction has evolved to become much more importand and influential. Harkin’s writes in his final few pages that:


The system is certainly self-steering and running on autopilot, but only because it has us as its automations, darting around through information clouds in response to an endless stream of instruction and feedback.

Part of his point here, I think, is that we shouldn’t forget that both the message AND the medium are important. Of course, what we shouldn’t underestimate is the value of the message these new Web mediums create.

He also makes some good arguments about the strenghts, weaknesses, oppourtunties and threats of the weak ties that the Web medium enables.

I wouldn’t make this my first or only book on this topic, but I found it provided me with another perspective on the history of technology in society. As someone once said (or something similar), a nation without a history is like a man without a memory. And in the respect, Harkin has added a little more richness for me to that history.