The Death of Cyber

I’m becoming increasingly irritated by the lack of quality of writing in newspapers these days, and specifically, newspaper supplements. I have no problem with the main reporting, but the ‘lifestyle’ sections are just awful. Maybe they’ve always been this dull and boring, or maybe my standards have been risen by culling the best of the web from Arts and Letters Daily and MeFi. Either way, it’s disappointing.

Take, for example, this excerpt from Susan Greenfield’s new book in today’s Times. Prof. Greenfield is actually a pretty good neuroscientist, but this article is quite simply pap. It sounds like it was taken from some sixth form bull session. Early in the excerpt, she says:

The biggest question is whether, in a future cyberworld, there will still be a human need for these wider, gentler and more complex feelings. Or will we all end up as though autistic, unable to empathise with anybody else, locked into a remote and numbing isolation, or trapped in a speedy, giggly cycle of endless cyber-flirting, with deeper needs and pleasures lost for ever?

Has Susan ever been on the Internet and looked at online relationships? If she had, she’d know that online relationships are often just as subtle, gentle and complex as ‘real’ relationships. Of the people who I know who have had online relationships, they’ve all met each other in real life several times and one couple in particular has married. If she wants to concentrate on the teen phenomenon of IRC sex, then fine, but she shouldn’t pretend that it is representative of all online relationships, just as teenage dating isn’t representative either. But of course, she does:

Consider that fixture of many households: the glassy-eyed, monosyllabic adolescent in deep dialogue with their screen and keyboard. They are living in a different world, where the inhabitants spend long hours surfing the net, sending text messages or playing computer games. The lives of future generations look set to revolve less around face-to-face relationships than around relationships conducted via the computer, or even with the machine itself as the direct recipient of people’s attentions.

A few things. What does Prof. Greenfield think these kids are doing online? They’re playing games and gossiping to friends. If they weren’t doing it online, they’d be doing it on the phone, but then that has the problem of only being a one-to-one communication, whereas online you can talk to dozens of people simultaneously across the world. It’s not necessarily better, but then it’s not necessarily worse. Frankly, if she wants to make absurd claims that people will just ‘talk to their computer’ or not see their friends face-to-face, then she’d better get some evidence for them.

I wonder if Prof. Greenfield, in fact, know that there are approximately zero people on the Internet who even use the word ‘cyber’ any more, except in an ironic and self-mocking sense? Clearly not. And so how can she speak with any authority whatsoever on the matter of online relationships, and even worse, get published in a leading broadsheet newspaper?

Social commentators and others seem to be fixated on self-justifying their own preconceptions and prejudices of the Internet in general by applying tired stereotypes of ‘cybersex’ and ‘glassy-eyed, monosyllabic adolescents’ without taking the time out to study the Internet properly (and when have adolescents ever not been glassy-eyed and monosyllabic?). The reason this is so, I suspect, is because they are afraid of trying to master the (admittedly sometimes difficult) technology required to study the Internet, and also because they’re afraid they could be missing something good.

Which they are.

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