June 26, 2014
Virtual Unreality. By Charles Seife. Viking. $26.95.
Don’t believe everything you hear. Or see. Or interact with in any way whatsoever. At least not where the Internet is concerned. That is the message of New York University journalism professor Charles Seife’s Virtual Unreality, and while it is scarcely a new message or a unique one, Seife delivers it so tellingly, so skillfully and with such a good combination of serious analysis and humor that he makes it very much worth readers’ attention. You can probably even believe what he says. Most of it, anyway.
Seife trots out a lot of the issues with which careful Internet users are already familiar: the downside of Wikipedia’s openness to its entries being edited by anyone, for example, and the ease with which the Internet makes it possible to deceive people through use of a false identity (sockpuppetry). He talks about the frequency with which people create online personas suffering from disease or disability and then make use of the outpouring of sympathy from strangers – a phenomenon now identified within psychological circles and called “‘virtual factitious disorder’ or, more snappily, ‘Munchausen by internet.’” Seife discuses dating sites, robot scammers, and the use of Twitter to gather damaging information on people (such as politicians).
He also delves into some genuinely significant and potentially worrisome societal changes wrought by the extent of our everyday interconnectedness. For example, he writes that “an audience used to be a precious and rare commodity,” using as an example the Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park in London, which provides “an opportunity to speak in front of a receptive crowd of a respectable size – a size that few speakers are dynamic and interesting enough to draw on their own.” Speakers’ Corner, though, now coexists with an audience-gathering tool far more powerful and far-reaching (literally far-reaching, across the globe): “Then came the internet. The audience problem had vanished. The internet’s vast interconnectivity made it possible for everyone to hear everyone else – and to be heard by everyone else. This is perhaps the most important and radical change wrought by digital information. …Your audience is potentially the world.”
And other changes, arguably of almost the same level of importance, abound, and Seife talks about them as well. “A digital copy, if properly done, is absolutely identical to the original – in some sense, there’s no point in talking about ‘original’ and ‘copy,’ because neither has any greater claim to authenticity. …The advent of cheap, perfect digital copies completely destroyed a number of ways we humans used to think about information. For one thing, it utterly demolished the basis for a market in goods made out of information, such as books, newspapers, movies, and recordings of music. …[The] replication barrier was fundamental…. Digital information dynamited the very foundations of the market for information goods.”
And there is more in Virtual Unreality, a short (248-page) book whose contents go way, way beyond its page count. However, it is a book, not an Internet screed. And it is one that uses the medium of print in ways that digital media cannot quite match – Seife has, for example, a “Chapter 5½.” Clearly there is still a place for ink-on-dead-trees, comparatively-difficult-to-reproduce information – a fact that is clear from the very existence of this book, although not from the arguments within it. Seife correctly points out that although information dissemination is, or can be, free and instantaneous, information itself “is expensive. It takes time and effort to uncover something unexpected and to turn that information into something that’s usable and interesting.” The ethical and moral issues of information creation and distribution are ones with which Seife has been personally involved, and he writes about them trenchantly as well as entertainingly – the latter when, for example, he discusses being asked to find out if there were any plagiarism or reuse problems in a certain writer’s work: “Why, yes. There were.”
In fact, Seife handles complex and difficult issues of the digital society with intelligence and understanding throughout Virtual Unreality, his knowledge and analytical ability making the book one absolutely worth reading. But there is a caveat here, and it has to do with the point of the book. There is always a push-pull in analytical works about societal issues between the descriptive and the prescriptive, and it is usually in the latter area – what to do about what the author describes – that social-commentary books fall short. Seife’s prescriptions, presented in an appendix aptly titled “The Top Ten Dicta of the Internet Skeptic,” make a far better effort than most to help readers cope with the problems that the book elucidates. Examples include “Everybody’s a fake. At least that’s what you should assume” and “The early bird gets the worm. The late bird gets the early bird.” These are excellent notions as far as they go, although in fact it may be better to be an Internet cynic than a mere skeptic. The real concern here, though – and perhaps Seife will address it in yet another traditionally published book, this one being his sixth – is in knowing how to be a sensible and informed “Internet consumer,” not sucked into the marketing morass of instantaneous interconnection and not victimized by rumor and innuendo and generalized misinformation, but being able to maximize the value of the most powerful communications medium we humans have yet devised. Stay tuned, as they (whoever “they” are) say. Or used to say.