Alone in an alien landscape

War of the World
February 9, 1996

In the original War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells's invading Martians soon died because they could not cope with the unfamiliar infectious diseases of Earth. But the dangers that Mark Slouka warns of in this book are likely to be more persistent.

Slouka thinks that there is a severe problem with cyberspace. And the danger he identifies is an insidious one. He thinks that it corrodes our sense of the real, and with it our own identity.

Slouka, who teaches at the University of California at San Diego, seems to have little objection to technologies such as email and Web page services springing up by the thousand across cyberspace. But he has little time for the computer as a time-saver or as a helpful and intuitive addition to the tools available to mankind. His objections centre upon virtual reality, game and role playing systems, and image manipulation and other techniques which threaten to blur the line between the real world and the virtual one. At a time when genetic engineers are attacking the boundary between natural and created life, these reservations demand attention.

At one level, Slouka risks being bracketed with the cultural critics who claim that TV murders encourage real ones. However, Slouka's objections to the developing world of unreality are more substantial than those of Clifford Stoll in his recent Silicon Snake Oil. Stoll objects that the Internet has been oversold and that it is a terrific time-waster. By contrast, Slouka, whose subtitle is "The assault on reality," says that the new virtual world is all too effective. He has spent time with its citizens to prove his point.

Many of the things Slouka regards as dangerous are already commonplace, including television and the telephone. Nobody now mentions the disorientation that early telephone users experienced. The computer - which Slouka sees as a "deluxe copying machine, increasingly capable of imitating certain aspects of our lives" - makes things far worse, especially in the hands of triumphalists who regard reality as dull and detest the limits of space and time that it involves. (Some of Slouka's best bits are the self-incriminating comments of such folk, by turns infuriating and hilarious.) Upon taking up his mosquito netting, quinine and solar topi to venture among the denizens of the virtual world, Slouka found plenty of evidence for his theory that they are stupid, sinister and just plain maladjusted in equal measure. Touring bulletin boards dedicated to nuclear attacks on Europe, skinheads, diaper fetishes and unclothed women (even in the virtual world, gentlemen seem to prefer blondes), he decided that most were about as much fun as "a telephone book left in the rain".

Beyond this lies the target at which Slouka's severest ire is directed: virtual worlds in which people choose to spend an increasing amount of time and which, for many, are more homely than the physical world most of us enjoy.

The real danger is not that a few odd folk enjoy this sort of thing, but that large corporations have decided that money can be made by tempting the rest of us to go there too. There is a "potential $3.5 trillion market" in equipment, communications, software, games and all the rest, and the bulk of the money is to come from consumers.

Slouka completes his case with a plea for "essentialism", in which the joys of real cities and wildernesses, and of real meetings with real people, are stressed. This may be vital for our own sanity. E. O. Wilson, the biologist, points out that the human brain has evolved over millennia to cope with the physical world we inhabit. Its guarantees are void if we transplant it to a software universe.

Slouka's views are well worth a look, and he sets them out with some style. But for this reviewer, it is astonishing to find an educated academic setting out this thesis without referring to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Published in 1932, it describes an existence in which reality is abolished for most people, and where folk are baffled by the idea of leisure in which no equipment is used and no money spent. Huxley would doubtless have joined Slouka's campaign: you can do so yourself by turning that computer off and taking a stroll with a friend instead.

War of the World

Author - Mark Slouka
ISBN - 0 349 10785 8
Publisher - Abacus
Price - £9.99
Pages - 174

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