BY TOM ODHIAMBO
There is no escaping the cyberspace for humanity today. This is a truism. Too many people are already imprisoned by the Net. They may know or they may not. But the fact is that the cyberspace has almost become human beings’ second nature.
But with what consequences? If we set aside all the good that being online has brought humanity, do we understand where it is leading us? Do parents know what their children are doing in the cyberspace? Do even adults who spend most of their time browsing on the net or chatting with ‘friends’ or visiting online spaces that they have just discovered know where it will most likely end?
Of course there are thousands of studies out there on the dangers of the cyberspace. There are even online spaces and communities dedicated to aid individuals addicted to the cyberspace. They address some of the insidious consequences of the cyberspace include bullying, especially of young people; identity theft; production of fake news; spreading of propaganda and prejudice by extremist groups etc. Yet this is the obvious aspect of the cyberspace.
But what about what Mark Slouka identified over two and a half decades ago in his book War of the World: Cyberspace and the High-tech Assault on Reality? (BasicBooks, 1995) Slouka notes that the cyberspace has significantly altered reality and created a completely new world, different from what human beings have always known since creation or evolution, whichever you believe in. He highlights the way the cyberspace has altered the social, cultural, spiritual, personal or communal realities of our lives.
Technology always ruptures nature and culture. Today the cellphone is doing what the TV has done for years but on an unprecedented scale. The TV brought all manners of ‘other’ worlds into people’s lives. It created TV series that punctured people’s received wisdoms and taught them new ideas and practices. There are many people today whose whole lives have been built on what they saw on TV – they eat, dress, talk, love and relate to others as they had seen on TV. The cellphone broke up the ‘communal’ nature of the TV and now retails even more complex ideas and practices to the owner of the handset. On a different level, the cellphone’s multi-functionality means that it educates, entertains, informs or misinforms but it has practically ‘embedded’ itself into the human self.
The cellphone is now the easiest door to the cyberspace. The android operating system has made the cellphone a miracle maker. Millions of people no longer need the computer to access the cyberspace. They simply need a charged phone, with data to access the internet. Once one is online, a whole new world is activated, with unfettered access. It is this world that has altered identities. Often the person you know in ‘real life’ is totally unrecognizable in the cyberspace.
They can alter their physical features, create new social characteristics, and pose as someone else all their lifetime in the cyberspace. Their new identity on the Net is often described by scholars as disembodied – they don’t exist physically, even if they are in an identifiable place. What does this mean to the individual and the community? It means several things. Is there a moral code in this world? Are these individuals legally bound for their actions as they may in real life? What does it cost to ‘hang out’ in the cyberspace?
Slouka argues that the cyberists care the less in their ‘assault on place.’ The cyberspace is their new kingdom. Some of them see themselves as new deities. They have left the physical world behind. The world they have created is unrecognizable to the ordinary or uninitiated person. This is not science fiction. It is fantasy, right, but it is ‘real’ in the sense that the computer or the tablet or the cellphone once switched on transports the user into a cyberspace, beyond nature and culture; beyond the feeling of touch. It produces a different kind of sensibility; one that is often only felt individually and may not be replicated. So, place – the physical room, desk, garden etc – loses its corporeal sense.
The scariest aspect of the cyberspace is what Slouka calls ‘assault on reality.’ In the cyberspace, a new reality is born, removed from what we are used to. Think about what Photoshop can and does? What is the effect of digital manipulation of images, for instance? What are the consequences of creating ‘almost’ real forgeries? Isn’t exponential growth in ‘fake news’ a consequence of the workings of the cyberspace? The cyberspace enables complex manipulation of data, such that it can instantly create parallel worlds. In such cases the uninitiated can’t differentiate between what is real and what is not. If this happens, then it becomes difficult to make rational decisions. What dangers does such a state of affairs portend for humanity?
If there is an assault on reality, what happens to the community? What happens to the social world that connects individuals and make communal life possible, even in the most individualistic of places? It means that human beings might end up being swallowed by the Net. If the cyberists do establish their kingdom here on earth, what kind of new world will it be? What new tools, ken and skills will humanity need? Will humanity still be able to call itself ‘humanity’ once it is dissociated from its social beingness? Will the old morality, which binds millions of people together today still apply in a cyber-world where algorithms, robots, artificial intelligence rule?
The questions above are worth asking, not for any futuristic reason, but because the reality of the cyberspace is upon us. It already determines the way we live individually and communally. It affects what, when and how we eat; how and who we love; how we bear and rear children; how we worship, trade, politic, socialize etc. It is a reality that perhaps challenges the very existence of humanity in ways that it has never been tested. What to do in such a situation?
Writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi