Images of tempest-tossed sharks lashing about in New Jersey swimming pools after Hurricane Sandy, stories of a New York police officer killing a baby because of an argument with the mother over breastfeeding, a video of an eagle snatching a child: just a few sensational examples of how the Internet's seductive networking power can effectively and uncomfortably blur the unreal and the real.
There's a growing sense that the virtual/real distinction is dissolving -- that these manipulations of digital space are, in fact, altering the fabric of reality and something needs to be done. But what?
Well, never fear, Charles Seife knows. A professor of journalism at New York University, author of five previous books, including Decoding the Universe and Proofiness, offers his prescription to avoid slipping into a digital dark age in Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It's True?
Seife's solution: greater media literacy -- admittedly not as sexy as cats riding dolphins, or folks being flung into the Matrix. Setting such disappointments aside, there's much to admire in Virtual Unreality. In particular, its insistence that people ought to be better schooled on using the Internet, on how the Net is being used by others, and on how digital information is different from other media and why that matters.
Seife exposes the need for such literacy by piling up cases of Internet ignorance. Chapter after chapter highlights, in friendly prose, the dark side of digital information and the ease of its manipulation and distribution, our naive use of this new medium, and the consequences of the unimaginable and incomprehensible noise of the Net.
No hater of this new communication technology, Seife uses a scare-people-straight approach to awaken the vast zombie army of tweeters, Facebookers and Googlers. While much of what Virtual Unreality has to say can be boiled down to a new media version of, "Don't believe everything you read," it does try to go a little deeper.
For instance, Seife pulls back, just a tad, the digital curtain that obscures some of the scams of the online dating industry. Here he finds a devious convergence. It's comprised of artificial women - "bots" animated by a simple but disturbingly effective artificial intelligence and fake profiles. Then, there's the seemingly space-less digital world that permits the cheap creation of a deep stable of fake eligible women to make the business profitable. And, lastly, it's easily accessible to a large, desperate pool of subscribers, mostly male, often not at their most rational.
What this example powerfully illustrates is the peculiar way this medium's digital-ness (which, among other things, permits it to take an AI form) and structure, including the interactive way it is distributed, can reshape and pervert some of the most basic human relationships.
It's Seife's hope that by reflecting upon this new digital medium in such ways and teaching others to do it too, we'll come to find a golden thread through this virtual labyrinth of unreality. If not, we'll likely find ourselves sleepwalking into a Minotaur with laser beams for eyes.
Greg Di Cresce is a Winnipeg journalist and a student of communication history.