Share this article

print logo

In “Virtual Unreality,” author provides a skeptic’s guide to the Internet

Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True?

By Charles Seife

Viking, 248 pages, $26.95

By Stephen T. Watson

News book reviewer

Reading “Virtual Unreality,” Charles Seife’s digital age “guide for the skeptic,” reminded me of a parlor game I engaged in with a colleague.

If you had to pick one answer, would you say the development of the Internet is fundamentally good, or bad, for society? Does the ability to shop online with a few clicks outweigh the ease with which hackers can steal your identity? Does connecting people with long-lost friends or relations outweigh helping stalkers track their prey?

For every website that stimulates intelligent discussion or helps someone in need find a network of support, there are dozens that traffic in the inane, the disturbing or the criminal.

In “Virtual Unreality,” Seife takes up a variation on this question, by detailing the many reasons we should be wary of our online interactions and by outlining the many ways the Internet has changed how we communicate.

Seife promises that his book is not “a Luddite screed,” but it is a pessimistic assessment of the digital age. Seife warns of the democratic anarchy of Wikipedia, the rampant use of fake identities online, the difficulty in distinguishing truth from fiction on the Internet, the Web’s tendency to expose us to information that supports what we already thought and the abusiveness of social gaming.

It’s not a narrative, and there are no central voices or fully drawn characters in the book, but Seife writes with perception, and occasional wit, and he selects telling anecdotes to make his points.

Seife is a journalism professor at New York University who has written five other books and who contributes to the New York Times, the Economist, Wired and Scientific American.

Digital data, he writes, is the “superbug of the mind,” spreading like a virus or a disease in a way that analog information never could. “For good and for ill, digital information is now the most contagious thing on the planet,” he adds.

Seife gives the examples of a scoop posted by Engadget, the technology website, on May 16, 2007, based on an internal Apple memo that indicated the release of the new iPhone would be delayed for several months. Within seconds, Apple’s stock had lost more than 2 percent of its value. Apple representatives contacted Engadget minutes later to say the memo was a fake, and the stock soon had climbed back to nearly its earlier value, but a lot of money changed hands during that time.

When Seife turns his attention to Wikipedia, he finds the spread of misinformation is a source of amusement more than financial catastrophe. He recounts the trouble that author Philip Roth had in editing the Wikipedia page for his novel, “The Human Stain,” to have it reflect what inspired him to write the book.

After much back and forth between Roth and the anonymous Wikipedia editors, the “Human Stain” page now has a section on the controversy over the page. As Seife dryly writes, “Like the mythical oozlum bird, Wikipedia seems to have the ability to fly around in ever-decreasing circles until it flies right up its own rectum.”

Seife also shows charm in writing about what he terms “artificial unintelligence,” the growing use of fake online accounts to make dating sites seem more widely used than they are, for example, or to boost a politician’s credibility by adding tens of thousands of followers to his or her Twitter feed.

Some sites employ “bimbots,” computer algorithms designed to act like horny young women while carrying on conversations with lonely and naïve men, a spin on the growing use of “chatbots” to interact with the public online.

“As with all technology, step one is to use it for the purpose it’s meant for. Step two is to try to have sex with it,” Seife writes.

One way to tell whether a Twitter user is a fake, he found, is to see whether the account touts the operator’s love of bacon. (Who knew?)

It’s one thing if a would-be Romeo is misled by a fake Juliet. But accepting false digital information as true can do real harm. Seife writes that leaders in South Africa have cited wholly inaccurate, HIV-denialist websites to justify policies that have doomed to death thousands of their countrymen. Seife concedes some of the positives wrought by the Internet, but “Virtual Unreality” paints a bleak overall picture of the digital age.

Stephen T. Watson is a News business reporter.