On The Media had a good interview this weekend with John McIntyre, a former newspaper copy editor, and one of many who have lost their jobs recently due to budget cuts. He talks about the increase in errors and reader complaints at newspapers as a result of the layoffs.
One reason they're are among the first to go is that their work is less visible than that of, say, reporters. Another reason is that, on the Internet, readers just "don't expect things to be accurate or very well done and therefore they are used to tolerating a much higher level of shoddy work and a much greater volume of errors, and therefore you can sacrifice quality on the web and it doesn't mean that much." McIntyre points out that the work of copy editors is much more than just fixing typos, though, and has caught cases of plagiarism, falsification, and libel.
I've got a spare copy of the latest issue of Dispatches that I will mail to anyone interested (just email me your address -- US only, please). This is volume 1, issue 4 with the theme "out of poverty" (table of contents).
Dispatches is a quarterly political/cultural journal with long-form articles that launched last year with headlines like "Dispatches magazine prefers print over Internet" (see previous post). That was enough to warm luddite hearts like mine, so I gave them a try and bought a subscription. I read the first issue all the way through and I liked it, but I'm probably not going to renew. I appreciate what they're trying to do, but it's pricey at $100/year and they seem to have big distribution problems (issue 2 didn't get sent to some or all subscribers, including me, and everybody apparently got two copies of issue 4, thus the giveaway). I also just have way too much other print piling up to read.
My wavering support notwithstanding, I do like that there are magazines like Dispatches and Lapham's Quarterly keeping high quality nonfiction alive in print magazine form (if only barely).
Nicholas Carr wrote a very funny piece (Tim Writes a Book) about Tim O'Reilly's new simplified book for the twitter set called The Twitter Book. O'Reilly has said it "reinvents the book in the age of the web" by omitting such troubling things as "a sustained narrative." This book does sound silly and a bit pointless, but to his credit, O'Reilly has also published Steve Talbott's thoughtful critiques of technology (and they're nothing if not sustained narratives), so maybe it balances out.
Meanwhile, in that alternate reality where people still read complicated works of fiction, Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas puts out a call not just for more readers but for new, active "readers of talent":
"In the flames of this dream of mortgages and the golden calf of the
gothic novel, the stupid legend of the passive reader was forged. This
monster’s fall is giving way to the reappearance of the reader of
talent, and the terms of the moral contract between author and the
public are being reframed. Those writers breathe once more who are
desperate for an active reader, for a reader open enough to permit into
her mind the figure of a conscience radically different from her own."
If you read Spanish (I don't) you can follow that link to the whole column. Two of Vila-Matas's books are available in English and I highly recommend them. I liked Bartleby & Co. so much I accidentally bought it twice.
Jim Knipfel's Unplugging Philco
is a great little Vonnegut-esque scifi novel set in an America where surveillance technology and terrorism paranoia have reached extremes following an event referred to as "The Horribleness." The protagonist is Wally Philco who starts to rebel against the technology of the system and ends up working with a gang of "Unpluggers" who quote Ned Ludd and plan a revolution. The humor is a bit cheesy so don't expect high art, but it's still worth your time.
Novelist Mark Helprin wrote a provocative op-ed two years ago in the New York Times called A Great Idea Lives Forever, Shouldn't Its Copyright? (An inaccurate title, for which he blames the Times editors, as he says he never endorsed the idea of perpetual copyright.) That article provoked "three quarters of a million nasty comments" and he has now published a book called Digital Barbarism: A Writer's Manifesto that is sure to provoke plenty more. NPR featured a short interview with him today as well as a response by Lawrence Lessig: 'Digital Barbarism' wages Online Copyright Battle. I just picked the book up so I don't yet have an opinion on it... I'm sympathetic to the basic argument, I think (that copyright is important but it shouldn't be forever, and that "free culture" is problematic).
This new book by James Harkin sounds interesting. From the cover blurb:
The early twentieth century saw the slow but steady exodus of the
population from inner cities to the suburbs. We are currently
witnessing a similar transformation as our new century establishes
itself, but in an entirely different realm. As new technologies
proliferate — personal computers, the communication gadgetry of mobile
devices and access to the internet — our culture is participating in a
mass electronic migration. James Harkin christens this destination to
“Cyburbia” — the ether of “online,” where we spend so much of our
Once upon a time there were no text messaging, no
e-mail and no social networking sites like Facebook, Bebo, Twitter and
MySpace. The introduction of these new forums for communication has
radically transformed the way that we live — and we can only guess what
will come next. Innovative and extremely timely, Lost in Cyburbia
describes the architecture of our digital life, how it has developed
over the past seventy years and how it will evolve in the future. The
narrative recounts how the theories of Norbert Weiner (the inventor of
cybernetics) and Marshall McLuhan inspired the counterculture radicals
in the sixties and seventies, and traces how their pioneering
idealistic and theoretical work laid the groundwork for a system whose
central idea is bringing about direct communication between peers,
outside the reach of authority.
Harkin explores what it means
to be in the loop — and our obsession with instant access to
information and how it is shared over networks — and considers what has
been lost and what has been gained. Are we more connected than ever
before or more isolated? Have our thinking processes been forever
altered? Is the democratic nature of the net slowly being eroded by
corporate interests? Or, as once hoped, will the net enable the
awakening of a new kind of global consciousness?
From the you've-gotta-be-kidding department (aka is it April Fools already?): The Guardian reports that a new plan for the UK school curriculum will add twitter and Wikipedia and drop the requirement to study Victorian history and WWII. Excerpt:
Children will no longer have to study the Victorians or the second
world war under proposals to overhaul the primary school curriculum,
the Guardian has learned.
However, the draft plans will require children to master Twitter and Wikipedia and give teachers far more freedom to decide what youngsters should be concentrating on in classes.
proposed curriculum, which would mark the biggest change to primary
schooling in a decade, strips away hundreds of specifications about the
scientific, geographical and historical knowledge pupils must
accumulate before they are 11 to allow schools greater flexibility in what they teach.
emphasises traditional areas of learning - including phonics, the
chronology of history and mental arithmetic - but includes more modern
media and web-based skills as well as a greater focus on environmental
The plans have been drawn up by Sir Jim Rose, the
former Ofsted chief who was appointed by ministers to overhaul the
primary school curriculum, and are due to be published next month.
Is twitter really that hard to learn? From personal experience, I'd say: Hard to learn? no. Hard to understand the point of? maybe.
I signed up recently (karthur), mostly because it seems like a lot of interesting people whose blogs I read are now posting there instead (particularly in the design/UX world I follow for work-related stuff). I don't know if I'll start tweeting much myself.
The experience has been interesting so far, and slightly useful. It's a quicker way to keep up with the buzz in the webosphere than by trying to follow the 300+ blogs I've subscribed to in Google Reader. I feel like I'd have to be constantly connected to really get it, though, instead of just reading it once or twice a day like I'm doing. The format is a little unfriendly -- so many blind tiny-urls!
Bioethical dilemmas—including those over genetic
screening, compulsory vaccination, and abortion—have been the subject
of ongoing debates in the media, among the public, and in professional
and academic communities. But the paramount bioethical issue in an age
of digital technology and new media, Joanna Zylinska argues, is the
transformation of the very notion of life. In this provocative book,
Zylinska examines many of the ethical challenges that technology poses
to the allegedly sacrosanct idea of the human. In doing so, she goes
beyond the traditional understanding of bioethics as a matter for moral
philosophy and medicine to propose a new "ethics of life" rooted in the
relationship between the human and the nonhuman (both animals and
machines) that new technology prompts us to develop.
After a detailed discussion of the classical theoretical perspectives
on bioethics, Zylinska describes three cases of "bioethics in action,"
through which the concepts of "the human," "animal," and "life" are
being redefined: the reconfiguration of bodily identity by plastic
surgery in a TV makeover show; the reduction of the body to
two-dimensional genetic code; and the use of biological material in
such examples of "bioart" as Eduardo Kac's infamous fluorescent green
Zylinska addresses ethics from the interdisciplinary perspective of
media and cultural studies, drawing on the writings of thinkers from
Agamben and Foucault to Haraway and Hayles. Taking theoretical
inspiration in particular from the philosophy of alterity as developed
by Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Bernard Stiegler, Zylinska
makes the case for a new nonsystemic, nonhierarchical bioethics that
encompasses the kinship of humans, animals, and machines.
I'd seen a couple of these books before but didn't realize they were part of a series. All 8 books sound excellent. Here is the blurb for the recently published Search Engine Society by Alexander Halavais:
Search engines have become a key part of our everyday lives. Yet
while much has been written about how to use search engines and how
they can be improved, there has been comparatively little exploration
of what the social and cultural effects might be. Like all
technologies, search engines exist within a larger political, cultural,
and economic environment. This volume aims to redress this balance and
to address crucial questions such as:
How have search engines changed the way we organize our thoughts about the world, and how we work?
What are the 'search engine wars', what do they portend for the future of search, and who wins or loses?
what extent does political control of search engines, or the political
influence of search engines, affect how they are used, misused, and
Does the search engine help shape our identities and interactions with others, and what implications does this have for privacy?
members of the information society must understand the social contexts
in which search engines have been developed, what that development says
about us as a society, and the role of the search engine in the global
information environment. This book provides the perfect starting point.
It's been a while since I did a book post here. Here are a few newish books I think are worth your time.
My pick for best book of 2008 is Maggie Jackson's Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Jackson's main topic is attention, but the book is about much more than that. She surveys the impact of technology on modern society from a wide variety of angles and sources, including science, literature, philosophy, and personal interviews. The style is more journalism than popular science, which seems to have disappointed some of the Amazon reviewers. If you liked the style of Bill McKibben's Enough then you'll probably like this one.
According to Jackson's website the book is coming out in paperback in September.
My pick for best book of 2009 (so far) is the second edition of Hubert Dreyfus's On The Internet. I wrote about the first edition (published in 2001) previously. A lot has changed since then and it shows in this heavy revision. Dreyfus's previous pessimism about whether search will ever work on the Internet is largely gone now, thanks to the success of Google. The book's second topic, distance learning, is less hyped these days so Dreyfus devotes less attention here to debunking it. In new material he describes his positive experiences with podcasting lectures via iTunesU and his not-so-positive experience lecturing in Second Life. For Dreyfus, embodiment is vital to experience, and his critique of Second Life and telepresence in general follows that argument, using ideas from Heidegger and existentialist philosophers.
On The Internet is part of Routledge's Thinking In Action series of books applying philosophy to contemporary topics. Hubert Dreyfus is one of the foremost philosophers of technology and also possibly the world's leading expert on Heidegger. If you ever decide to tackle Being and Time, as I am thinking of doing this year, then check out Dreyfus's Heidegger course on iTunes. It's probably my only hope of halfway understanding that book.
"Reading this beautifully written and extraordinarily diverse work
today is what it must have been like to know or read Jefferson then.
Post has crafted an experience in understanding that allows us to
glimpse the genius that Jefferson was, and to leave the book astonished
by the talent this extraordinary writer is."
Back in October I read an article of Lessig's that I believe was excerpted from his new book, Remix (Tom Slee has a good review of it at his blog). The article was called In Defense of Piracy, though it never really offered one. I read the article twice with the intention of writing something about it here (but never managed to). One of the points I wanted to make was that for a lawyer, Lessig is surprisingly vague and muddy in his writing.
Is this fair or even relevant? I think so. It means something when the spokesman for a new culture is such a bad writer. And I don't claim to be any kind of prose master, but I don't think that's a prerequisite for criticism.
Some Canadians are upset that the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, a sort of practice dictionary for seven-year-olds, has dropped several words from nature in favor of tech terms. From the Canadian Press:
VANCOUVER — A B.C. environmental group is
flabbergasted that the publisher of the Oxford Junior Dictionary has
sent words like “beaver” and “dandelion” the way of the dodo bird.
In the latest version of its dictionary for schoolchildren, Oxford
University Press has cut nature terms such as heron, magpie, otter,
acorn, clover, ivy, sycamore, willow and blackberry.
In their place, the university publishing house has substituted
more modern terms, like the electronic Blackberry, blog, MP3 player,
voicemail and broadband.
Canadian wildlife artist and conservationist Robert Bateman, whose
Get to Know Program has been inspiring children to go outdoors and “get
to know” their wild neighbours for more than a decade, said the
decision is telling kids that nature just isn't that important.
“This is another nail in the coffin of human beings being
acquainted with nature,” Mr. Bateman said in an interview with The
“If you can't name things, how can you love them? And if you don't
love them, then you're not going to care a hoot about protecting them
or voting for issues that would protect them.”
“I don't want to sound like an old you-know-what, but I have a
feeling that quite a number of decisions are made by 20-somethings or
30-somethings,” he said. “There are a whole bunch of them out there who
were raised on Saturday morning cartoons and video games and not out in
Mr. Bateman plans to fire off a letter to the university press brass in protest.
“I find it frightening what is happening, that people are losing a connection with nature,” he said.