The Internet Intellectual (Morozov on Jarvis)

A fairly devastating takedown of Jeff Jarvis's new book Public Parts by Evgeny Morozov (author of The Net Delusion):

http://www.tnr.com/print/article/books/magazine/96116/the-internet-intellectual (print version – should not require sign-in).

I almost feel bad for Jarvis. It seems like a solid critique, and tackles not only Jarvis but other Internet utopians (e.g. Clay Shirky), but it's perhaps a little mean-spirited.

Fukushima

A good article from the Guardian: Quiet voices must be heard to avert a future Fukushima. Some excerpts:

Japan's part-natural, part-human disaster is an extraordinary event. As well as dealing with the consequences of an earthquake and tsunami, rescuers are having to evacuate thousands of people from the danger zone around Fukushima. In addition, the country is blighted by blackouts from the shutting of 10 or more nuclear plants. It is a textbook case of how technology can increase our vulnerability through unintended side-effects.

Yet there had been early warnings from analysts. In 2006, the Japanese professor Katsuhiko Ishibashi resigned from a nuclear power advisory panel, saying that the policy of building in earthquake zones could lead to catastrophe, and that design standards for proofing them against damage were too lax. Further back, the seminal study of accidents in complex technologies was Charles Perrow's Normal Accidents, published in 1984.

Perrow, a Yale professor, analysed accidents in chemical plants, air traffic control, shipping and dams, as well as his main focus: the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Things can go wrong with design, equipment, procedures, operators, supplies and the environment. Occasionally two or more will have problems simultaneously; in a complex technology such as a nuclear plant, the potential for this is ever-present. Perrow took five pages to sketch what went wrong in the first 13 seconds of the incident. He concluded that in complex systems, "no matter how effective conventional safety devices are, there is a form of accident that is inevitable" – hence "normal accidents".

Unfortunately, such events are often made worse by the way the nuclear industry and governments handle the early stages of disasters, as they reassure us that all is fine. Some statements are well intentioned. But as things get worse, people wonder why early reassurances were issued when it is apparent that there was no basis for them. It is simply too early to say what precisely went wrong at Fukushima, and it has been surprising to see commentators speak with such speed and certainty. Most people accept that they will only ever have a rough understanding of the facts. But they instinctively ask if they can trust those in charge and wonder why governments support particular technologies so strongly.

Industry and governments need to be more straightforward with the public. The pretence of knowledge is deeply unscientific; a more humble approach where officials are frank about the unknowns would paradoxically engender greater trust. Likewise, nuclear's opponents need to adopt a measured approach. We need a fuller democratic debate about the choices we are making. Catastrophic potential needs to be a central criterion in decisions about technology. Advice from experts is useful, but the most significant questions are ethical in character.

I've had Normal Accidents on the shelf for a while and figured now was a good time to finally read it. Perrow also published a sequel that just came out in paperback last month: The Next Catastrophe: Reducing our vulnerabilities to natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters.

Alone Together

AloneTogether I just finished reading Sherry Turkle's new book, Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other (book website, Amazon) and I can't recommend it highly enough. She reports on her research into how people experience social media and social robots, and asks many important questions about where we're headed. I found the second half of the book, on social media, more compelling than the first, on robots, though Turkle's analysis does bring the two topics together nicely.

Mechanization Takes Command

MechanizationTakesCommand A classic book that is often cited in studies of the history and social impact of technology is Sigfried Giedion's 1948 Mechanization Takes Command. Lucky for us the always-excellent New York Review Books is bringing it back into print (March 2010). From the description:

Sigfried Giedion's extraordinary, encyclopedic book traces the various
ways in which, for better and for worse, mechanization has assumed
control of our lives, from modern systems of hygiene and waste
management, to agricultural production, fashion, and beyond.

Giedion's
book is not only clearly written but also eloquent and thoughtful in
its investigation of mechanization's reach and appeal, and it offers
fascinating insights into the intersection between mechanization and
the imagination, as manifested in literature and the visual arts. With
a wealth of unusual and intriguing illustrations taken from old sales
catalogues, industrial manuals, magazines, and other sources, Giedion's
book constitutes a remarkable and endlessly suggestive history of
modernity itself, as comprehensive as it is provocative and eccentric.

Link: Mechanization Takes Command.

Update (June 5 2010): looks like it's been canceled.

Michael Sandel on Genetics and Morality

"It is tempting to think that bioengineering our children and ourselves for success in a competitive society is an exercise of freedom. But changing our nature to fit the world, rather than the other way around, is actually the deepest form of disempowerment. It distracts us from reflecting critically on the world. It deadens the impulse to social and political improvement. So I say rather than bioengineer our children and ourselves to fit the world, let's instead create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and the limitations of the imperfect human beings that we are."

– From the Reith Lectures given earlier this year by Michael Sandel, quoted at Biopolitical Times blog.

Sandel's book about the ethics of genetic engineering just came out in paperback: The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.

Another from James Richardson

"That gentle, harmless drug that would make me permanently happier? I would refuse it. After all, I can't tell myself from my limits. It would be like dying for a great cause: nothing of me would be left to know what I'd done. And I am no hero."

– from Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays.

I highly recommend Richardson for anyone who likes aphorisms and prose poems. The subject matter varies widely — it just happened that a couple seemed relevant to this blog.

New Books

Some recent books I've bought or spotted:

Peepdiaries Hal Niedzviecki's The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors
looks at oversharing in the digital age. Naturally he has a blog, a twitter account, a webcam, a forthcoming documentary, and much more at the book's site.

From the book description:

We have entered the age of "peep culture": a tell-all, show-all,
know-all digital phenomenon that is dramatically altering notions of
privacy, individuality, security, and even humanity. Peep culture is
reality TV, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, over-the-counter spy
gear, blogs, chat rooms, amateur porn, surveillance technology, Dr. Phil, Borat,
cell phone photos of your drunk friend making out with her
ex-boyfriend, and more. In the age of peep, core values and rights we
once took for granted are rapidly being renegotiated, often without our
even noticing.

[…] Part travelogue, part diary, part
meditation and social history, The Peep Diaries explores a
rapidly emerging digital phenomenon that is radically changing not just
the entertainment landscape, but also the firmaments of our culture and
society.

Richard SennettCraftsman's The Craftsman, just out in paperback, seems like a broad hybrid of sociology, psychology, history, cultural studies and philosophy. I've only read a couple chapters, and while it's not the quickest read, I'm finding it compelling as it combines a lot of things I'm interested in. In the book's prologue (about half of which you can read in the Amazon preview) he says that the book is the first of a planned "Pandora" trilogy. It sounds ambitious, though he seems mightily prolific. He writes:

This is the first of three books on material culture, all related to the dangers in Pandora's casket, though each is intended to stand on its own. This book is about craftsmanship, the skill of making things well. The second volume addresses the crafting of rituals that manage aggression and zeal; the third explores the skills required in making and inhabiting sustainable environments. All three books address the issue of technique–but technique considered as a cultural issue rather than as a mindless procedure; each book is about a technique for conducting a particular way of life. The large project contains a personal paradox that I have tried to put to productive use. I am a philosophically minded writer asking questions about such matters as woodworking, military drills, or solar panels.

AndThenTheresThis Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper's and apparently the inventor of the flash mob, has a new book called And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture. From the description:

And Then There’s This is Bill Wasik’s
journey along the unexplored frontier of the twenty-first century’s
rambunctious new-media culture. He covers this world in part as a
journalist, following “buzz bands” as they rise and fall in the online
music scene, visiting with viral marketers and political trendsetters
and online provocateurs. But he also wades in as a participant,
conducting his own hilarious experiments: an e-mail fad (which turned
into the worldwide “flash mob” sensation), a viral website in a
monthlong competition, a fake blog that attempts to create “antibuzz,”
and more. He doesn’t always get the results he expected, but he tries
to make sense of his data by surveying what real social science
experiments have taught us about the effects of distraction,
stimulation, and crowd behavior on the human mind. Part report, part
memoir, part manifesto, part deconstruction of a decade, And Then There’s This captures better than any other book the way technology is transforming our culture.

AtLeastInTheCity Wade Rouse's (third) memoir At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life tells the story of his trying to become a self-described “modern-day Thoreau.” Sounds fairly amusing, and I like the cover.

In a slightly similar vein is One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World by Gordon Hempton. Hempton is an "acoustic ecologist" and writes about his experiences recording the quietest places in the country. The book comes with a CD and is an outgrowth of the One Square Inch project, which seeks to preserve a quiet space in Olympic National Park.