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.

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.

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

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.

Galileo Goes To Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion

Galileo Interesting new book edited by historian Ronald L. Numbers: Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. From the publisher's page:

Revisiting Snow’s Two Cultures

New Scientist asked several prominent people for an update on C.P. Snow's Two Cultures: Science and Art: Still Two Cultures Divided?  I finally got around to reading Two Cultures a few months ago. What I liked best was Stefan Collini's historical introduction (which takes up about half the book and is worth the price).

Collini is the first respondent in New Scientist's article:

C. P. Snow intended to call his lecture "The Rich and
the Poor" – and regretted not doing so. This title points to what
remains valuable about the essay now. Helping the world's impoverished
majority meet their basic needs remains an obligation of richer
societies, and applied science is a vital tool.

other ways, though, Snow's lecture is superficial and misleading.
Despite its subsequent reputation, it does not make useful distinctions
between types of enquiry or discipline, making a thin contrast between
"physicists" and "literary intellectuals" (mostly modernist poets and
novelists, not scholars in the humanities). It also identified a rather
outdated element of English cultural attitudes and snobbery, rather
than a true divide between disciplines. It makes better sense to talk
of "two-hundred-and-two cultures" than of "two cultures". […]

more damaging influence of Snow's lecture has been to encourage the
prejudice that natural science is the only reliable source of
"objective" knowledge, and to support the misguided belief that science
and technology are undervalued in the UK and so should receive
preferential treatment.

Update: Seed Magazine has a similar feature about Two Cultures, but theirs is video  because Seed is all hip and youthful: Are We Beyond The Two Cultures?

Chris Hedges on Atheism, Science, and Moral Progress

Chris Hedges's When Atheism Becomes Religion* might be of interest to readers of this blog for its critique of the scientistic thinking underlying recent books about atheism by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

The book is not a defense of religion (and Hedges wrote a previous book criticizing Christian fundamentalism) but a defense of moderation. He sees these new figures as scientific utopians who have an irrational belief in moral progress and are just as dangerous as religious fundamentalists.

A quote from the last chapter:

The contemporary atheists, while many are noted scientists, are deluded products of this image-based and culturally illiterate world. They speak about religion, human progress and meaning in the impoverished language of television slogans. They play to our fears, especially of what we do not understand. Their words are sensational, fragmented and devoid of content. They appeal to our subliminal and irrational desires. They select a few facts and use them to dismiss historical, political and cultural realities. They tell us what we want to believe about ourselves. They assure us that we are good. They proclaim the violence employed in our name a virtue. They champion our ignorance as knowledge. They assure us that there is no reason to investigate other ways of being. Our way of life is the best. They indulge us in our delusional dream of human perfectibility. They tell us we will be saved by science and rationality. They tell us that humanity is moving inexorably forward. None of this is true. It defies human nature and human history. But it is what we want to believe.

*This is the title of the new paperback edition of a book published in hardcover with the too-clever title I Don't Believe in Atheists. He should have retitled his War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning while he was at it.

There's more info about Hedges at Truthdig, where he writes a column.

Polity’s Digital Media and Society Series

Dms1Dms2I'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?
  • To
    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.

Link: Digital Media and Society. The site also has a blog and some links to resources and course syllabi.

Book Notes

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.

Finally, just in time for the silliness of switching to daylight savings time this weekend, you may want to check out Michael Downing's Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time. This is a revised edition of a book that came out a few years ago at the same time as another book on the same topic by David Prerau called Seize the Daylight. I have not yet read either, but I picked up Downing's book based on the strength of a previous book of his I read (Shoes Outside The Door). There is an excerpt from Spring Forward at Downing's site.


Bruce Sterling on the idea of Google as a collective intelligence

This is not an especially new thought, but Sterling does have a way with words (correction: see link below for his actual words):

The original sin of geekdom is to think that just because you can think algorithmically and impose it on a machine that this is disembodied intelligence. That is just rules-based machine behavior. Just code being executed. Sure it's an art and science. Calling it intelligence is dehumanizing. It makes you look delusional, sad and pathetic. It's like being an old woman whose only friends are cats. Also, collective intelligence is not your friend. Just as markets aren't your friend. They'll jerk you around.

The quote paraphrase is from a speech he gave about Web 2.0, reported by Annalee Newitz at io9: Why does Bruce Sterling hate web 2.0?

Update: What Bruce Sterling actually said about Web 2.0, a transcript posted by the man himself.

The Reality of Radical Life Extension

In case this blog is seeming a bit too frivolous lately, here's a short quote from Simon Critchley's brilliant Book of Dead Philosophers, from his entry on Lucretius. (Something for Aubrey de Grey, Ray Kurzweil and other modern techno-immortalists to think about.)

To run away from death is to run away from oneself, to succumb to the desire for immortality, against which Lucretius offers a mathematical argument: the amount of time one is alive is not going to reduce the eternity of one's death:

So an unquenchable thirst for life keeps us always on the gasp. By prolonging life, we cannot subtract or whittle away one jot from the duration of our death. However many generations you may add to your store by living, there waits for you nonetheless the same eternal death.
What is a year or a decade more or less in comparison to the length of time spent dead? Viewed from the standpoint of eternity, what Spinoza calls sub specie aeternitatis, life's brevity or longevity is nothing in comparison to the eternity of our death. Moreover, this eternity is nothing to fear, but is the basis for contentment and calm.

Critchley takes as his starting point in this book the saying from Cicero, echoed by others through the ages, that "to philosophize is to learn how to die."