Reader, Come Home

Maryanne Wolf has a new book about how and why we are reading less in our distracted digital age.

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World

Her earlier book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain looked more generally at how reading affects the brain. I should confess that I bought a copy when it came out and have yet to read it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Trumping Ourselves to Death

Ezra Klein on Vox:

Since Trump was elected, the bookshelves and op-ed pages have been alive with fears of Orwellian fascism – fears that, for the most part, remain far from manifesting. But even as Orwell’s dystopia has failed to materialize, Huxley’s dystopia has: We areburied under ignorance disguised as information, confused by entertainment masquerading as news, distracted by a dizzying procession of lies and outrages and ginned-up controversies, inured to misbehavior and corruption that would’ve consumed past administrations. We have lost control of our attention, if not of our government.

It is hard to read this paragraph from Postman without feeling he is speaking specifically about us:

When Orwell wrote in his famous essay “The Politics of the English Language” that politics has become a matter of “defending the indefensible,” he was assuming that politics would remain a distinct, although corrupted, mode of discourse. His contempt was aimed at those politicians who would use sophisticated versions of the age-old arts of double-think, propaganda and deceit. That the defense of the indefensible would be conducted as a form of amusement did not occur to him. He feared the politician as deceiver, not as entertainer.

Link: Amusing ourselves to Trump (I might have gone with “Trumping ourselves to death”)

via LibrarianShipwreck

Get the book: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

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

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

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). (See update below.)

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.

Update 2018: Now (since 2014) available from University of Minnesota press, albeit with a less catchy cover.

Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History

If anyone visiting this has read it, let me know what you think.