Book Notes

UnpluggingPhilco 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).


Kevin Kelly on Reasons to Diminish Technology

Kevin Kelly has a new post in which he attempts to summarize the views of everyone who opposes technology. Excerpt:

I believe we have a moral obligation to increase the power and presence
of technology in the world, but not everyone believes that – to put it
mildly. Many believe the opposite: that we have a moral obligation to
reduce the power and presence of technology. I want to fully understand
those arguments so I am collecting them in order to confront them as
well as I can. I am interested in valid reasons to diminish technology,
but also in mythical reasons as well. Things people believe about the
technium which may not be true, but motivate them. Here is my first
cut. Please comment on alternative reasons I missed.

I think there are four basic arguments against technology, with many
sub reasons. In summary: Technology should be reduced as much as
possible because it is contrary to nature, and/or to humanity, and/or
to technology itself and finally, because it is a type of evil and thus
is contrary to God.

[Followed by description of each of the four arguments.]

Link: The Technium: Reasons to Diminish Technology.

I left this comment:

By asking only about people who are morally opposed to technology, you exclude many important and more pragmatic critics of technology.

That said, I'll suggest a couple more, but I'll call these reasons to question technology rather than oppose it:

Contrary to productivity: adding technology is often a disruption or counter-productive to work.

Contrary to awareness: technology distracts us from living.

Addendum: Irony! It took me several tries to actually post that comment because of a buggy "captcha" system. Either that or I'm losing my mind (or am non-human) and am not reading this captcha correctly…



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.


Jonathan Franzen doesn’t want to hear your cellphone conversation

Novelist Jonathan Franzen has a good essay in the current issue of Technology Review. It's a complaint about cellphones, though it meanders into personal memoir about 9/11 and his parents (kind of an odd article to see in Technology Review). It begins:

One of the great irritations of modern technology is that when some
new development has made my life palpably worse and is continuing to
find new and different ways to bedevil it, I'm still allowed to
complain for only a year or two before the peddlers of coolness start
telling me to get over it already Grampaw–this is just the way life is

I'm not opposed to technological developments. Digital voice mail
and caller ID, which together destroyed the tyranny of the ringing
telephone, seem to me two of the truly great inventions of the late
20th century. And how I love my BlackBerry, which lets me deal with
lengthy, unwelcome e-mails in a few breathless telegraphic lines for
which the recipient is nevertheless obliged to feel grateful, because I
did it with my thumbs. And my noise-canceling headphones, on which I
can blast frequency-shifted white noise ("pink noise") that drowns out
even the most determined woofing of a neighbor's television set: I love
them. And the whole wonderful world of DVD technology and
high-definition screens, which have already spared me from so many
sticky theater floors, so many rudely whispering cinema-goers, so many
open-mouthed crunchers of popcorn: yes.

Link: "I Just Called to Say I Love You": Cellphones, sentimentality, and the decline of public space (free registration required)

Also in this issue, and also a little unusual, is a book review by Emily Gould of Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody and a new collection of Walter Benjamin writings, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. The gist of her article is: Shirky is a cheerleader, Walter Benjamin was a pessimist (and complicated). Link: "It's Not a Revolution if Nobody Loses": A new age of "technological reproducibility" is here. Ugh.

The picture at right is from a forthcoming Penguin Great Ideas edition of Benjamin's essay.

Jeff Jarvis to address internet complaints once and for all

In a post called "Sigh," Jeff Jarvis complains about the whiners:

I’m thinking of writing my Guardian column this week responding to
some because I’m tired of having to answer the same complaints over and
over. I sometimes despair at being able to advance the discussion about
the opportunities of the connected age, as someone in the room will
inevitably say: “Yes, but there are inaccuracies on the internet.” Or:
“Most people watch junk.” Or: “There are no standards.”


And then I got email for a panel discussion at NYU on Oct. 21 called
Crossing the Line, which asks these questions: “Are there any ethics on
the web?” “Should bloggers be held to journalistic standards?” “Who
makes the rules — the media, the courts or YOU?”


The implied answers, of course: The web has no ethics… Bloggers have
no standards…. The wrong people are making the rules (if there are

To hash over these weightless questions they have nothing but the
products of big, old media: David Carr of the NY Times, Liz Smith of
the NY Post, Jim Kelley of Time, Judge Andrew Napolitano of Fox News,
and Sherrese Smith, counsel for WPNI.

Mind you, just across campus, NYU has at least two of the country’s
greatest thinkers on the internet and its implications for society, Jay
Rosen and Clay Shirky. But they’re not on that panel. New York is thick
with great practitioners of new ways on the internet, but they’re not

Same old questions/objections/complaints/fears. Where is the talk of new opportunities in our new reality?

Link: Sigh.

Here is the comment I posted over there.  I confess my mood was a little cranky, but I still stand by this…

Sighing over the questions and calling them “weightless” doesn’t
answer them. Maybe they keep getting asked because the pat answers
people give (on either side) aren’t good enough and some people are
hungering for deeper analysis.

For example, asking the question “Are there any ethics on the web?”
does not imply the questioner is assuming “the web has no ethics,” just
as I assume your response is not simply “the web has ethics.” (And the
other common response, which I’ve heard Shirky give — that the web has
the best and the worst — doesn’t cut it either.)

I get your point in the first part of the post and agree with you —
it’s a disservice to you as a speaker when people don’t hear you
because they can’t think past simple/closed-minded objections. My
problem is with you dismissing the NYU panel for the same reasons. I
don’t know anything about those speakers’ qualifications, but on the
face of it the panel sounds worthwhile.

Jarvis's sigh reminds me of danah boyd's similar post a while back called feeding quasi-"legitimate" trolls in an attention economy, which I wrote about in a previous post: The Tender Ears of the Blogosphere.

By the way, I finally read The Dumbest Generation (one of those troll books) and I think Boyd is wrong — it's a serious critique that deserves attention, though I certainly don't agree 100% with Bauerlein, and I think the book's title is ridiculous.

One of the points that Bauerlein makes is that there's no funding to study really fundamental questions about technology in education like "does it work?"  Danah boyd, Clay Shirky and the Berkman Center are all doing fine and important work but a lot of it presupposes that the internet and technology are beneficial, wherever they're applied.  It bypasses fundamentals and goes straight to studying what kids are doing with the technologies, how it's empowering them, and what else technology could do for them. (For example, see this talk abstract danah boyd posted Thursday.)  It's no surprise that a lot of funding for these researchers comes from industry.  Again, I'm not saying this isn't important work, but it's not the whole story.

Update: Jarvis's promised Guardian column is now up (and is mostly straw-man silliness): Once and for all.

Nick Carr’s sources for “Is Google making us stupid?”

Nick Carr has posted a comprehensive list of sources and related readings for his Atlantic piece "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" This is excellent and worth digging into: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?": sources and notes.

As I wrote before, I think the key question is whether there is scientific evidence for these effects or not — and Carr references one study and a book (Proust and the Squid) that claim such evidence. That's the most powerful part of Carr's article, in my opinion, and I haven't seen a rebuttal that doesn't ignore it (and thus fail as a rebuttal) — to wit, the bloviating, er, debate about this article that continues at The Edge and other such forums.