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."

Deep Ecology founder Arne Naess has died

Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher who introduced the concept of "deep ecology" has died. (Norway Post, AP.)

His short article from 1973 in which he lays out the principles of deep ecology as contrasted with shallow ecology is online here: The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement (and probably elsewhere). Some excerpts:

The emergence of ecologists from their former relative obscurity marks
a turning point in our scientific communities. But their message is
twisted and misused. A shallow, but presently rather powerful movement,
and a deep, but less influential movement, compete for our attention. I
shall make an effort to characterize the two.

I. The Shallow Ecology movement:

Fight against pollution and resource depletion.
Central objective: the health and affluence of people in the developed countries.

II. The Deep Ecology movement:

1. Rejection of the man-in-environment image in favor the relational, total-field image. […]
2. Biospherical egalitarianism-in principle. […]
3. Principles of diversity and of symbiosis. […]
4. Anti-class posture. […]
5. Fight against pollution and resource depletion. […]
6. Complexity, not complication. […]
7. Local autonomy and decentralization. […]

See also the Foundation for Deep Ecology, which has a good summary of the movement's history.