Are you one of the 8 million who, according to Bloomberg Business Week, got a new Kindle this year? Or maybe you're a new iPad owner? Or you're using a pristine Nook? Or even just one of the e-reader programs that lets you read books on your laptop or smartphone?
Or maybe you're someone who still prefers finding the books you want at a neighborhood bookstore? Or a superstore? Or even online?
No matter who you are and how you access your reading material, 2010 is closing as a banner year for "book delivery systems." And whether your read on a backlit screen, reflective e-paper, pressed and bound dead trees, or some combination—which is how I increasingly find myself reading—we all have the same vitally important can't do without need: authors who write good books.
In other words, McLuhan be damned! Sometimes the message is what's important, not the medium. Luckily for me since failing to appreciate McLuhan's "medium is the message" message is a cardinal intellectual sin, 2010 was also a very good year for books exploring media and messages. Several authors grappled with fundamental questions of what our new information technologies are doing to us and how emerging media are changing what it means to be human.
So, in the familiar end of year spirit of list-making—and hoping to help you use your favored book delivery system–let me offer a list of my 5 best books of 2010 that asked fundamental questions about staying human in a post-human world. And by best I mean books that really stayed with me, even though they may not have been the most enjoyable or agreeable. Regardless, the following 5 stood out for me because the ideas they contain continue to roil my thoughts.
Both an architect of the digital age, widely credited with being a creator of virtual reality technologies, and a true humanist with a musical oeuvre sharing space on his web-site, in You Are Not a Gadget Lanier uses his insider's view of digital technology to frame truths too often ignored: you are not a machine, you are a person; even the coolest machine imagineable is not human, even if—maybe especially if—it is designed to make you think that it is; representations are not the same thing as that which is being represented; consciousness and relationships with each other set us apart (to hell with Cartesian doubt!).
Lanier's manifesto included my favorite new thought of the year. Riffing on the Turing Test, Lanier argued that should we in fact no longer be able to discern differences between a digital simulation of a human being and an actual, embodied other person it will not be because the technologists achieved the holy grail of building an intelligent, conscious machine. Rather, it will be because we have so degraded the meaning of what it means to be a person that we are unable to see that people are not gadgets, however complex that gadget might be.
But as you read the book—and I hope you do—never forget that Lanier loves technology. Just not in the same way he loves being human. And he does see them as potentially being in conflict. His vision is one in which we preserve human values and our creative potentials by exploiting how our tools can free what is and has always been best about being a person. In doing so he lashes himself to a radical respect for individual human minds experiencing the world and for that I stand and applaud.
Shirky has a different stance, and a different topic. He starts with the fact that we like to create and we want to share. That's right, we really aren't "couch potatoes" by nature. We just became so because of media that needed us to be passive consumers. But with new participatory digital technologies aggregating and magnifying our creative urges and propensity for social generosity we can all join in and use the resulting "cognitive surplus" for projects as different as social action crowd-sourcing (Ushahidi) or silly entertainment (LOLCats). By being online together we are contributing to a massive "cognitive surplus" that can be deployed for many different purposes.
But there is problem with Shirky's vision, an incompleteness that actually helped his ideas stick in my mind. He has so far avoided what will be his version of the couch potato problem; how, if at all, does contributing to the cognitive surplus change what we want to do and why we want to do it. The motivations for creativity and social generosity he takes for granted are not constants; our motivations will be altered, perhaps profoundly so, by participating in new media just as they were by in the old. And while the cognitive surplus just may change the social world as Shirky describes, it will also likely change the individuals who contribute to it, which is a topic Shirky ignores.
Nevertheless, the potential for a technologically enabled cognitive surplus to change the world is a compelling idea. It replaces a late capitalist ideology of bounded individualism with one of collectivist action. But unlike techno-visionaries—such as those trumpeting the glories of a post-human singularity—who reduce collective human experience to a mere network artifact, Shirky keeps the human in the post-human. And his notion of a "cognitive surplus" deserves attention even if it remains underdeveloped.
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr
In contrast to Shirky, how digital technologies change those who use it is the central topic Carr considers in his popular and exceedingly well written book. From sentence structure to phrasing to the balance he strikes between research, anecdotes and personal experience, Carr has written a gem of a book. Which is kind of ironic because his basic point is that digital technologies are ruining our ability to read. He writes that "(d)ozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning."
Carr's vision is similar to that of Maggie Jackson who's 2009 book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age is just as good although far less popular. I recommend both. Nevertheless, both books can be criticized for a bit too much hand-wringing. Neither offers much advice for how to hold onto what is best from our 6,000 year old tradition of literacy while we move into the new digital age. If the 'Net is rewiring our brains—both in the ways Carr describes and in ways that may be good for us; he has been criticized for a biased selection of research—what can we do about it? How can we help ourselves become the person and the people we want to be. By that I mean both avid tool-users and, like Lanier, humans who show a radical respect for individual human minds experiencing the world.
As indicated by his title, Powers asks the exact right question of how build a good life in the digital age. He's sensitive to the distracted shallows described by Jackson and Carr, although he's more oriented to social relationships. For Powers the big problem—told though personal anecdote and a historical survey of great thinkers such as Plato, Seneca, Shakespeare, Thoreau, and our friend McLuhan—is too much social connection and social busy-ness. Without intending to, he's describing the downside of being an active contributor to the cognitive surplus.
Unfortunately, his worth-reading book provides a not terribly interesting nor useful answer. Powers' solution to too much connection is to disconnect: take an "internet sabbath," turn off your phone, do one thing at a time, close down multiple windows. But as I've been writing, the more interesting answer to too much technology is more life, not less technology. Crafting a practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age is a much deeper, psychologically more interesting challenge than Powers' answer, an answer that boils down to the idea that one should pretend on a regular basis that one is not in the digital age. But being a techno-refusenik is not enough. Learning how to use our tools so as to better live, laugh, love, and learn is. I believe bending technology to human needs is the only way to resist technology bending humans to its' structures and processes.
If you're reading my top 5 in order (not that I'm recommending such a thing) by the time you get to Rushkoff's ten commands for the digital age, what he has called a "poetics" for digital technology, you will be on familiar territory. The biases built into the software we use and the web-sites we visit becomes for many what life feels like. For example, relationship possibilites can get circumscribed by the database categories of a social network (married, single, in a relationship, its complicated). In this way Rushkoff shares much with Lanier; our tools are accidents of the marketplace wonderfully adapted to the needs of those who make and sell them, but poorly connected to our needs.
His 10 commands includes solid advice: "Do Not Sell Your Friends," "Do Not Be 'Always On'," "You Are Never Completely Right," "Tell the Truth," and "Share, Don't Steal." But his final command is the crown jewel that also serves as his title, "Program or be Programmed." To prevent software programmed not with the humanity of the user in mind but the convenience and/or profit of the programmer—or the programmers corporate boss—from taking over one's life, Rushkoff argues we must all become programmers. In fact, he maintains that programming is the new literacy for the digital age. "Program or be Programmed" is not just his final command and his title, it is his rallying cry for living a good life in the digital age.
As much as I recommend this book as a thoughtful good read that will stay with you, I also I think the practical consequences of his solution are 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Sure, digital technologies are a fact of life, for good and bad. And of course we should not let ourselves passively become victims of the techno-biases Rushkoff charts: do not let youself be programmed. But learning to program will be the solution for only a few. More broadly what we need is to expand self-knowledge more than technical knowledge—especially knowing what we want and who we want to be. Armed with hard-fought aspirational self-knowledge we will better be able to make technology do our bidding, whether one is a programmer or a proverbial end-user. Deeper self-knowledge rather than java-script skills is, to my way of thinking, the best way not to be programmed by the built-in biases of the tools we use. While clearly one can deepen both self-knowledge and software-knowledge, I believe building a good life in the digital age will come from turning up the volume on our knowledge of ourselves more so than our tools.
Well, there you have it. My 5 books from 2010 well worth a close read. Do you have your own? Please use the comments section to, well, leave your comments!
© 2010 Todd S. Essig, All Rights Reserved