November, 2010

Nov 10

Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman

It would not be an overstatement to say that this book, along with Postman’s other book, Technopoly, completely changed many things about how I saw the world when I first read them at Stanford. This book was an incredible insight then, in 1994, ten years after it was written, and I have to say that in 2010, it reads like a completely current account of what’s happening in our public lives today. (Owing to the time, it focuses on how television changes our culture; obviously you have to replace that with the Web, but it is amazingly modern in its insight.)

It’s got to be one of the 5 most influential books that I’ve ever read, and it’s getting better and better with age. As such, I’m going to quote here at some length, but if you haven’t read it, you should go get it, and read at least the beginning and end, as soon as you can.

Here’s the basic premise of the book:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another—slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

And this:

It is my intention in this book to show that a great media-metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense. With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd. But to avoid the possibility that my analysis will be interpreted as standard-brand academic whimpering, a kind of elitist complaint against “junk” on television, I must first explain that my focus is on epistemology, not on aesthetics or literary criticism. Indeed, I appreciate junk as much as the next fellow, and I know full well that the printing press has generated enough of it to fill the Grand Canyon to overflowing. Television is not old enough to have matched printing’s output of junk.

And this, the most important point: “My argument is limited to saying that a major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence and wisdom, and by demanding a certain kind of content—in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth-telling.”

And this:

The telegraph introduced a kind of public conversation whose form had startling characteristics: Its language was the language of headlines—sensational, fragmented, impersonal. News took the form of slogans, to be noted with excitement, to be forgotten with dispatch. Its language was also entirely discontinuous. One message had no connection to that which preceded or followed it. Each “headline” stood alone as its own context. The receiver of the news had to provide a meaning if he could. The sender was under no obligation to do so. And because of all this, the world as depicted by the telegraph began to appear unmanageable, even undecipherable. The line-by-line, sequential, continuous form of the printed page slowly began to lose its resonance as a metaphor of how knowledge was to be acquired and how the world was to be understood. “Knowing” the facts took on a new meaning, for it did not imply that one understood implications, background, or connections. Telegraphic discourse permitted no time for historical perspectives and gave no priority to the qualitative. To the telegraph, intelligence meant knowing of lots of things, not knowing about them.

And the last thing I’ll leave you with is this short idea: “…what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience.”

This is a beautiful, beautiful book. I really hope more people will read it and internalize what’s happening to our culture and discourse.

Of course, it’ll make a crappy movie, so maybe I’m hoping for too much.

Nov 10

The Half-Made World, by Felix Gilman

It’s a little hard to describe this novel — a sort of alternate history, Western, war, kinda steampunk, fantasy story, set about 120 years ago. It took a little while to gain steam, but by the 2nd half was a pretty great chase story. Not the best book I’ve read this year, but original, and fun.

Nov 10

Next Generation Democracy, by Jared Duval

I read this book on my way to the UK last week, and it really helped inform my remarks at the House of Commons. With an introduction by Tim O’Reilly, it’s a look at how open source ideas and architectures are influencing our democracy:

Thankfully, the lessons of the Internet—open standards, open-source software, and data-driven applications—are all being followed, albeit with greater or lesser focus in one project or another. (That’s true in the private sector as well.) Open APIs are being developed that will allow applications to work across the country (and eventually, internationally), rather than being bound to the systems of any one city. Projects like Code for America are working to build mechanisms for sharing code, expertise, and best practices between cities. We’re seeing new alliances between governments at the federal, state, and local levels to increase citizen services, eliminate redundancy, and reduce costs.

But it’s not all happy — he also talks about how the main focus has been on transparency and sunlight, but that that’s not nearly enough — we need to build better architectures of participation.

Yet rather than learning from its early mistakes and trying to provide for more meaningful and structured forms of public participation, the White House has since neglected the “participation” plank of the Open Government Initiative, shifting almost all of its focus to the safer realm of open data and government transparency. As the New Democrat Network has noted, the Open Government Directive “does a lot for the ‘Transparency’ part … but not much for the ‘Participation’ or ‘Collaboration’ portions … To really get the full benefit of the wisdom of the crowd, the government’s next step will have to ensure the dialogue is truly two-way.”14 Indeed, the danger that comes with focusing almost exclusively on transparency—a vital yet insufficient goal—is that we may end up seeing the failures of our government but being left with little recourse for doing anything about them. Transparency without avenues for real participation seems a bit like watching a police interrogation from behind a two-way mirror. While you can see what is going on, you have little ability to do anything if something goes wrong. And in any case, transparency has run aground as well. Abandoning his pledge to do health care around a table on C-SPAN, the president consented to a process of congressional wheeling, dealing, and capitulation to special interests, personified most by senators like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman. Once the House and the Senate finally passed their divergent bills, the White House—in a rush to sign a bill—gave its blessing to skipping the conference-committee process and conducting negotiations to reconcile the two bills in private, among Democrats alone.

Obviously, I think this book is required reading for those who hope to change our government.

Nov 10

Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick

I’ve been interested in understanding a little bit more about North Korea for a while — have read a couple of books about it that were both good (Pyongyang and North Korea: Another Country). Both were good, but very different — the first was a comic format about the author’s experiences, the 2nd was more of a historical view.

This book, by Barbara Demick, is a set of 6 oral histories of North Koreans who have defected over the last decade or so.

The writing I found a little bit dry — so it took me some time to get through — but the material is, of course, incredibly interesting and compelling. These people live lives that are unimaginable to me — I consider it a real privilege, not to mention incredibly humbling, to be able to read a bit of their remembered histories.

If you’re interested in the Hermit Kingdom, this is a view that’s worth adding.

Nov 10

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by David Sedaris

A short collection of folk tales by Sedaris — he heard some African folks tales a while back and thought to himself “I can do better than that!”

They’re modern, snarky, sometimes hilarious, often weird — pretty much what you’d expect from Sedaris.

I think I’d recommend for Sedaris fans, but probably not essential reading.