Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, January 31, 2011

river maps

The Mississippi river system as an Underground-style map. More info here; thanks to Matt Frost for the tip.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


As I mentioned the other day, the Shirky/Doctorow thesis is that the internet in general and social media in particular tend to generate political freedom; the Evgeny Morozov thesis is that those media tend to enable governmental surveillance and control of protestors and dissidents.

My question is: why are we so determined to speak in these essentialist terms? Maybe the most significant change in my thinking over the past twenty years is a deepening suspicion of generalizations. “To Generalize is to be an Idiot,” wrote William Blake; “To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” The internet is new; social media are even newer; both are vastly dispersed throughout the global social order. Moreover, the internet is not just one thing, it’s ten million things; and different social media have different purposes, different architectures, different sets of users.

So when Clay Shirky says, “social media . . . helps [sic] angry people coordinate their actions,” I don't know how we would even figure out whether a statement that broad is true. Which social media? Which actions? In which societies? Presumably when people connect with each other they won't always agree, so how do we know that some social media, anyway, don't exacerbate conflicts? Maybe some people in some societies would coordinate better if they met face to face. Maybe, though there are certainly dangers in meeting face to face, there may be just as many dangers in coordinating via social media, depending on how careful the users are and how technologically sophisticated the oppressors are.

Statements as broad as Shirky’s are close to useless. Here’s a post that shows how fruitless and abstract such debates can be, even when they start by focusing on a single country’s situation — the impulse to generalize is just too strong.

The only way to make any progress in thinking about these matters is to “Particularize” and to keep particularizing. So maybe we should start by asking questions along these lines: What social media played a role in the recent political upheavals in Tunisia, and what role did they play? How many Tunisians use social media, which ones do they use, and how do they use them? How many Egyptians were aware of the Tunisian situation, and how did they become aware? How did their media present the Tunisian situation to them? What media have they relied on, if any, in the days since January 25th? Is there even one Egyptian answer to these questions, or do we need to distinguish between Cairo and Alexandria, between the cities and the outlying areas — and among various social classes? Even these questions are broad, but they stand a chance of getting us somewhere.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (final installment)

Let me conclude these posts on Winner’s book by looking at its third and last section, “Excess and Limit.” Winner’s approach throughout the book has been to pursue (as the book’s subtitle has it) “a search for limits in an age of high technology”; his assumption throughout has been that limits on technology are indeed needed, and needed for the health of the body politic. (I am not sure that he ever argues for this assumption with the clarity and force that he needs to.)

So if we need, at least sometimes, to be able to set limits to technological development, what criteria should we employ to guide us? It is typical, Winner explains, for us to invoke the concept of risk, and to argue that we should avoid unnecessarily hazardous risks. Winner doesn't like this because he thinks — I’m going to have to oversimplify here — the language of risk often masks deeper and more serious concerns. What kind of risk? What is being risked? Who is experiencing risk? Ask these questions and you open the door to much deeper matters of social inequality and injustice.

Perhaps then we should speak of the right technology as that most in keeping with “nature.” Alas, Winner concludes, that won't work either: the invocation of “nature” is incoherent and overly limiting. So how about speaking in terms of the best “values”? “Let us not waste time with ‘values.’ When you knock on that door, however loudly, no one answers.”

This brings us to the last chapter, in which Winner reflects on his own California upbringing and the construction, near his childhood home, of the Diablo Canyon Reactor. To the presence of this massive power plant in a magnificent coastal setting, Winner responds:

To put the matter bluntly, in that place, on that beach, against those rocks, mountains, sands, and seas, the power plant at Diablo Canyon is simply a hideous mistake. It is out of place, out of proportion, out of reason. It stands as a permanent insult to its natural and cultural surroundings. The thing should never have been put there, regardless of what the most elegant cost/benefit, risk/benefit calculations may have shown. Its presence is a tribute to those who cherish power and profit over everything in nature and our common humanity.

I’m inclined to agree. But it is not at all clear, here at the end of The Whale and the Reactor, what Winner thinks should be done about this situation. He passionately believes — and I sympathize strongly with this sentiment — that it simply ought to be obvious to everyone that there’s something profoundly inappropriate, indecorous, offensive about placing a power plant in such a setting. But it wasn’t obvious. The plant got built, and the protests against its construction have largely been forgotten.

Thus Winner’s concern for restoring our political culture: he wants the American people to be formed, intellectually and morally, in such a way that what should be obvious to them is obvious — so that a project like the Diablo Canyon plant would be a political non-starter. But even if one agrees completely with Winner that that is indeed a consummation devoutly to be wished, I don't see how The Whale and the Reactor gets us any closer to figuring out how to make that happen. A convincing case for technological limits, and the right technological limits, remains to be made.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (8)

It was a remarkable experience to read Winner’s sixth chapter, “Mythinformation,” in the light of some recent online debates. Continuing his attempt to think in a seriously political way about technology, Winner is here concerned with the technological uses of the language of revolution:

It seems all but impossible for computer enthusiasts to examine critically the ends that might guide the world-shaking developments they anticipate. They employ the metaphor of revolution for one purpose only — to suggest a dramatic upheaval, one that people ought to welcome as good news. . . .

If technophiles were to consider the “computer revolution” in light of “social upheavals of the past,” especially those caused by the Industrial Revolution, then they might be able to think more seriously about their own language and its political implications. But, Winner says, “a consistently ahistorical viewpoint prevails. What one often finds emphasized, however, is a vision of drastically altered social and political conditions, a future upheld as both desirable and, in all likelihood, inevitable.”

Well, some of this hasn't changed at all in the past twenty-five years. Celebrants of technology still aren't very historically aware, they still emphasize the inevitability of technological development, they still see it almost wholly as progressive.

But the political implications of technology are getting more serious and thoughtful consideration these days, and that may well lead to deeper conversations on other fronts. Just consider the vigorous and fascinating debate going on right now between Evgeny Morozov and Cory Doctorow. Morozov’s new book The Net Delusion offers an exceptionally strong critique of the common belief that social media promote freedom and democracy; that argument has been getting some equally strong pushback from, among others, Doctorow, whose longest and most thoughtful response may be found here.

This is a debate I may have more to say about later, but for now let me just note that if Langdon Winner wanted serious debates about the political implications of technology, we’re getting just such a debate now, though focused perhaps too narrowly on the role of social media. But couple that with the recent Wikileaks debate . . . we’re getting somewhere.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (7)

The idea that Reagan Ruined Everything seems to dominate, silently, the next chapter, “Decentralization Clarified.” I take this passage from its last paragraph to be its central idea:

In Kropotkin’s of G. D. H. Cole’s time it was still possible to imagine an entire modern social order based upon small-scale, directly democratic, widely dispersed centers of authority. Industrial society had not yet achieved its mature form; it was thinkable that decentralist alternatives might be feasible alternatives on a broad scale. Today, however, ideas of decentralization usually play a much different role, an expression of the faint hope one may still create institutions here and there that allow ordinary folks some small measure of autonomy.

A melancholy statement, and one that is truer now than when Winner wrote it. After all, it was about halfway between the writing of this book and out own moment when Scott McNealy told us, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

Which in alternate moments makes me want to give up and makes me want to renew my determination to escape from Google. Ah, my early and innocent determination, how beautiful it was — and how distant it now seems. . . .

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

books owned and leased

Tim Spalding:

We used to own our books. With most ebooks we own them in name, but effectively we lease them. As Jane documents, the slide toward more and more attenuated concepts of ownership continues.

The process is gradual. Mental models change slower than technology. If the Kindle had debuted with an access-based “faucet” model, it would have failed. Consumers would not have traded true ownership for a tethered, metered and monitored product. But we’ll get there soon enough, as each step away from ownership makes the next step more acceptable. Once you realize your Kindle book is not fully yours, you’ll accept it being mostly not yours. Google Ebooks are a further step away from ownership. Eventually you get to a faucet model, as music has done, either low-price (Netflix) or free (Pandora, YouTube).

By itself, such changes might be culturally and economically neutral. Ownership of paper books wasn’t so much a consumer preference as a side effect of their physical nature, and law followed and solemnized that state of affairs. Maybe the faucet model will produce more readers, more reading, more good books, more paid authors, etc. Or maybe it will produce less. Who knows?

Read it all, because there’s more thought-provoking stuff there. And see some useful commentary here.

The Whale and the Reactor (6)

Winner’s chapter “Building a Better Mousetrap” contains a wonderful brief history of “appropriate technology” movements — especially since the rise of the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1960s. It is as a history that the chapter is best read, because Winner’s summary of these fascinating movements ends with this ludicrous statement:

The demise of appropriate technology as a living social movement can be dated almost to the hour and minute. It occurred early in the evening of Tuesday, November 4, 1980, when it became clear that Ronald Reagan had been elected President of the United States. That event signaled the end of a favorable climate of opinion for public discussions of energy policy, energy conservation, and alternative energy technologies that had characterized the presidency of Jimmy Carter. “Let the market work” was now to be the central premise of government policy.

Any “social movement” that can be killed off merely by the election of a new President, that wilts into nothingness when faced by the “end of a favorable climate of opinion,” evidently wasn’t a “living” movement in the first place.

But of course the question of appropriate technology was and is a living movement, and wasn’t killed or even damaged by the Reagan presidency. It just lacked a voice in the White House to speak in its favor — something that has been true of many vibrant enterprises and will continue to be true of many more.

I have to say that I had forgotten how common it was in the 1980s for the political Left to attribute omnipotence — malignant omnipotence, but omnipotence all the same — to Reagan. But of course, we now know that they were right!

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (5)

I’m finding Winner’s core arguments rather elusive. I am not sure whether that’s my fult as reader or his as writer, but I think that he’s trying awfully hard not to settle for simplistic answers and as a result ends up offering no clear answers at all.

As best I can understand it, the chapter “Techne and Politeia” is primarily arguing that technology has become so intertwined with our political institutions that we cannot have appropriately vigorous and consequential debates about technology without a renewal of political philosophy. That is, people interested in technology need to think more philosophically about politics, and political philosophers need to see technology as a necessary object of their attention. But will either of these things happen?

There’s an interesting anecdote in this chapter: Winner explains that when electronic funds transfer was a new thing, some of his colleagues asked him whether he could articulate some possible danger in a technology that tended to empower large banks and devalue small ones.

I recommended that their research try to show that under conditions of heavy, continued exposure, EFT causes cancer in laboratory animals. . . . My ironic suggestion acknowledged what I take to be the central characteristic of socially acceptable criticism of technology in our time. Unless one can demonstrate conclusively that a particular technical practice will generate some physically evident catastrophe — cancer, birth defects, destruction of the ozone layer, or some other — one might as well remain silent.

The question this situation forces on Winner is this: “Are there no shared ends that matter to us any longer other than the desire to be affluent while avoiding the risk of cancer? It may be that the answer is no.” And if that’s right, then political philosophers, presumably, need to get busy renewing the public conversation about the possible “shared ends” of our society.

I don't think there has been much progress on these matters in the past twenty-five years.

Apple without Steve

I don't think Apple will be able to continue its string of glorious successes without Steve Jobs at the helm. First, Jobs has the highest imaginable standards for product usability: he listens to that little internal voice which most of us, if we ever hear that voice at all, try to suppress — the voice that says, "This isn't working quite right. This experience is good, but it isn't absolutely frictionless. It doesn't feel utterly natural." If Jobs experiences any friction, any awkwardness in the use of a prototype product, he sends it back for further refinement. And he will keep doing this until the product meets his expectations, no matter how long it takes.
Very few people have standards that high; fewer still believe in their own standards so absolutely that they don't question themselves, don't at some point say "Well, maybe I'm over-reading this, maybe there's really nothing wrong with this prototype."
But even if Apple could find someone to run the company whose tastes were that finely honed and whose self-belief was that complete — very unlikely in itself — they still wouldn't have solved their problem. Because that unerringly sensitive and immensely confident person would still have to be able to convince the people working under him* to meet his expectations, even when they seem wildly unreasonable. Steve Jobs can say, "Time and again in the past I have made outrageous demands on my engineers and designers, and when they have come through we have produced world-changing products. So do what I tell you and we'll all be immensely rewarded." But no one else in the tech world can say that.
Apple after Steve Jobs may well continue to make fine products. But I don't see any chance that they will continue to make products that have the sheer aura of the first Macintosh and the many products that have succeeded the first iPod. Those of us who are Apple fans had better enjoy this run while we can, because at some point, sooner or later, it's going to end.
* I say "him" because I can't imagine a bunch of engineers responding positively to such pushback from a woman. Perhaps I underestimate them.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (4)

Just a couple of brief points from Winner's second chapter.

First, he argues very compellingly that we would be wrong to think that new technologies are adopted wholly, or even largely, for reasons of efficiency. For instance, he points out that in the 1880s, in Cyrus McCormick's reaper manufacturing plant in Chicago, McCormick introduced a new machine to mold the casings of the reapers. Perhaps McCormick even claimed that the new machines would be more efficient, but they were not: they produced lower-quality casings at higher costs.

So why did McCormick bring the machines in? Because they could be manned by unskilled laborers, thus enabling McCormick to get rid of skilled laborers who had recently annoyed him by unionizing. Once he had broken the union, he dumped the inferior machines: they had done what he wanted them to do. But it had nothing to do with efficiency.

My second point leads to a question. Almost all of the examples Winner uses in this chapter come from the world of manufacturing: McCormick's reaper factory, Engels's thoughts about industrial organization in Manchester, various debates about nuclear power plants and their acceptable or unacceptable fuels. How do these ideas about technology and politics shift when the context is not manufacturing, but rather the production, management, and distribution of information? Do all the factors need to be thoroughly recalibrated, or can we get by with minor adjustments?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (3)

The second chapter of The Whale and the Reactor is titled “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”, and it is concerned with the relations between technology and various forms of political life. Winner rightly points out that skeptics and celebrants of technology alike have often insisted that there is a tight bond between technology and politics — and sometimes, of course, the same person can be skeptic and celebrant: consider Richard Stallman, for instance, who believes that proprietary software both promotes and serves tyranny, while open-source software preserves deeply valuable human freedoms. Stallman is deeply skeptical towards one set of technologies, profoundly celebratory of another. And really, that’s probably true of everyone who thinks about technology. After all, the Luddites weren’t against technology per se, just against the technologies that put skilled laborers out of work or made their work less valuable.

Winner places all those who see a tight connection between technology and politics on one side of a divide, and on the other places those who take a more instrumental view: such people see technologies themselves as neutral, and think that how we use them is what matters. In the end Winner does not choose one side or the other, and claims that he is taking a “both/and” position, but perhaps what he does not make sufficiently clear is that one cannot reasonably take one position on such questions that accounts for all technologies. Surely some of them are more demanding and less flexible than others.

And that’s something to be taken into account when we’re thinking of adopting new technologies. As Winner writes,

By far the greatest latitude of choice exists the very first time a particular instrument, system, or technique is introduced. Because choices tend to become strongly fixed in material equipment, economic investment, and social habit, the original flexibility vanishes for all practical purposes once the initial commitments are made.

“Vanishes” is too strong, but certainly a sclerosis sets in. I think of all the people I know who utterly despise Microsoft Word and yet feel locked into it, unable to escape its malign clutches. . . .

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

on the will to remember

Mandy Brown:

A leaked slide suggests that Yahoo will shutdown Delicious. Gary Vaynerchuk announces that Cork’d will come to an end. Two years ago, Ma.gnolia experienced catastrophic data loss, taking thousands of bookmarks with it, mine included. Around the same time, Yahoo (sadly, a recurring player on this stage) killed Geocities. Dan Cederholm reminds us that very little on the web lasts forever. Indeed. . . .

This is not to excuse Yahoo’s behavior, nor is it to say that we will be able to save everything, even if our efforts are heroic. But no civilization has ever saved everything; acknowledging that fact does not obviate the need to try and save as much as we can. The technological means to produce an archive are not beyond our skills; sadly, right now at least, the will to do so is insufficient. Let’s hope that doesn’t last forever.

This is smart, and sobering. My friend Matt Frost — at least I think it was Matt — once pointed out that the problem of preserving information and transferring it to new media is one that we only need to solve once every decade or so, and in general that’s right. But what if we forget to to be as attentive as we should be?

When I talk to my students about orality and literacy, I point out to them that oral cultures are tremendously careful about preserving their memories accurately because they know that it only takes one generation of forgetfulness and then the whole of their past is lost. Perhaps we should start thinking in such terms.

Monday, January 17, 2011

ruling them out, book by book

Lorrie Moore says, "Send Huck Finn to College":

There are other books more appropriate for an introduction to serious reading. (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” with its social-class caricatures and racially naïve narrator, is not one of them.) Sherman Alexie’s “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which vibrantly speaks to every teenager’s predicament when achievement in life is at odds with the demoralized condition of his peer group, is a welcoming book for boys. There must certainly be others and their titles should be shared. Teachers I meet everywhere are always asking, How can we get boys to read? And the answer is, simply, book by book.

But if the ugly language of Huckleberry Finn means, as Moore suggests, that it's not to be assigned until, perhaps, "even graduate school," and we must also refuse to assign to our high-schoolers books whose treatment of social class is insufficiently nuanced and whose narratives are "racially naïve" . . . ? I mean, these are pretty stringent tests, aren't they? Isn't this that hoary old zombie Political Correctness rising once more from the grave? Moore should at least acknowledge these obvious objections. 

looking up the allusions

I want to agree with part of a recent post by Nick Carr and disagree with another part.

Here’s the part I agree with:

Kirsch says that T. S. Eliot "had to include notes" to "The Waste Land" in order to enable readers to "track down" its many allusions. The truth is different. The first publications of the poem, in the magazines The Criterion and The Dial, lacked the notes. The notes only appeared when the poem was published as a book, and Eliot later expressed regret that he had included them. The notes became, he wrote, a spur for "bogus scholarship," stimulating "the wrong kind of interest among the seekers of sources ... I regret having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail." By turning his allusions into mere citations, the notes led readers to see his poem as an intricate intellectual puzzle rather than a profound expression of personal emotion — a confusion that continues to haunt, and hamper, readings of the poem to this day. The beauty of "The Waste Land" lies not in its sources but in its music, which is in large measure the music of allusion, of fragments of distant melodies woven into something new.

This is exactly right. Eliot added the notes precisely because Faber wanted to print “The Waste Land” as a book and the poem simply wasn’t long enough without them. (I might add that the “bogus scholarship” that Eliot refers to is not that of his critics, but his own. He thought, perhaps unnecessarily harshly, that the notes themselves were based on limited knowledge.) And if your eyes are continually darting to and from the notes you have no chance of hearing the poem’s music, which is indeed remarkable. As Nick says later in the post, “If you see an allusion merely as something to be tracked down, to be googled, you miss its point and its power. You murder to dissect.”

But Nick goes on to comment on a poem by Yeats that subtly echoes Shelley’s poem “Alastor”:

the allusion deepens and enriches Yeats's poem whether or not you pick up on it. What matters is not that you know "Alastor" but that Yeats knows it, and that his reading of the earlier work, and his emotional connection with it, resonates through his own lyric. Because, moreover, Yeats provides no clue that he's alluding to another work, Google would be no help in "tracking down" the source of that allusion. A reader who doesn't already have an intimate knowledge of "Alastor" would have no reason to Google the lines.

That last point is true, but I think it’s clearly wrong to say that “what matters is not that you know "Alastor" but that Yeats knows it.” It does matter that Yeats knows it — Yeats’s encounter with Shelley strengthens and deepens his verse — but is also matters if the reader does, because if I hear that echo of Shelley I understand better the conversation that Yeats is participating in, and that enriches my experience of his poem and also of Shelley’s. And not incidentally, the enriching power of our knowledge of intellectual tradition is one of Eliot’s key emphases.

So I would argue that the reader of “The Waste Land” who comes to it already knowing something about Shakespeare, Augustine, Buddhist teaching, Dante, the Grail legends, and the Upanishads is going to hear its music better than the reader who doesn't know any of that stuff — which raises some questions about when and in what circumstances teachers should try to teach that poem.

But it’s also worth remembering that poems can be read more than once. Maybe the first time I read a difficult poem I won't get much out of it because I’ll be reading the notes, or googling the allusions. But if I study carefully, and have a decent memory, then maybe when I come back to that poem later, more experienced and better informed, I’ll be able to drink very deeply from its well. The teaching of literature is often, or should be, preparing students for future readings.

(P.S. I’ll get back to The Whale and the Reactor soon.)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

the Oxford Reference Collection: an idea

Have you ever looked at the sheer number of works available at Oxford reference Online? It’s staggering — and this is first-rate stuff, too. However, subscriptions are quite expensive, beyond the reach of most individual users: obviously Oxford is selling these resources primarily to libraries, especially university libraries.

Fair enough. But I wonder whether another model might not work. Consider this: Oxford could offer the jewel in their crown, the Oxford English Dictionary, for free — yes, I know, they now charge three hundred bucks a year for it — so, okay, maybe not free, but at a greatly reduced price — and then use some of the screen space to advertise their other reference works. It seems to me that if users of the OED regularly saw the many, wonderful resources available to them, subscriptions to those less obviously central works would increase dramatically.

And then there’s this possibility, which came to my mind via a tweet by Jason Jones: What if Oxford created a digital environment which would allow users of all their reference works to tag entries and link them to entries in other reference works? That is, what if users gradually built a reservoir of metadata that would connect entries in the OED with entries in the Visual English Dictionary or the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment or the Dictionary of Hinduism? What a boon that would be for students and scholars — and for Oxford, the value of whose reference collection would be dramatically increased.

Wikipedia's tenth anniversary

The Atlantic asked some Big Thinkers, and then they asked me.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (2)

When Winner wrote The Whale and the Reactor, in the mid-1980s, personal computers were not yet ubiquitous. I had bought my first computer — the original Macintosh, which still sits in my basement — in the spring of 1985, so that I might have a chance to finish my dissertation while I still had a job. (It was a full-time but temporary appointment which later turned into a tenure-track job.) But I didn't yet know very many people who had taken the same step: most of my colleagues still used typewriters, though some of them used the two big DEC machines that sat in the hallway of our department.

And of course the internet was still unknown to people who were not research scientists or employed by certain branches of the government.

Nevertheless, much that Winner says about the technological status of the society in which he lived sounds like a pretty accurate description of our own. For example, the book’s first words:

The map of the world shows no country called Technopolis, yet in many ways we are already its citizens. If one observes how thoroughly our lives are shaped by interconnected systems of modern technology, how strongly we feel their influence, respect their authority, ad participate in their workings, one begins to understand that, like it or not, we have become members of a new order in human history. To an ever-increasing extent, this order of things transcends national boundaries in order to create roles and relationships grounded in vast, complex instrumentalities of industrial production, electronic communications, transportation, agribusiness, medicine, and warfare. Observing the structures and processes of these vast systems, one begins to comprehend a distinctively modern form of power, the foundations of a technopolitan culture.

The phrases “order of things” and “form of power” strongly suggest Michel Foucault, though, curiously, Foucault is not cited in this book. Also curious is this: when in 1993 Neil Postman published Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, he did not cite Winner.

As I read that opening paragraph of The Whale and the Reactor, what I note is that “electronic communications” is just one among several major technological subcultures listed as dominating our lives. In the intervening quarter-century, it has emerged as the central technological reality of our world, and all other discussions of technology are subordinated to what we think about how computers link us to the rest of the world.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

brief iPad reading update

As I have explained elsewhere, the iPad has become a major teaching tool for me. But as a reading device . . . not so much. I have not had as much of a problem with the backlit screen as I thought I would: it doesn't seem to tire my eyes, and it's nice not to have to worry about surrounding lighting. But here are my chief issues:
1) The reflectivity of the screen means that reading anywhere there is a strong source of light is difficult if not impossible.
2) Especially near the edges of the screen, it can be very difficult to get the device to respond properly when you want to highlight a passage.
3) The recent 4.0 update of iOS means that you can sort-of multitask — more specifically, it's very easy to reveal your open apps at the bottom of the screen to see if you have Mail, tweets, and the like. For me, that's quite a temptation. Yes, I can check those things on the Kindle, but only after I (a) turn on the wireless, which I usually keep turned off to save the battery, (b) go to the home page, (c) click on the "Experimental" link in the menu, (d) click "launch web browser," and (e) choose the site I want to visit from my bookmarks. Very unwieldy, and not worth the trouble. So on the Kindle I tend to keep reading.
4) When I'm reading, the inevitable fingerprint smudges on the iPad screen drive me nuts. And of course, every time I annotate a page I make more smudges.
So I will rarely, if ever, use this iPad for serious reading. Everyone praises the Instapaper app for iPad, and for good reason — it'e beautifully designed — but I don't even use that much. Instead, I have my Instapaper items sent to my Kindle.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (1)

The chief theme of the opening pages of The Whale and the Reactor is the absence of a substantial philosophy of technology: "At this late date in the development of our industrial/technological civilization the most accurate observation to be made about the philosophy of technology is that there really isn't one."

In the quarter-century since Winner wrote those words a great deal more has been done, especially (I would argue) by Albert Borgmann, whom I have mentioned several times in this blog. But in fact more had been done than Winner acknowledges. I think particularly of Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society — originally published in French in 1954 and then in English translation in 1964 — and, farther back, Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization, first published in 1934. Each of these books is cited later in The Whale and the Reactor, but rarely and briefly, and I can't help wondering how Winner's book would have been different if he had reckoned more seriously with these major predecessors. Instead he leans pretty heavily on Wittgenstein, and I am not sure those ideas about language and “forms of life” translate very well to the task of making sense of technology. It seems to me that Winner missed out on some useful possibilities in neglecting such thinkers as Ellul and Mumford. This is just a first impression, of course, and I'll come back to these thoughts later.

(I see that Winner has written a foreword to a new edition of Mumford’s book.)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


One of my plans for this blog in the coming year is to spend less time responding to the news of the moment — that’s really what Twitter is for — and to spend more time working my way through, well, books. And longer-form writing more generally. So over the next few days, or maybe weeks, I’m going to be blogging my reading of Landgon Winner’s book The Whale and the Reactor: a Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Winner’s book was published twenty-five years ago, and I will be interested to see how his responses to the dominant technologies of his time look in light of our technological situation. So keep your RSS reader peeled for my first posts, which will probably come next week (I’m getting ready for a new semester, which limits my time for both reading and writing). And if y'all want to read along with me, that would be cool.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

saints preserve us . . . from microfilm

So, worried about the long-term survival of digitized documents? Here’s your answer:

Schielke and Rauber’s solution is to switch everything over to a format called microfilm, a 200-year-old technology which stores information as tiny images and can be read with nothing more than a good magnifying glass. Microfilm can last for over 500 years if it is stored properly, and using a barcode system allows error-free storage densities of around 14 kilobytes per image, say Schielke and Rauber. The information is easily re-digitized, saving us from the strained eyes and late nights previous generations experienced hunkered over microfilm at the library.

First of all, anyone who has actually used microfilm will tell you that this is the worst idea any human beings have had since the Paleolithic era. And anyone who has not used microfilm should just go and read Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold. There are any number of things wrong with that book, but his critique of microform technologies is spot-on.

UPDATE: My friend Matt Frost points out that there are significant differences between the old microfilm and new machine-readable microfilm, which I certainly should have noted, but I hear from some librarians that the readability of the new stuff is not reliable, and that there are still the same storage and viewing problems that Baker points out in his book. But I would love to have better information about this, even if it means making a mockery of my mockery of microfilm. If you follow my drift.

"if X were alive today . . . "

“If Gutenberg were alive today” . . . or how about this: “If Shakespeare were alive today” . . .

It’s funny how predictable these speculations are. They work on this model: Drama was the hot form of entertainment in Shakespeare’s time, whereas TV (or film, or advertising, or whatever) is the hot form of entertainment in our time, “if Shakespeare were alive today” he’d be involved in our hot form of entertainment.

But what if Shakespeare was involved in the theater not because it was on the cutting edge but because he just loved the theater? After all, drama written and performed at a very high level continues to be one of the great human achievements, just as it was four hundred (or two thousand) years ago. And gifted people are still attracted to it, and will be for the foreseeable future. Maybe if Shakespeare were alive today he’d be an actor and playwright. And maybe — not as likely, I grant you, but maybe — Gutenberg would be involved in the printing business. We are too quick to analogize in these matters.

Monday, January 3, 2011

more comments needed?

Bob Stein writes:

People are very resistant to leaving comments in a public space. There was a much more extensive discussion of this draft on the private Read 2.0 listserve than what you see in the public CommentPress version. i begged people on the listserve to post their comments on the public version, but with few exceptions no one was willing. The really sad thing from my pov is that by refusing to join the discussion in CommentPress, people deprived themselves of the opportunity to experience category 4 social reading first hand. I am very respectful of many of the people on the read 2.0 list and would have loved to have had their first-hand reactions to the experience of engaging in the close-reading of an online document with people whose views they value.

But of course, as we all know from experience, only some “people are very resistant to leaving comments in a public space.” Many others feel no resistance at all, and comment freely without any thought intervening between the impulse and the typing. The problem is that the people who ought to be resistant flow freely, and the ones who ought not be resistant stay away. And might there not be some causal connection between the two? When, two or three years ago, the comment threads at The American Scene began to be taken over by trolls, I got emails from several smart people who had formerly been regular commenters there who told me that they weren’t going to be commenting any more because they felt that it was like taking a swim in a cesspool.

That said, I don't think the presence (real or anticipated) of trolls is the problem with quiet pages on CommentPress sites. Rather, something like the opposite. When I see a draft of a substantial article or book on CommentPress, I feel that I owe that work a thorough reading and a careful response — and I don't always have time for that. A quick and casual response doesn't seem appropriate, so I tell myself I’ll come back later when I have time to read more carefully and formulate my response more precisely — but often I don't find time to do that. A quick response would probably be better than no response at all, but somehow it doesn't feel like it would be.

Maybe I should make a New Year’s resolution to comment more often on CommentPress sites. . . .