Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Gone Grading

Sorry for the lack of posts in the past few weeks. It's the most wonderful time of the year -- grading season. So enjoy the comic and come back in a week for more thoughts on sociology, bibliophilia, feminism, etc!

Monday, April 11, 2011

On books and reading

Today I came across two different (or maybe the same) ideas about reading, by two very different authors coming from two very different places. The first is from Italo Calvino, and it reminds me of every trip I've ever made to a used bookstore:
In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out: 
the Books You've Been Planning Top Read For Ages,
the Books You've Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You're Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified,

Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It's Now Time To Reread and the Books You've Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It's Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.
Dawn Treader Bookshop, one of my favourite bookstores in the world.
 The second is from Nick Hornby, from his preface to Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, and informs all of my book choices that aren't directly necessary for school-related reading:
But what's proper? Whose books will make us more intelligent? Not mine, that's for sure. But has Ian McEwan got the right stuff? Julian Barnes? Jane Austen, Zadie Smith, E. M. Forster? Hardy or Dickens? Those Dickens readers who famously waited on the dockside in New York for news of Little Nell -- were they hoping to be educated? Dickens is Literary now, of course, because the books are old. But his work has survived not because he makes you think, but because he makes you feel, and he makes you laugh, and you need to know what is going to happen to his characters...How much cleverer will we be if we read Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck's beautiful, simple novella? Or Tobias Wolff's brilliant This Boy's Life, or Lucky Jim, or To Kill a Mockingbird. Enormous intelligence has gone into the creation of all of theses books, just as it has into the creation of the iPod, but the intelligence is not transferable. It's there to serve a purpose.
But there it is. It's set in stone, apparently: books must be hard work; otherwise they're a waste of time. And so we grind out war through serious, and sometimes seriously dull, novels, or enormous biographies of political figures, and every time we do so, books come to seem a little more like a duty, and Pop Idol starts to look a little more attractive. Please, please, put it down.
...reading for enjoyment is what we should all be doing. I don't mean we should all be reading chick lit or thrillers (although if that's what you want to read, it's find by me, because here's something else no one will ever tell you: if you don't read the classics, or the novel that won this year's Booker Prize, then nothing bad will happen to you; more importantly, nothing good will happen to you if you do); I simply mean that turning pages should not be like walking through thick mud. The whole purpose of books is that we read them, and if you find you can't, it might not be your inadequacy to blame. 
And, finally, in the words of Cory Doctorow:
We are the people of the book. We love our books. We fill our houses with books. We treasure books we inherit from our parents, and we cherish the idea of passing those books on to our children...We know our tribespeople when we visit their homes because every wall is lined with books. There are teetering piles of books beside the bed and on the floor; there are masses of swollen paperbacks in the bathroom. Our books are us. They are our outboard memory banks and they contain the moral, intellectual, and imaginative influences that make us the people we are today.
Some days other people's words are better than my own. Today was one of those days.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Cultural histories of the computer: The Closed World, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, and The Net Effect

The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America by Paul Edwards
From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner
The Net Effect: Romanticism, Capitalism, and the Internet by Thomas Streeter

One of my intellectual bugaboos is the frequency with which books about the internet are written without regard to the history of the computer as a cultural artifact. Reading about about online communication without knowing about what computers have represented throughout the past century feels like jumping into a movie during the last ten minutes -- exciting things might be happening, but it's really difficult to piece out exact what's going on. Fortunately, there are three books out there that, when read in tandem, provide a fairly comprehensive overview of the major threads that make up the cultural history of computing in the United States.

The first is Paul Edwards' engaging and influential (both Turner and Streeter cite Edwards in their own books) The Closed World. Eschewing the traditional methods of the history of technology, Edwards' work emphasizes the ways in which computers functioned as both cultural metaphors and political icons. Moving beyond the question of what computers have actually accomplished as devices -- questions well-covered in other books -- he instead focuses on the influence of the rise of computing on our understanding of human subjectivity, in the context of the American political imagination during the Cold War.

Divided into two parts, Edwards takes up the notion that computers as metaphors, as well as artifacts, to draw together two apparently unconnected histories: that of military computing during the Cold War (his exploration of the SAGE computerized air defense system is particularly compelling), and that of cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. Making use of the notions of cyborg discourse and closed-wold discourses, he argues that:
...just as political theory has played a crucial part in constructing political subjects, cognitive theories and computing machines assisted in constructing the subjects who inhabited the electronic battlefields of global cold war. Interpreting human minds as information processing machines, cyborg discourse created subject positions within a political world enclosed by computer simulation and control...It collaborated in the creation of powerful closed world metaphors, analyzing the mind as a closed control system subject to technical manipulation.
This language of the closed world and technical control and manipulation provides the central topic of The Closed World. Here we have a vision of the development of computing technology and computational metaphors directed toward the command-and-control mentality of Cold War America. The sensation described by the members of the Berkeley Free Speech movement -- one of the transformation of the self into data on an IBM card -- was, in part, a reaction to this vision of closed world ideology of computing.

It is here where Fred Turner's From Counterculture to Cyberculture picks up the narrative. Rather than focusing on the large-scale computing done by the military-industrial complex, Turner turns his gaze on Stewart Brand and the first wave of digital utopians -- those individuals who looked at computers and saw not only opportunities for more precise control, but also expansive possibilities for a more democratic society.

Turner’s book provides a narrative that winds from Sproul Plaza at a radicalized 1968 Berkeley through Silicon Valley in the networked nineties, stopping briefly to examine a host of socio-cultural events that provide the backdrop to the emergence of the Information Age. Exploring the evolution of the computer as a metaphor simultaneously with the emergence of information networks both on- and offline, Turner provides a meticulous account of the way computers and culture work to co-constitute one another. Furthermore, From Counterculture to Cyberculture contributes a unique and, up to this point, unparalleled, history of digital utopianism as a cultural philosophy. While there are many books available -- Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital is probably the flagship work of the particular genre -- that provide excellent examples of what digital utopianism looks like (in both its positive and negative forms), Turner’s is one of the first to actually take this movement seriously as a historical subject.

Drawing a line from Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters to the rise of the personal computer is a daunting task, but one Turner manages with aplomb. Working against Cold War visions of massive computers doing command-and-control work, countercultural technologists re-imagined computers as tools for personal liberation, locations for virtual alternative communities, and the site of exploration of both social and technological frontiers. That this movement culminated in the founding of Wired magazine is no surprise.

In the end, Turner writes:
Thanks in no small part to Brand's work at the Whole Earth Catalog and later at Rolling Stone, desktop computers had come to be seen as 'personal' technology. In keeping with the New Communalist ethos of tool use, they promised to transform individual consciousness and society at large. Thanks to the citizens of the WELL, computer-mediated communication had been reimagined in terms of disembodied, communal harmony and renamed virtual community. Cyberspace itself had been reconfigured as an electronic frontier.
 But Turner goes on:
Even as they decoupled computers from their dark, early 1960s association with bureaucracy, then, Brand and the Whole Earth community turned them into emblems not only of New Communalist social ideals, but of a networked mode of technocratic organization that continues to spread today. In that way, they helped transform both the cultural meanings of information and information technology and the nature of technocracy itself.
So where, ultimately, do these counter-narratives of the emergence of computers and computational metaphors leave us? This is where Thomas Streeter's The Net Effect begins. Published just this past December, Streeter's work carries the cultural history of computers into the Internet age. Where The Closed World ends with only a general nod toward the Internet, and From Counterculture to Cyberculture devotes a chapter to 'the triumph of the network mode', The Net Effect takes up the Internet as its primary subject of analysis.

Streeter embeds his discussion of the cultural history of the Internet squarely between the closed world logic embraced by Edwards' military-industrial complex and the new communalist utopianism engaged in by Turner's techno-hippies. The Internet, he argues, is best understood as a negotiation between our cultural tendency to romanticize 21st century technologies, and the requirements of neoliberalism in a global economy. Here is a story in which neither the virtual world is neither a virtual paradise nor an electronic battleground -- it is instead a social site, like many others, where individuals and communities struggle over meaning when confronted with situations previously unimaginable.

The time spent by Streeter on the development of cyberlaw and the open source movement are particularly enlightening. With the advent of the microchip -- previous to the widespread use of the internet -- capitalism enters the narrative for the first time. By the time the internet is a household name, neoliberal ideology had crept into the digital utopianism of the Steward Brand era. Open source programmers, hackers, moving away from the countercultural ethos of the new left, embraced a romantic individualism that could just as easily work in service of capitalist economic projects as against them. But Streeter's book is not a polemic against the integration of the market and the net. Rather, it is a skillful exploration of the ways in which the narrative threads picked up by Edwards and Turner have been entangled in recent decades. Taken on it's own, The Net Effect is an interesting book about American cultural ideologies of romantic individualism, applied to the net. Taken as a contribution to a historical-theoretical tradition that begins with The Closed World, however, and Streeter's work becomes an important piece of the cultural history of computing puzzle.

For anyone with the time and the inclination to think about what computers mean for culture (and what culture means for computers) in contemporary American life, I highly recommend adding these three books to your summer reading list. If you're a geek for cultural studies, technological history, and, of course, computers, you won't regret it.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Toward a future of whatever

Thanks to a well timed pointer from one of my professors, I happened across this lecture from Kansas State anthropology professor Michael Wesch:

There's a lot of interesting things going on in this talk: questions about identity and authenticity, connection and constraint, anonymity and confession. Most of the talk revolves around YouTube -- particularly video bloggers -- but there's also some thinking about disengagement and trivialities in the context of our current media environment. It's got a touch of the ol' digital utopianism, but I always prefer that to the "the Internet is destroying identity/community/the social world" dytopic view, as well as to the "it's just YouTube, what does it matter?" take.

It also began with one of my favourite bits of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. I've got some problems with the way Postman confronted technology in some of his later work, but I think he was spot on here, in the introduction to that book:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would been 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 information that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that 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.
The necessity of a critical understanding of new media for social life is embedded in this tension. We have seen, over the past few months, what it looks like when government shuts down access to the internet -- an Orwellian tale. What we have not yet begun to scratch the surface of is the question of what the internet means for individualism in a liberal capitalist society. Professor Michael Wesch is working on it. If all goes well, I hope to be working on it too.