I try to earmark the time I commute to and from my job to reading academic/non-fiction books and nothing but. My goal is to read 25 pages every weekday (125 pages per week) and I switch between work-related topics (primarily about computer culture, Internet, social media, online games etc.) and hobby/leisure topics (peak oil, sustainability, energy etc.). That means (almost) reading one book on each topic each month, and I usually manage to read around 20 out of the 25 daily pages just on the subway ride back and forth to my job (yet another reason for not driving a car!).
During the second half of the autumn, I have taught a course about social media and have during that period (October - December) given priority to work- and course-related books by reading four such books in a row. This blog post is about these four books. The focus on work-related literature means that books in the other category have been neglected and I thus have four "leisure" books lined up for the Christmas + Jan/Feb book slots (these four books are Yergin's, "The prize: The epic quest for oil, money & power", Malm's, "Det är vår bestämda uppfattning att om ingenting görs kommer det att vara för sent" ["It is our definite opinion that if nothing is being done it will be too late"], Catton's, "Overshoot: The ecological basis of revolutionary change" and Greer's, "The long descent: A user's guide to the end of the industrial age"). Right at the beginning of next term I also have to squeeze in a work-related book about writing academic essay that is compulsory literature for our students who are writing their bachelor's theses during the spring (I have read the previous, but not the new edition). But let's go back to the subject of this post which is the four work-related books I have read during the latter part of the autumn.
Duncan Watts book "Six degrees: The science of the connected age" is exactly what it sounds like. A primer on network theory and the emerging "science of networks". Books that explain and popularize scientific areas are either written by journalists or by scientists, and both categories bring their own pros and cons. Watts is not just a scientist but one of the pioneers of the area. He might be an excellent researcher, but I unfortunately don't think he has what it takes to popularize "the science of the connected age". His book contains too much of "then I did this, and then my old collaborator did that (oh, how I wish I would have thought about that), which in its turn led to me thinking about [something] in a new way". Great if you've ever worked with Watts, or at least worked in the area, but not so interesting otherwise. I just don't think Watts' talent is in explaining and making difficult things easy to understand and thus much prefer and recommend Barabasi's book "Linked: How everything is connected to everything else and what it means" which I read a year ago. Next year I might read Strogatz' "Sync: How order emerges from chaos in the universe, nature and daily life". Strogatz was Duncan Watts' advisor and the book has another thing going for it and that is that it already is in my bookshelf!
Jonathan Zittrain's "The future of the Internet: And how to stop it" is a passionate plea for an open, generative architecture for, and on Internet - instead of safe-but-closed information appliances and "walled gardens" (think of safe and sanitary Ipods and Xboxes). Zittrain does not shy away from the problems that an open Internet creates (spam, malware, crime, terrorism, child pornography etc.), but wants us to unleash the power of distributed solutions and the generative Internet to solve these problems, rather than by (centrally) closing off and taking control over the Internet. Zittrain argues that much of what is great about the Internet came exactly from its long-term but nowadays shrinking policy and adherence to openness, and that it would be a tragedy if Internet is closed down and lobotimized just to save us from ourselves.
Nicholas Carr's book "The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains" is a stark warning about how our brains and how our ways of thinking is changed, and in many ways deteriorates, when we use Internet for hours upon hours every day. When deep reading gives way to shallow reading - involving skimming texts, following links and skitting from text to text and channel to channel - Carr also worries about deep thinking giving way to shallow thinking. We might read more text than ever (dozens of text messages on our smartphones and constant Facebook and Twitter updates for starters), but less stick. In Carr's words we become "pancake people" who know little about much. It is a McLuhanesque argument combined with new neuroresearch on the plasticity of (also) the adult brain. It's a dog-eat-dog, use-it-or-loose-it world on the level of connections between clusters of neurons and basic reading and analytical skills. We automatically, on a neural level, hone the abilities we use, and while we as frequent Internet-surfers might become great at synthesizing information, we might also become less adept at concentrating deeply and analyzing (all) different aspects of an issue. These are the problem Carr worries about, and he basically saw these changes in his own thinking and thus isolated himself in a cabin so as to write the book. His description of going cold turkey on the Internet to some extent mimics symptoms of abstinence when withdrawing from a chemical substance addiction. The book was preceeded by an much-referenced article in The Atlantic Monthly in 2008, "Is Google making us stupid?".
The last book is Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallace's book "The Second Life Herald: The virtual tabloid that witnessed the dawn of the Metaverse". Ludlow is a philosphy professor who has explored and been on the Internet for the longest of times (he has edited two books on early (1990's) Internet culture). Wallace is the establishment journalist who joined arms with Ludlow to write for, and run the Second Life Herald. Starting out inside the online world/game The Sims Online, Ludlow's online tabloid described also, or rather primarly, the seamy, gritty underbelly of that world. Sims Online autocratic ruler Electronic Arts preferred people not to know about these issues - rather than tackling the issues themselves (like virtual child prostitution - underage users selling online sex services). So they kicked Ludlow out of their world on (described in the book) trumped-up chages and Ludlow later settled in the competing virtual world Second Life - and brought his virtual tabloid with him there. The book is filled with delightfully strange tales of online culture as seen from - and reported in- the inside of these worlds (for insiders and by insiders). These socio-technical phenomena often prove difficult to confine to the online worlds and so "spill over" and crosses the permeable boudary between the online and the offline world. The Second Life Herald is a fascinating book filled with travellers tales from a weird and strange far-away country. I already knew quite some about some of the phenomena described, for example real-money trade of virtual objects and the people working and supporting themselves (offline) based on business opportunities within these online worlds, but the book adds intricate details and depth through the telling of specific stories and portraits of colorful people/avatars/subcultures. There is a virtual barrage of events cronicled in this book and I also got several ideas for masters theses topics that I will formulate and publish on the blog I run exclusively for that purpose.
Have you read any of these books (or would you like to)? What is your opinion about them?
PS (Oct 2011). In relation to Carr's book, I just read a short text "What happened to downtime? The extinction of deep thinking and sacred space". Quite interesting, but ironically published in the journal "Fast company".
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