Against the digital detox

Matthew J. X. Malady gave up his mobile phone, social media, etc. for three days. His experience doesn’t fit the typical detox trope, one which states that giving up our devices “frees” us and allows us to reconnect and see the world in new ways. It’s a trope I’ve been sympathetic towards in the past.

Mr. Malady’s main takeaway: Going without made him less curious. Writing for the New Yorker:

During the world’s longest weekend, it became clear to me that, when I’m using my phone or surfing the Internet, I am almost always learning something. I’m using Google to find out what types of plastic bottles are the worst for human health, or determining the home town of a certain actor, or looking up some N.B.A. player’s college stats. I’m trying to find out how many people work at Tesla, or getting the address for that brunch place, or checking out how in the world Sacramento came to be the capital of California.

Literature As Data

The Friday link list is on hiatus until next week. Instead I’d like to share this insightful article about literature’s inability to be converted to data, as Stephen Marche argues is the effect of the Google’s book-digitization project.

Marche’s piece, Literature is Not Data: Against Digital Humanities {los angeles review of books; via andrew sullivan}, begins by tracing the original idea & concept for the Google Books project (what Marche describes as a series of “intellectual failings.” Then he goes on to make the distinction between literature and data, concluding that “literature is the opposite of data”:

Take my favorite line of Shakespeare’s, from Macbeth: “Light thickens, and the crows make wing to the rooky wood.” What is the difference between a crow and a rook? Nothing. What does it mean that light thickens? Who knows? The lines, as data, are more or less nonsense. And yet they illuminate their moment radiantly.

He ends with the possible implications of this shift, some of which have already been realized:

The implications of literature as resistance to data extend well beyond the mostly irrelevant little preserve of literature and literary analysis. Algorithms are inherently fascistic, because they give the comforting illusion of an alterity to human affairs. “You don’t like this music? The algorithms have worked it out” is not so far from “You don’t like this law? It works objectively.” Algorithms have replaced laws of human nature, the vital distinction being that nobody can read them. They describe human meanings but are meaningless.

It’s a great thought-provoking article about the shift of reading to digital devices and our greater reliance of algorithms to tell us what we should pay attention to. Read the whole thing here.

“Program or Be Programmed” {book review}

Douglas Rushkoff’s “Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commandments for a Digital Age” {amazon} is a book I was pre-disposed to enjoy and agree with. Rushkoff’s main premise is that by using applications programmed by other people—people and technologies that have inherent biases—we’re: a) missing out on the full potential of technology, and b) being influenced by their biases and limitations without even knowing it.

By bias, Rushkoff is talking about the web as a medium, limited by technical parameters and influenced by the powers who make it happen. For instance, Rushkoff iterates that the web is biased toward choice, since the underlying code is based on only two options: on or off; a “1” or a “0”. This may mean that the web is biased against the gray area between two issues, and in favor of choosing sides when it isn’t necessary.

It’s one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time. It’s a convincing argument. I’m not sure if it’s possible to spoil the ending of a non-fiction work, but if so—spoiler alert!

Rushkoff ends the book with a plea for American society to begin to value programming, to teach it in school, or risk falling behind nations who do value it. If we don’t start taking it seriously, we surrender the power of this new medium to an elite class/nation who does know how to program.

Finally, we have the tools to program. Yet we are content to seize only the capability of the last great media renaissance, that of writing. We feel proud to build a web page or finish our profile on a social networking site, as if this means we are now full-fledged participants in the cyber era. We remain unaware of the biases of the programs in which we are participating, as well as the ways they circumscribe our newfound authorship within their predetermined agendas…

Our enthusiasm for digital technology about which we have little understanding and over which we have little control leads us not toward greater agency, but toward less… We become dependent on search engines and smart phones developed by companies we can only hope value our productivity over their bottom lines. We learn to socialize and make friends through interfaces and networks that may be more dedicated to finding a valid advertising model than helping us find one another.

Pick up the book if you’re interested in this argument, and check out his sxsw 2010 talk about the book {youtube}.