Robin Sloan is starting a sort of summer reading book club.
This is a Reading Rainbow-esque video series about books I love that are between five and 50 years old but not super well-known. My hope is that one or two will sound interesting to you and you’ll get motivated to check them out this summer.
His first pick, The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word sounds super interesting.
(Via Boing Boing)
Nicholas Carr on why the book publishing industry hasn’t been as affected by digital media, compared to what has happened to the music industry. Here’s one reason why:
Kids copied music long before music went digital. The unauthorized copying of songs and albums did not begin with the arrival of the web or of MP3s or of Napster. It has been a part of the culture of pop music since the 1960s. There has been no such tradition with books. Xeroxing a book was not an easy task, and it was fairly expensive, too. Nobody did it, except, maybe, for the occasional oddball. So, even though the large-scale trading of bootlegged songs made possible by the net had radically different implications for the music business than the small-scale trading that had taken place previously, digital copying and trading didn’t feel particularly different from making and exchanging tapes. It seemed like a new variation on an old practice.
Excellent piece about the importance of book covers in a world were ebooks and e-readers are gaining a lot of traction.
If digital covers as we know them are so ‘dead,’ why do we hold them so gingerly? Treat them like print covers? We can’t hurt them. They’re dead. So let’s start hacking. Pull them apart, cut them into bits and see what we come up with.
The first thing to keep in mind about this book is that it’s a 30 year old book. It was originally published in 1977. This fact is important because on the one hand, it makes some of the arguments questionable. For example, the way most Televisions worked in the late 70’s compared to how LCD’s work today is a bit different. This is important because one big argument in the book is about the physiological effects of Television, particularly the light they emit. However, being that the book was written three decades ago, the core arguments are surprisingly still relevant today.
A big issue that worries the author Jerry Mander is how much of our lives have been separated from nature. He spends a lot on this topic at the start of the book, and with the first argument, which he calls The Mediation of Experience. From the moment we wake up to when we go to sleep, everything that we experience is artificial. From the buildings that sourround us, the houses or apartments that we live in, the cities, the roads that we drive on, the cars we’re driving; all of this was created by humans and not by nature. He calls this the walling of awareness. Television just happens to be a “natural” extension of all that.
The second argument, The Colonization of Experience, deals with advertisement. This is one of the authors strongest arguments being that before writing the book he worked 15 years as an advertising executive. The cliched criticism of Television is that it’s just ads that has content sandwiched in between. But it’s so sadly true. For Mander, the medium wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the advertisement industry.
In the third argument, Effects of Television on the Human Being, Mander explores how Television affects us physiologically, psychologically, and culturally. It has one of the most alarmist points in the book.
When you watch Television all you do is sit down and stare at a screen that emits light. Your seeing images, but they’re just light. The light is transformed by your eye into an image, but you’re still, literally, ingesting light. They don’t just stop at your eyes after your brain decodes it into an image. This light goes into your body. Mander is surprised that there was very little research or studies done(at that time) on the effects of the light emitted by Tv’s. He even suggests, with no proof whatsoever, that Television light can cause cancer.
The psychological effects of Television are easy to see just by observation. In order for the medium to work, you have to be passive. You can’t be critical. You can’t go back and read the passage. You have to become a little bit stupid in order to enjoy it.
Another spooky point Mander makes is that the images that we see stay with us for a long time. And the images we get from Tv and the ones we get from the “natural” world get intertwined. The point is that we have a difficult time separating these because they are up to a certain point equally real.
The last argument deals with the biases of the medium. Mander’s point is that the medium is unreformable. Violence works better than peace. Complex issues like politics and wars will always be narrowed, thus knowledged will always get narrowed. Television has to be a certain and specific way in order for us to pay it any attention. There are simply things that are impossible to televise.
There’s so much more compelling stuff in the book that I’m leaving out and I don’t want to make this review too long. Taking aside the light causing cancer fumble, I still find it hard to completely disagree with the book. There is no question that Television, for better or worse, has changed our lives. I’m a strong advocate of watching it as little as possible, and that when you watch it, you watch it because you want to. I don’t think that the medium is completely un-reformable, but I do believe that network television as we’ve known it should die. My book would be titled Four Arguments for the Elimination of Broadcast Television. And I’m not so sure with the premise that society will be better off if we banish the technology. But like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, I do agree that media technologies are not neutral utilities that don’t affect us if we don’t let them. They do have their own agendas and we have to pay attention to them in order to not lose our humanity.
Children’s book author Maurice Sendak, who was beloved by adults as much as children, died at 83.
Maurice Sendak, widely considered the most important children’s book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche, died on Tuesday in Danbury, Conn.
David Foster Wallace once admitted in an interview that “most of his existence has been mediated by entertainment that he passively chose to receive.” Wallace had a lot to say about media, particularly Television. In his Bible-length novel Infinite Jest, Television is one of the main themes. He even wrote an essay titled E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction. I find it a bit scary and a bit sad the idea that a big part of our experiences, our thoughts, and our world views are something that we got from watching Television and not our own.
Ever since I read The Information Diet: A Case for Concsious Consumption I’ve been trying and struggling to get on a “media diet” that works for me. What I have learned is that even though I spend a big chunk of my day online, I’ve been watching more Television that I would like to admit to. In Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus he argues that the reason things like Wikipedia exist is because we have replaced the time we spend with Tv with time on the web. He’s definitely right, but I think he didn’t take into consideration how much more “Televised” the web has become. You can be actively consuming media on the web and give back to it and participate in it, and all that good stuff, but you have to want to do that. Otherwise the web can be just another “boob tube” with a mouse.
This is something that I realized the day I decided on not watching Television for 24 hours. That meant also no Netflix, no Youtube, nor any kind of audio-visual moving picture. Because if you’re going to watch video on the web, you’re still in a sense watching Television. So I permitted myself to just browsing the web, read some books, and listen to some music and Podcasts. You would think it’s easy, but I had to skip probably more than a hundred of either video embeds or a link to a video.
Every time we hear that someone decides that they’re going to quit some type of technology, particularly a media technology, people have strong reactions to it. We get surprised. A bit freaked out even. Just the thought of contemplating living life without X technology scares us or thrills us. While I was drafting up this post, one of the writers of The Verge decided to quit the internet. That surely got some attention and criticism. I liked a lot what he said in the video that the internet “is supposed to be like a utility, like the sewer. You don’t go down into the sewer, it just helps you, it’s a helper. If you go down into the sewer of the internet, after a while you’re going to start feeling dirty.”
I tweeted semi-joking reacting to that story that “the problem is not that people don’t know they’re in The Matrix. The problem is that even if the knew, they wouldn’t want to leave.”
I don’t hate Television and I don’t know if I could quit it for a year, or if I ever really want to. I enjoy watching movies and Tv shows. I even watch traditional broadcast media like sitcoms and series like Fringe on their air dates. But I don’t have cable and I don’t think I’m ever going to have cable again. As that line from the vast wasteland speech says:
When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.
The day I went without Tv for 24 hours I noticed that I could see clearer. I mean that literally. I could see more details in the textures of the objects that surrounded me. Reality looks so much better than HD and so much crisper than a light emitting screen. Jerry Mander, author of the Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, explains in this video interview, that the reason for this is because Television speeds up our sensory perception. It’s hard for us to experience grass growing for example.
Watching Television is also how we deal with boredom, solitude, and loneliness. And that’s why we have a hard time filtering out for quality and watching it deliberately. When we are in that state we just want to see and hear something happening, so we watch anything.
Of course it’s hard not to tag people like Jerry Mander as an alarmist contrarian. I feel the same way about Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, a book I’m currently reading. But I also have a hard time ignoring what they have to say. Whenever I see everyone agreeing that a new technology media is the best thing since bread came sliced I start worrying. So god bless the tech contrarians.
But we also have to be careful about the alarmists and take everything that they say with a pinch of salt. See Ted Kaczynski and his anti-technology ideology.
I hope the takeaway of this post, if you read this far, is to really ask yourself if the media you consume, specially Television, has made your life any better and happier. If you’re watching Television because that’s exactly what you want to do at this very moment, that’s perfectly ok. If not, own up to it and do something about it. It’s that simple. But is not that easy.
The list is an excerpt from the book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (pronounced me-high chick-sent-me-high).
Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they’re also often quiet and at rest.
They work long hours, with great concentration, while projecting an aura of freshness and enthusiasm.
This suggests a superior physical endowment, a genetic advantage. Yet it is surprising how often individuals who in their seventies and eighties exude energy and health remember childhoods plagued by illness.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is one of the best books ever by the way.
Books “suck” as Jeff Atwood explains in this post. But ebooks “suck” just as well.
I adore words, but let’s face it: books suck.
More specifically, so many beautiful ideas have been helplessly trapped in physical made-of-atoms books for the last few centuries. How do books suck? Let me count the ways:
They are heavy. They take up too much space. They have to be printed. They have to be carried in inventory. They have to be shipped in trucks and planes. They aren’t always available at a library. They may have to be purchased at a bookstore. They are difficult to find. They are difficult to search within. They can go out of print entirely. They are too expensive. They are not interactive. They cannot be updated for errors and addendums. They are often copyrighted.
What’s the point of a bookshelf full of books other than as an antiquated trophy case of written ideas trapped in awkward, temporary physical relics?