What I've been reading lately

Review of Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age

Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital AgeDelete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I like the idea of this book, but I didn’t like reading it. His argument is that by keeping everything that we’ve done online that we risk two things: first, that adolescent foibles and drunken late nights will be held against us potentially forever, and second that to forget makes us in some way more human and we have to retain that. To be honest I skimmed almost everything regarding the second argument and so may be stating it poorly.

While it is in fact the case that it’s easier to find out people’s shady secrets when you can find them online, I don’t think this has changed society in any fundamental way. All human cultures have some sort of taboos that if people break they try to keep it quiet. Modern American culture doesn’t have the same sort of shame culture that Ancient Rome, Victorian England, etc. had anyway. I am sure I am wrong, but most cases of blackmail are for criminal offenses, not drinking pictures or sexual escapades. Now that DADA has been lifted this will probably take care of a lot of one of the remaining huge incentives to keep sexuality quiet–not that this doesn’t exist in a hundred other little ways in other arenas. Either way, there are things that people want to keep secret for sure, but a lot of other things that just aren’t a big deal for other people to know.

But I digress. It is well known by now that before job hunting you better clean up your digital image. I don’t see that as a problem. You can easily live a private life about which your employers know nothing, digitally or physically. The major issues arise when it comes to the intersection of personal and professional–what if you use your social media accounts for work purposes, for instance? Standards for institutional social media are changing, partly due to these sorts of conflicts. Some organizations push for more open communication, some shut it down completely.

He proposes some solutions to these problems such as digital abstinence and expiration dates for information. They are already technically possible, but I didn’t buy his argument that it was necessary to even worry about the problem. There have been a number of books on this topic lately, and this is just not the best treatment of it.

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Review of The Inner History of Devices

The Inner History of DevicesThe Inner History of Devices by [sic] Sherry Turkle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This volume is edited and with an introduction by Sherry Turkle, and each chapter is written by someone else, so the “by” in the bibliographic data should really read “ed.”. Anyway.

This work examines people’s personal relationships with technology through three formats: memoir, ethnography, and case report. In each case, the point is to understand how the technology either builds or elides a sense of self. Not surprisingly, results show that participative environments help people to build a sense of self, though this is frequently pathological. In other cases, the technology masks people’s humanity, usually with deleterious effects; the chapters on addiction and disease are the most striking examples of this. In these cases, a life and death dependence on technology such as in the case of dialysis can quickly lead to despair or feeling like a cyborg. It seems to me that a frequent criticism of Sherry Turkle is that she tends to see the pathological in people’s relationships with technology. My personal view on the matter is that she might be right, though of course I don’t change my own behavior to account for it. But even when new social or learning spaces are created as technology advances, we have to recognize their limits. The chapter “Cyberplaces” by Kimberlyn Leary had the example that most resonated with me. Melissa has just discovered that her “knight” in a medieval online RPG is really a 15 year old boy. He insists nothing has changed about their relationship. Melissa feels differently.

Most clinicians would not fault Melissa’s comment for showing a lack of imagination but would find it a healthy adaptive response. She has come to an important realization, absent in much of the over-enthusiastic literature on cyberspace: the computer makes multiple selves possible–but only to a point. Melissa can live on the surface, but at a critical moment, the need for depth returns. (pp. 89-90)

I am sure we could all name a similar “critical moment” in our own lives.

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What I've been reading lately

What I’ve Been Reading Lately: Trashy Novels Edition

It’s too cold outside to think about summertime pursuits. So let’s think about trashy novels!

First, as long promised, the novels of Philippa Gregory. Over the past few months I’ve read The Constant Princess, The Other Boleyn Girl, and The Other Queen. I’m right now almost done with The Virgin’s Lover. Obviously I’ve read basically just Tudor books, and not too much into the Stuart books yet, but isn’t that the way most people work with British history? The idea behind these books is to tell an imaginary and yet somewhat accurate version of history, but as much as possible from a first person perspective. And, when that first person is a woman, give her a feminist and yet not anachronistic voice. Don’t get me wrong, though– these are still very silly books. There is all the thrusting manhood and coral pink nipples you’ve come to expect from trashy novels. But if you, like me, can’t take the tittilation without at least some education (see Sarum and the novels of James Michener), these aren’t a bad series.

It’s hard to say the same for the next series of trashy novels. The Luxe is a young adult series, and is basically Gossip Girl (also published by HarperCollins) meets Edith Wharton. That’s pretty entertaining, but the plot is pretty simplistic. Girls wear expensive dresses and live on Fifth Avenue, but this time they have carriages and gas light. The extensive household staff, guarded family reptations, and complicated place setting also remain the same. This being YA (and 1899), the erotic encounters stay chaste enough. In this book we are told and not shown of a girl’s lack of virginity. But we have plenty of frenemies and parties, and who doesn’t like to be able to finish a 430 page book in 2 hours? There are now several books in this series, and I daresay at some point I’ll check out the next one, even though I have a pretty good idea of how it ends. The waiting list at the library is forever, so I’ll be waiting awhile.

Well that ends this edition of Trashy Novels. I’m now returning to my regularly scheduled program of non-fiction and snobbery. See you next time!