Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gift Books 2010
The Best Technology Writing 2010
Edited by Julian Dibbell
Yale University Press

Once again, this annual Yale Press selection provides informative, timely, thought-provoking and well-written pieces on manifestations of new technologies. The emphasis is less on the technologies themselves that the impact and meaning, applied not only to contemporary life but to our understanding of larger matters such as biological evolution and the human brain.

The topics include those aspects of the Internet that are taking the biggest slice out of life: Facebook, Twitter, Google, texting etc. but there are a few passes at other technologies, like Burkhard Bilger's piece on the attempts to create the perfect stove--cheap enough for the extremely poor, but also efficient, healthy (the leading killer of children in the world is pneumonia, caused by toxic smoke) and low carbon.

There are very few real clinkers--though including elder bloviator Kevin Kelly may have been necessary, perhaps not at this length. On the other end, Mark Bowden's crime reporting hit an important issue, but did it need more than 30 pages? The best pieces, like Bilger's, are a combination of reporting and thoughtful analysis. Vanessa Grigoriadis begins with an account of Facebook's problems with privacy but moves quickly into a nuanced consideration of the Facebook and social networking phenomenon as a whole. Tad Friend's profile of Elon Musks, the epic-scale visionary entrepreneur (Paypal, SpaceX, SolarCity) whose name could have emerged from a Thomas Pynchon novel, is a prime example of a piece you want to have in a book you can grab from your bookshelf.

Then there are the pieces you can both admire and argue with, like Sam Anderson's "In Defense of Distraction," which makes an undeniably good point (that we need both focus and dreaming) which depends somewhat on particular definitions of attention and distraction, while ignoring other important perils of distraction. But it's got interesting reporting and nuanced discussion along the way.

This is an excellent collection, and an excellent example of why we still need good writing and good reading. But Dibbell makes a salient point in his introduction when he points out that every piece but one comes from the "traditional print media--and perhaps more than ever in the bastions of that tradition upon which the best practitioners of long-form journalism now converge, like polar bears on a shrinking ice floe."

An apt metaphor, since the fetish and frenzy for Internet media are physically destroying the species known as print newspapers, magazines and books. Why is it that this quality of writing and thinking isn't found on the billion blogs, tweets and texts searing cyberspace? Well, except on my blogs. Because writers have to eat and finance a life, and it takes a life to do this work well. It also costs to do the research. Moreover, this is particular work, enabled by the better newspapers, magazines and book publishers. Among the last animals to be paid to arrange words are various species of academics, but due to different priorities and skills, very few produce prose that ordinary intelligent readers care to read.

So far the Internet and the riches it supposedly generates has failed to provide either stable platforms or adequate payment, as evidenced by the example in this volume of the slovenly opportunism of at least one Internet media company that Daniel Roth writes about, and notwithstanding Clay Shirky's myopic analysis of print media.

So grab a good book while you can--this one, for instance. It's accessible to anybody with a vocabulary, technical degrees not required. However, in the short reviews that follow on the page, there are some other possibilities for earnest and especially academic technophiliacs... And don't forget Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia.

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