April 30, 2023

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, April 2023

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on the biographies of 20th century tyrants, or the impact of the Internet on collective creativity. Also, most of my reading this month was done at odd hours and/or while bottle-feeding a baby, so I'm less reliable and more cranky than usual.

Wislawa Szymborska, Poems New and Collected, 1957--1997
Donald Hall, Selected Poems
I observe National Poetry Month by reading poets I really ought to have read already. (I'd seen Szymborska's "A Word on Statistics", of course, IIRC from Thomas Lumley.)
Leigh Bardugo, Hell Bent
Mind candy fantasy / campus novel, in which Yale is literally a gateway to Hell. It's a sequel to Ninth House, and it'll be much more enjoyable if you read that first, but there's enough cluing-in for the new reader that it's probably not necessary. Ends in media res. §
Andrea Fort et al., Songs for the Dead: Afterlife
Mind candy fantasy, comic book flavor. A satisfying conclusion to the story. §
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Yes, I knew the story. No, I had never actually read it before. Yes, it's really good. §
Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, volumes I, Paradoxes of Power, 1878--1928 and II, Waiting for Hitler, 1929--1941
Writing an adequately-contextual biography of Stalin means, for Kotkin, pretty much writing a history of the world, as well as detailing the ups and downs of Ioseb Barionis Jughashvili. I think this is right, and am entranced at how well Kotkin tacks back and forth between different scales. One of the themes those constant changes of scale let Kotkin explore is the tension between large, structural forces or trends --- particularly the imperative pressure on any state that wanted to retain independence to industrialize (cf.) --- and fine-grained and contingent yet consequential facts of friendship and rivalry, of personality, even of sheer accident. (These are very non-Marxist books, which could only have been written by someone who had seriously wrestled with Marxist thought.) I very eagerly await the next volume (or volumes?). §
Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
Reading a 2010 book about the promise of the Internet for cooperation, especially for intellectual collaboration, in 2023 is, well, rather melancholy. Instead of carpooling, we have giant illegal taxi companies; instead of safe couch-surfing, we have giant illegal hotel chains; instead of sharing information about political violence, we have organizing political violence; and instead of sharing information about rare medical conditions, we have created multiple new forms of contagious hysteria.
One conclusion I draw from this is that Shirky was fundamentally right about how the Internet would unleash new forms of collective creativity, but far, far too optimistic about the value of that creativity. ("After all, to any rational mind, the greater part of the history of ideas is a history of freaks.")
The other conclusion --- one I've been tending to for a while --- is that as a teenager, I got caught up in a Utopian milieu, which somehow thought that integrating the Internet, and especially the Web, into civilized life would make things better. I spent my adult life in this environment, it was very good to me (and I daresay to Shirky). But, thirty years later... Well, I often find myself thinking on a passage from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, reflecting on another such hangover:
There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning...
And that, I think, was the handle --- that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting --- on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave...
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark --- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Shirky was offering a view from the crest of the wave. This one didn't exactly break and roll back; it just left the same old rubbish as before in its wake, only sodden and salt-rimed. This is, perhaps, the best a utopia can hope to achieve. §
Disclaimer: I'd forgotten, until I was almost ready to post this, that back in the Second Age of the Web 2003--2004 Shirky and I were both parties to a discussion involving the exact shape of the degree distribution for weblogs. That dispute is irrelevant to the subject of this book, and has no bearing on my views of it. (For the record: he was wrong about the degree distribution.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Writing for Antiquity; The Progressive Forces; Linkage; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Actually, "Dr. Internet" Is the Name of the Monsters' Creator; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Commonwealth of Letters

Posted at April 30, 2023 23:59 | permanent link

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