Dec 26 2017

14 Different Ways to Think About Books

Western book stack

14 Different Ways to Think About Books:
Or, Do Good Questions Make Good Books?

I’ve been thinking about Kevin Kelly’s book The InevitableUnderstanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016) where toward the end of his rather interesting book he lists some provoking questions. Their provocation led my thinking to take an initiative. So I went ahead and transposed the word “book” for the word “question” in this quotation from Kelly:

  1. A good [book] is not concerned with a correct answer.

  2. A good [book] cannot be answered immediately.

  3. A good [book] challenges existing answers.

  4. A good [book] is one you badly want answered once you hear it, but had no inkling you cared before it was asked.

  5. A good [book] creates new territory of thinking.

  6. A good [book] reframes its own answers.

  7. A good [book] is the seed of innovation in science, technology, art, politics, and business.

  8. A good [book] is a probe, a what-if scenario.

  9. A good [book] skirts on the edge of what is known and not known, neither silly nor obvious.

  10. A good [book] cannot be predicted.

  11. A good [book] will be the sign of an educated mind.

  12. A good [book] is one that generates many other good questions.

  13. A good [book] may be the last job a machine will learn to do.

  14. A good [book] is what humans are for. [1]

I think the transposition works well for intriguing lines of thoughts and, ironically enough, questions, except perhaps for no. 14. If the statement is understood as a good book is made for humans, I see no problem. But if the statement means humans are made for good books, I feel I’m on shakier ground. Yet here I recall Owen Barfield (1898-1997) once recalling Oscar Wilde (1854-1900):

Oscar Wilde’s mot—that men are made by books rather than books by men—was certainly not pure nonsense; there is a very real sense, humiliating as it may seem, in which what we generally venture to call our feelings are really Shakespeare’s ‘meaning’. [2]



[1] Kelly, The Inevitable, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2016) 288–89.

[2] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning, (London: Faber & Gwyer, 1928. Third Edition. Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973) 136–37.

Nov 6 2017

Digitally Transferring Authority: On Geography, Technology, & Power


Digitally Transferring Authority: On Geography, Technology, & Power

Numbers are the product of counting. Quantities are the product of measurement. This means that numbers can conceivably be accurate because there is a discontinuity between each integer and the next. Between two and three, there is a jump. In the case of quantity, there is no such jump; and because jump is missing in the world of quantity, it is impossible for any quantity to be exact. You can have exactly three tomatoes. You can never have exactly three gallons of water. Always quantity is approximate…. In other words, number is of the world of pattern, gestalt, and digital computation; quantity is of the world of analogic and probabilistic computation.

––Gregory Bateson (1904–1980)[1]

As I said in my previous post, while I initially found much to be lacking in David Sax’s book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (2016), it was worth reading, particularly for what I consider to be this book’s most profound passage, found amid a discussion concerning new digital/analog challenges at Camp Walden:

“Let say a kid is getting bullied in a cabin by another camper,” he [Sol Birenbaum] said, using a recent example. “If she writes an e-mail home on her phone, her mother reacts immediately, advising action to her daughter, and contacting me to remedy the problem. The mother retains authority. But with a six-day delay from the time the daughter sends her letter to the mother’s response, the camper has to deal with the problem of the bully. Eventually, the camper realizes that ‘Hey, maybe I should talk with’” and you suddenly achieve that transfer of authority from parent to counselor that is crucial for Walden’s social cohesion. Birenbaum believes the elevated anxiety he’s observed in this generation of campers is directly related to the constant hovering of their parents, who use digital technology to keep tabs on their children around the clock. They cannot surrender their authority. Many of the phones that Birenbaum has seized from campers over the past few summers were sent on the insistence of parents, who wanted to remain in touch. [2]

With regard to how those transfers transcend geography, let me note that I just finished Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, and some of what Sax’s example shows seems to be what Anderson was getting at when he showed how maps are an essential part of the way modern communities and nations imagine, reimagine, (or distort) themselves as well as their neighbors.[3]

Digital mapping (through GPS, Google Maps, satellite imagery, etc.) might very well offer examples of transfers of authority that lead to social cohesion. For example, the famous nighttime photos of North Korea apparently show that the Hermit Kingdom is geographically quite cohesive in its lack of electricity.

These questions surrounding transfers of authority via technology are a part of our liquid modernity. As Kevin Kelly writes in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016): “In order to run in real time, our technological infrastructure needed to liquefy. Nouns needed to be verbs…. Liquidity offers new powers.”[4]

But as Bateson reminds us—Lord Acton’s dictum was a little off—for power alone doesn’t corrupt; it’s the myth of power that leads to corruption.[5]



[1] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 49.

[2] Sax, The Revenge of Analog, (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2016) 234–35.

[3] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, (New York, NY: Verso, Revised Edition 2006) 170–78.

[4] Kelly, The Inevitable, (New York, NY: Penguin, 2016) 65, 74.

[5] Bateson, Mind and Nature 223.

Oct 31 2017

Initial Thoughts on the Breech between Digital and Analog

analog book spines

Initial Thoughts on the Breech between Digital and Analog

The steam engine with a governor provides a typical instance of one type, in which the angle of the arms of the governor is continuously variable and has a continuously variable effect on the fuel supply. In contrast, the house thermostat is an on-off mechanism in which temperature causes a thermometer to throw a switch at a certain level. This is the dichotomy between analogic systems (those that vary continuously and in step with magnitudes in the trigger event) and digital systems (those that have the on-off characteristic).

––Gregory Bateson (1904–1980)[1]

While Baylor University is not my alma mater, its Distinguished Professor of Humanities Alan Jacobs has been my teacher for the past few years. While I did not formally audit Jacob’s course this semester “Living and Thinking in a Digital Age,” I did recently finish the principal texts: Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future (2016) and The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (2016) by David Sax.

Writing about what I’ve recently read at #tech #books #writing #digital #analog

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What follows are initial thoughts only. I intend to think more about these books and write something more in depth soon enough.

 Initial thoughts on Kelley: While it’s a Penguin paperback, the aesthetics of the book are wanting: pretty bland for a book told in such a cheerleading tone––just flat white pages printed with what looks like Times New Roman––as if it were a newspaper. Was this irony intentional? On the other hand, unless I’m a sucker for novelty (and I am), Kelly’s twelve trends in emerging technologies came across to the present writer, for the most part, as an interesting essay with many things to think about. Whether or not one agrees with the “inevitableness” of Kelly’s thesis, there are things to ponder further. But its cheerleading tone seems similar to feelings held by students whom Leo Strauss (1899–1973) once addressed:

We [moderns] somehow believe that our point of view is superior, higher than those of the greatest minds [of the ancient world]––either because our point of view is that of our time, and our time, being later than the time of the greatest minds, can be presumed to be superior to their times; or else because we believe that each of the greatest minds was right from his point of view but not, as be claims, simply right: we know that there cannot be the simply true substantive view but only a simply true formal view; that formal view consists in the insight that every comprehensive view is relative to a specific perspective, or that all comprehensive views are mutually exclusive and none can be simply true. [2]

Initial thoughts on Sax: With its hardcover, Baskerville font, cream-colored pages, and embossed dustjacket, I regard this book very highly in terms of aesthetics. Its contents, however, aren’t (at least initially) very captivating. Then again, maybe this was because (1) I was born in the analog era, so much of Sax’s book is review for me, and (2), because it’s review––by definition––it cannot be novel. Nonetheless, I found the most interesting portion to be Chapter 7 “The Revenge of Work” because here Sax (unlike Kelly) doesn’t explain his pattern finding in the voice of a utopian cheerleader. While Chapter 7 discusses Shinola watches made in Detroit in a hopeful manner, Sax’s writing remains quite sober and never pretends to offer easy answers.

Initial thoughts on reading and writing: Both Kelly and Sax write in a “breezy” style suitable for airport consumer readers—a strong contrast to say, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) where readers find a much slower-paced “storytelling”[3] style that demands reflection, review, rereading, and repetition.

Initial thoughts on technology: In the spirit of neo-analogic Zeitgeist, I confess I wrote the first few drafts of this blog post by hand (as I often do). I also printed Jacob’s syllabus for the “Living and Thinking in a Digital Age” course and read through it. Then, with regard to reading the books by Kelly and Sax and writing about them, I physically underlined what I thought were the important parts of the syllabus:

How is the rise of digital technologies changing some of the fundamental practices of the intellectual life: reading, writing, and researching? ….  So we will also spend some time thinking about the character and purposes of liberal education…. This is a course on how the digital worlds we live in now — our technologies of knowledge and communication — will inevitably shape our experience as learners. So let’s begin by trying to get a grip on the digital tech that shapes our everyday lives.

Finally, to find the quotations I needed, I consulted my previous digital notes on Strauss and Bateson, then copied-and-pasted where appropriate.

Initial thoughts on spirituality: (1) When I first came across Kelly’s line––

[Google] takes these guesses and adds them to the calculation of figuring out what ads to place on a web page that you’ve just arrived at. It’s almost magical, but the ads you see on a website today are not added until the moment after you land there. (181)

––it reminded me of an observation from the atheist anthropologist Gregory Bateson:

My view of magic is the converse of that which has been orthodox in anthropology since the days of Sir James Frazer. It is orthodox to believe that religion is an evolutionary development of magic. Magic is regarded as more primitive and religion as its flowering. In contrast, I view sympathetic or contagious magic as a product of decadence from religion; I regard religion on the whole as the earlier condition. I find myself out of sympathy with decadence of this kind either in community life or in the education of children.[4]

(2) Kelly’s last line of his book––“The Beginning, of course, is just beginning,” (p. 297)––seems highly suggestive, perhaps because it seems highly biblical. But it might also be a tip of the hat to Joycian recourse. If digital technologies and patterns are as inevitable as Kelly says they are, then Analog’s Wake might’ve made for a more appropriate title.

More to come.

Great to see @ayjay and @austinkleon at @bookpeople tonight #books #thinking #literature #ATX #Austin

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[1] Mind and Nature, (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 110–11.

[2]What is Liberal Education?” Address Delivered at the Tenth Annual Graduation Exercises of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. June 6, 1959.

[3] With regard to “storytelling,” early in his magnum opus, Taylor writes:

I ask the reader who picks up this book not to think of it as a continuous story-and-argument, but rather as a set of interlocking essays, which shed light on each other, and offer a context of relevance for each other…. I have to launch myself into my own story, which I shall be telling in the following chapters… One important part of the picture is that so many features of their world told in favour of belief, made the presence of God seemingly undeniable. I will mention three, which will place a part in the story I want to tell…..  And at this point I want to start by laying out some broad features of the contrast between then and now, which will be filled in and enriched by the story. (A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP) ix, 21, 29)

[4] Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson, Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred, (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc., 2005) 56.