Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Books on the Fly

Each time I update LibraryThing with my latest reads I feel guilty about not offering an opinion for the benefit of friends. It's rare that anyone would actually want to read anything accumulating in that pile in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen unless prompted by the recommendations of others or as punishment for some ineffable crime. Even so, the odd book turns up that actually looks like it might be worth seeking out, and when it isn't, I want to make sure my friends are forewarned. Books very very rarely live up to their hype, and more fool us if we take the word of paid shills in the mass media or blurb writers married to the author's daughter/son/publisher. So here's a quick run-through of the worthy, worthwhile, and worthless from the past couple of months:

The Information Age Trilogy, by Manuel Castells.

I encountered Castells in passing through a reference to him in either one of David Harvey's books or a footnote to Erik Olin Wright and was intrigued enough to want to find out more. Castells is a self-described neo-Marxist who takes seriously the significance of the new social movements that had such an impact in the 1960s and which he documented at the time. He also accepts some of the implications of the move from industrialism to post-industrialism without yielding to the relativistic arguments advanced by postmodernism. His is a Marxism, it should be said, that most orthodox Marxists would find problematic. As an anarchist I saw little to disagree with in Castells's description and diagnosis of social dynamics. He is what Olin Wright would describe as a "sociological Marxist" rather than a "historical Marxist," which is to say he might more suitably be called a Conflict Theorist; he disregards the vulgar Marxist base-superstructure dichotomy in favour of interpenetrating social forces and sees no need for a labour theory of value to explain capitalist dynamics. Consequently, his works constitute a clear-eyed up-to-date account of globalization and neo-liberalism reinforced by in-depth case studies of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the rise of the women's movement, and the transformation of the labour market. It makes for fascinating reading, but at around 1,500 pages (excluding index and bibliography) it's a challenging read, particularly when one feels the argument could have been summed up in a work a quarter of that size. The sheer quantity of statistical and empirical data is impressive but doesn't add that much to the discussion; most of it could happily have been contained in the appendices.

A relatively light read after Castells, Leier's book is a reasonably decent biography of Bakunin that doesn't strain the intellect too much and manages to avoid in-depth accounts of Bakunin's writings other than to acknowledge his anti-Semitism and various other flaws and to draw out his differences with Marx. I found Leier's almost matey style and frequent references to current popular culture highly annoying. They felt completely out of place, for me at least, in what is ostensibly otherwise a serious work. This isn't a book that would entice the reader to find out more about Bakunin, but it will satisfy a general readership who might not have known of the big man's existence before.

A New Paradigm for Understanding Today's World and

Thinking Differently, both by Alain Touraine

Touraine has always hovered on the periphery of my awareness ever since A level sociology 30 years ago, and the discovery that he is Castells's mentor prompted me to seek out his most recent publications in order to get a grip on his work. A New Paradigm for Today's World pretty much repays the compliment to Castells, drawing on his ideas and research and quoting him directly on occasion. A bit of a lovefest all round, in fact. Essentially, Touraine's argument (I conflate both books here) is that sociology and political theory have lost sight of the role and significance of the subject, both descriptively (sociology) and prescriptively (political theory). Sociology is so focused on structural, deterministic explanations that it fails to recognize the contribution of the subject in praxis. At the same time, French society is so hierarchical and centralized, so state-dependent, that the rights of the individual are lost or surrendered in collectivist solutions to social problems like the wearing of headscarves in French schools. He thus recommends a new sociological approach that takes sufficient account of the role of the individual within structures (which sounds to me like the late Sartre, even though Touraine cites Sartre as the founding thinker of the dominant ideology permeating French political thought), as well as a new politics founded on the promotion and protection of the rights of the individual (which sounds to me like a call for liberal, Amnesty-style campaigning).

What struck me above all, however, was how very French Touraine's descriptions are, particularly Thinking Differently, where the description of sociology's failings surely only apply to French sociology. Much of what he demands from the discipline strikes me as common-sensical among British sociologists. Vive la difference, I guess.

There's a fantastic, comprehensive demolition of arguments for cognitively based sexual differences yet to be written. Cordelia Fine's book isn't it. This is page after page of à la carte research findings that provide evidence to contradict the widely known arguments in the works of folk like Simon Baron-Cohen, John Gray, Stephen Pinker, David Buss and so on, whose works seem all the more convincing because of the way they are couched in neurological terms. Fine is a neurologist herself and well able to dismantle their arguments. My objection is only to Fine's writing style. I began reading her earlier work A Mind of Its Own, but you won't see it included in My Library because it's practically unreadable. Tedious and repetitive. And sadly, this book follows the same format. Fine's position is most likely closer to the truth than that of her targets, assuming that her depth of knowledge and familiarity with the evidence count for something, but her lack of rhetorical skills will mean, I suspect, that fewer people take on board her views simply because she fails to convey them with any consideration for the reader.

A bit of a hodge-podge, this one. I wasn't really sure what to make of it. Marks seems to have a bee in his bonnet about the claims made for and respect bestowed upon science and scientists, but his book doesn't hold together in any coherent way. He starts off by rehearsing the now-familiar arguments about scientific method—problems with induction, Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, all make an appearance—before proceeding to identify social and professional influences that distort or undermine the onward, ever-upward progress in the accumulation of impartial, objective knowledge about the world. As an anthropologist he makes legitimate and perceptive points consistent with a form of epistemological relativism that your stereotypical scientist (think Dawkins here; Marks seems to) would find appalling but which any sociologist of science would shrug his/her shoulders at. Finally, Marks lays in to a range of pseudoscientific theories like Creationism and Intelligent Design, but also Eugenics, Scientific Racism, Social Darwinism, Evolutionary Psychology, and Alchemy, all now discredited, he insists, but which at one time or another have been regarded as perfectly respectable by similarly respectable scientists.

I read this book in preparation for Steve Shapin's Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority, but on reflection I should perhaps have proceeded straight to Go. I wouldn't have collected £200 but might have saved 15.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Some Future

A couple of articles from the magazine and website of The Futurist. Cory Doctorow interviewed by 60 members of his public:

Audience: In your novel Makers, you talk about people who take electronic gadget waste (referred to as e-waste) and turn it into something new. Where do you see this happening in real life?

A large part of the e-waste problem is that we design devices that are meant to be used for a year but take a hundred thousand years to degrade. I wonder if we won’t someday design some devices to gracefully degrade back into the part stream, back into materials faster. Bruce Sterling wrote a manifesto about this for MIT Press called Shaping Things. He proposed that, with the right regulatory framework and technology, it might be possible to start readdressing design decisions so that things gracefully decompose back into components that can be reused in next-generation devices.

In For the Win and in Little Brother, you discuss small, technologically savvy networks sparking revolutions among a larger, much less sophisticated group, like enslaved factory workers who were waiting for a catalyst to overthrow their oppressors. Do you really believe that a few thousand well-connected individuals can trigger revolution?

Doctorow: My themes in those books aren’t small groups of people using technology to liberate larger groups, but rather that information rapidly diffuses through small groups, and then larger groups of people use it to help themselves. This is characteristic of all technological diffusion.

Audience: Does that go both ways?

Doctorow: Technology is good at disrupting the status quo because technology gives an advantage to people who want to undermine something that’s stable. Imagine a scenario in the Middle Ages where someone had just invented earth-moving technology and you manage security for a city. You want to defend your city with earth-moving technology. I want to break into your city with earth-moving technology. You need a perfect wall; I need to find one imperfection. Your task is exponentially harder than my task.

When you look at Orwell in 1984, he comes across as a technophobe. What he was seeing was a small piece in the arc of technology, where tech had realized an old totalitarian dream, where there had been states previously who wanted to assert control over private lives of the people who lived in them but they couldn’t make that a reality until technology gave them an assist. According to Orwell, this is what technology does: It allows authoritarians to assert authority. But not long after he wrote that, technology became a tool to undermine the state.

Today, we’re living in another one of those inflection points. We went from technology as a liberating force during my adolescence—it gave young people access to tools, ideas, communities, that even the most powerful and rich couldn’t have dreamt of before—to an age where everybody’s kid gets an iPhone with an application that tracks them like they’re a felon. Every library is mandated to put spyware on their computers, and students who are caught using proxies or another tool that might enhance their privacy are thrown out of school. Educators are scanning students’ Facebook pages. I’m hoping for another swing of the pendulum.

Audience: What did you think of the recent Viacom versus Google verdict?

Doctorow: Here’s the background: Recently, Viacom sued Google, owner of YouTube, for a billion dollars, claiming that YouTube has a duty to police all the material it hosted before the material went live. Viacom also argued that YouTube should not be allowed to have any privacy settings for its users. Right now, if you want to post a video of your newborn taking a bath and you just want to share it with family, you can show the video privately. You can select a privacy setting. Viacom argued that there should be no private videos, because Viacom had no way to police these videos to see if copyrighted material was being shared. By extension, they were arguing that no one should have any privacy settings, because if it’s illegal for YouTube it should be illegal for everyone.

If Viacom had won, they could have changed established law. There’s a copyright law called the Digital Media Copyright Act (DMCA) published in 1998. DMCA exempts people who host content from liability if that content infringes on copyright if they take it down expeditiously. If you have a Web server and one of your users posts something that infringes on copyright, you aren’t liable provided that when you receive a notice that the material is infringing you take the material down. This is what YouTube does with all of the material that its users post. It’s a ton of material; 29 hours of video per minute is uploaded to YouTube. The DMCA allows all the user-generated material on Web sites to exist. It’s why Blogger, Twitter, and Wordpress exist. There aren’t enough lawyer hours between now and the heat death of the universe to review all this material before it’s posted online. In other mediums where similar protections don’t exist, like cable television, very small amounts of user-generated material are shared.

Over the course of the court proceedings, it turned out that, even as Viacom was suing YouTube, it was still uploading videos to YouTube because they needed to have them there as part of their media strategy. Various Viacom divisions were paying as many as 25 marketing companies to put Viacom videos on YouTube under false fronts because no one officially connected to Viacom could put the videos on YouTube. The firms were even “roughing up” the videos to give them a “pirate chic.” At any big media company, beneath the top layer of corporate leadership, beneath the people who file lawsuits for things like copyright infringement, you have a layer of people who understand the realpolitik. These are the actual content producers. They say to themselves, “I have a new TV show. I have to get a certain number of viewers or it will be canceled, and I can’t do it unless I have my video on YouTube.” The real question is, how do you empower those people? We need to start a secret society for clued-in entertainment executives to help each other across companies.

What the court held in the case was that you don’t have to preemptively police all material before it gets onto the Internet. Viacom said it would appeal. It was a foregone conclusion that they would. One day, your university will change its Internet-use policy based on this case. Your Internet service provider will change its policy based on this. It affects everyone, even people who use the Internet for reasons besides uploading entertainment content.

This case speaks directly to how we will share information collectively in the future. It’s the basis also of all of tomorrow’s political organizing. The more constricted that becomes, the harder it becomes to resist bad laws.

Audience: Last year in Spain, the government deactivated 3 million phone numbers. The owners of the phones had to go to a store and show ID to register their phones to get service again. A few weeks ago, Senator Charles F. Schumer (Democrat–New York) proposed mandatory registration of cell phones in the United States because the Times Square bomber used a prepaid phone. How do we resist this in the context of the May 11 threat of terrorists using prepaid phones?

Doctorow: This is another example of politicians shouting terrorism as a way to get anything passed. If the Times Square bomber didn’t have access to an anonymous phone, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have just bought a phone using his ID. What he was worried about was blowing up Times Square, not whether or not he would get caught afterward. All of the 9/11 bombers used a real ID when they got on their planes. Being identified after you committed your suicide atrocity is not a downside. These people record videos with their information before they act. Our current approach to antiterrorism seems to take as its premise that al-Qaeda was trying to end aviation by making flying inconvenient.

In the other article that attracted my attention, author and anthropologist Helen Fisher discusses the "new monogamy":

Marriage has changed more in the past 100 years than it has in the past 10,000, and it could change more in the next 20 years than in the last 100. We are rapidly shedding traditions that emerged with the Agricultural Revolution and returning to patterns of sex, romance, and attachment that evolved on the grasslands of Africa millions of years ago.

Let’s look at virginity at marriage, arranged marriages, the concept that men should be the sole family breadwinners, the credo that a woman’s place is in the home, the double standard for adultery, and the concepts of “honor thy husband” and “til death do us part.” These beliefs are vanishing. Instead, children are expressing their sexuality. “Hooking up” (the new term for a one-night stand) is becoming commonplace, along with living together, bearing children out of wedlock, women-headed households, interracial marriages, homosexual weddings, commuter marriages between individuals who live apart, childless marriages, betrothals between older women and younger men, and small families.

. . .

But the most profound trend forward to the past is the rise of what sociologists call the companionate, symmetrical, or peer marriage: marriage between equals. Women in much of the world are regaining the economic power they enjoyed for millennia. Ancestral women left camp almost daily to gather fruits, nuts, and vegetables, returning with 60% to 80% of the evening meal. In the hunting and gathering societies of our past, women worked outside the home; the double-income family was the rule, and women were just as economically, sexually, and socially powerful as men. Today, we are returning to this lifeway, leaving in the “dustbin of history” the traditional, male-headed, patriarchal family—the bastion of agrarian society.