ID: The Quest for Meaning in the 21st Century

Susan Greenfield (2008)

If you’ve ever wondered what effect video games have on your children’s minds or worried about how much private information the government and big companies know about you, ID is essential reading.

Professor Susan Greenfield argues persuasively that our individuality is under the microscope as never before; now more then ever we urgently need to look at what we want for ourselves as individuals and for our future society.

ID is an exploration of what it means to be human in a world of rapid change, a passionately argued wake-up call and an inspiring challenge to embrace creativity and forge our own identities.

The Myth of Digital Democracy

Matthew Hindman (2008)

Is the Internet democratizing American politics? Do political Web sites and blogs mobilize inactive citizens and make the public sphere more inclusive? The Myth of Digital Democracy reveals that, contrary to popular belief, the Internet has done little to broaden political discourse but in fact empowers a small set of elites–some new, but most familiar.

Matthew Hindman argues that, though hundreds of thousands of Americans blog about politics, blogs receive only a miniscule portion of Web traffic, and most blog readership goes to a handful of mainstream, highly educated professionals. He shows how, despite the wealth of independent Web sites, online news audiences are concentrated on the top twenty outlets, and online organizing and fund-raising are dominated by a few powerful interest groups. Hindman tracks nearly three million Web pages, analyzing how their links are structured, how citizens search for political content, and how leading search engines like Google and Yahoo! funnel traffic to popular outlets. He finds that while the Internet has increased some forms of political participation and transformed the way interest groups and candidates organize, mobilize, and raise funds, elites still strongly shape how political material on the Web is presented and accessed.

The Myth of Digital Democracy. debunks popular notions about political discourse in the digital age, revealing how the Internet has neither diminished the audience share of corporate media nor given greater voice to ordinary citizens.
Matthew Hindman is assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University.

Endgame, Volumes 1 & 2

Derrick Jensen (2006)

Endgame is a two-volume work by Derrick Jensen, published in 2006, which argues that civilization is inherently unsustainable and addresses the resulting question of what to do about it. Volume 1, The Problem of Civilization, spells out the need to immediately and systematically destroy civilization. Volume 2, Resistance, is about the challenging physical task that dismantling civilization presents.

The long-awaited companion piece to Derrick Jensen’s immensely popular and highly acclaimed works A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe. Accepting the increasingly widespread belief that industrialized culture inevitably erodes the natural world, Endgame sets out to explore how this relationship impels us towards a revolutionary and as-yet undiscovered shift in strategy. Building on a series of simple but increasingly provocative premises, Jensen leaves us hoping for what may be inevitable: a return to agrarian communal life via the disintegration of civilization itself.
 

Whereas Volume 1 of Endgame presents the problem of civilization, Volume 2 of this pivotal work illustrates our means of resistance. Incensed and hopeful, impassioned and lucid, Endgame leapfrogs the environmental movement’s deadlock over our willingness to change our conduct, focusing instead on our ability to adapt to the impending ecological revolution.

Everything Bad Is Good for You

Steven Johnson (2005)

Forget everything you’ve ever read about the age of dumbed-down, instant-gratification culture. In this provocative, unfailingly intelligent, thoroughly researched, and surprisingly convincing big idea book, Steven Johnson draws from fields as diverse as neuroscience, economics, and media theory to argue that the pop culture we soak in every day—from Lord of the Rings to Grand Theft Auto to The Simpsons—has been growing more sophisticated with each passing year, and, far from rotting our brains, is actually posing new cognitive challenges that are actually making our minds measurably sharper. After reading Everything Bad is Good for You, you will never regard the glow of the video game or television screen the same way again.

Unspeak

Steven Poole (2006)

Unspeak is language as a weapon. Every day, we are bombarded with those apparently simple words or phrases that actually conceal darker meanings. ‘Climate change’ is less threatening than ‘global warming’; we say ‘ethnic cleansing’ when we mean mass murder. As we absorb and repeat Unspeak we are accepting the messages that politicians, businessmen and military agencies wish us to believe. Operation Iraqi Freedom did more than put a positive spin on the American war with Iraq; it gave the invasion such a likeable name that the American news networks quickly adopted it as their tagline for reporting on the war. By repackaging the language we use to describe international affairs or domestic politics, Unspeak tries to make controversial issues unspeakable and, therefore, unquestionable. In this thought-provoking and important book, Steven Poole traces the globalizing wave of modern Unspeak from culture wars to the culture of war and reveals how everyday words are changing the way we think.

The Google Story

David Vise (2005)

The Google Story is a definitive account of the populist media company powered by the world’s most advanced technology that in a few short years has revolutionized access to information about everything for everybody everywhere.

In 1998, Moscow-born Sergey Brin and Midwest-born Larry Page dropped out of graduate school at Stanford University to, in their own words, “change the world” through a search engine that would organize every bit of information on the Web for free.

While the company has done exactly that in more than one hundred languages, Google’s quest continues as it seeks to add millions of library books, television broadcasts, and more to its searchable database.

Readers will learn about the amazing business acumen and computer wizardry that started the company on its astonishing course; the secret network of computers delivering lightning-fast search results; the unorthodox approach that has enabled it to challenge Microsoft’s dominance and shake up Wall Street. Even as it rides high, Google wrestles with difficult choices that will enable it to continue expanding while sustaining the guiding vision of its founders’ mantra: DO NO EVIL.”

A Short History of Progress

Ronald Wright (2005)

Each time history repeats itself, the cost goes up. The twentieth century—a time of unprecedented progress—has produced a tremendous strain on the very elements that comprise life itself: This raises the key question of the twenty-first century: How much longer can this go on? With wit and erudition, Ronald Wright lays out a-convincing case that history has always provided an answer, whether we care to notice or not. From Neanderthal man to the Sumerians to the Roman Empire, A Short History of Progress dissects the cyclical nature of humanity’s development and demise, the 10,000-year old experiment that we’ve unleashed but have yet to control. It is Wright’s contention that only by understanding and ultimately breaking from the patterns of progress and disaster that humanity has repeated around the world since the Stone Age can we avoid the onset of a new Dark Age. Wright illustrates how various cultures throughout history have literally manufactured their own end by producing an overabundance of innovation and stripping bare the very elements that allowed them to initially advance. Wright’s book is brilliant; a fascinating rumination on the hubris at the heart of human development and the pitfalls we still may have time to avoid.

Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control

Derrick Jensen and George Draffan (2004)

In the face of RFID chips, consumer tracking strategies, and illegal government wiretapping, Jensen and Draffan are determined to show consumers how to fight back against government and industry to regain their rights, their privacy, and their humanity. The book takes a hart-hitting look at the way technology is used as a machine, to control us and our environment.

If the prospect of perpetual surveillance and psychological warfare alarms you, you are not alone. Most people would be disturbed if you told them that everything from their store purchases to their public transit rides are recorded and filed for government or corporate access. But more often than not, the smooth, silent cleanliness of its operation allows the Machine of Western Civilization to go unnoticed. In Welcome to the Machine, Jensen and Draffan draw our attention back to its eerie, persistent white noise and take a cold, hard, human look at the cultural conditions that have led us to all but surrender to its hum.

Jensen and Draffan, who teamed up in 2003 to expose industrial corruption and destruction in Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests, are back to reveal both the terrifying extent of surveillance today and our chilling complacency at the loss of everything from consumer privacy to civil liberties. In this timely and important new collaboration, Jensen and Draffan take on all aspects of Control Culture: everything from the government’s policy of total information awareness to a disturbing new technology where soldiers can be given medication to prevent them from feeling fear. They write about pharmaceutical packaging that reports consumer information, which is then used to send targeted drug advertisements directly to your TV.

Age of Propaganda

Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson (2001)

Americans create 57% of the world’s advertising while representing only 6% of its population; half of our waking hours are spent immersed in the mass media. Persuasion has always been integral to the democratic process, but increasingly, thoughtful discussion is being replaced with simplistic soundbites and manipulative messages.

Drawing on the history of propaganda as well as on contemporary research in social psychology, Age of Propaganda shows how the tactics used by political campaigners, sales agents, advertisers, televangelists, demagogues, and others often take advantage of our emotions by appealing to our deepest fears and most irrational hopes, creating a distorted vision of the world we live in.

This revised and updated edition includes coverage of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, recent election campaigns, talk radio, teen suicide, U.F.O. abductions, the Columbine shootings, and novel propaganda tactics based on hypocrisy and false allegations.

Life on the Screen

Sherry Turkle (1995)

Life on the Screen is a book not about computers, but about people and how computers are causing us to reevaluate our identities in the age of the Internet. We are using life on the screen to engage in new ways of thinking about evolution, relationships, politics, sex, and the self. Life on the Screen traces a set of boundary negotiations, telling the story of the changing impact of the computer on our psychological lives and our evolving ideas about minds, bodies, and machines. What is emerging, Turkle says, is a new sense of identity- as decentered and multiple. She describes trends in computer design, in artificial intelligence, and in people’s experiences of virtual environments that confirm a dramatic shift in our notions of self, other, machine, and world. The computer emerges as an object that brings postmodernism down to earth.

Simulacra and Simulation

Jean Baudrillard (1994)

Simulacra and Simulation (French: Simulacres et Simulation) is a 1981 philosophical treatise by Jean Baudrillard, in which he seeks to examine the relationships among reality, symbols, and society, in particular the significations and symbolism of culture and media that are involved in constructing an understanding of shared existence.

Simulacra are copies that depict things that either had no original to begin with, or that no longer have an original. Simulation is the imitation of the operation of a real-world process or system over time.

Simulacra and Simulation is most known for its discussion of symbols, signs, and how they relate to contemporaneity (simultaneous existences). Baudrillard claims that our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is a simulation of reality. Moreover, these simulacra are not merely mediations of reality, nor even deceptive mediations of reality; they are not based in a reality nor do they hide a reality, they simply hide that nothing like reality is relevant to our current understanding of our lives. The simulacra that Baudrillard refers to are the significations and symbolism of culture and media that construct perceived reality, the acquired understanding by which our lives and shared existence is and are rendered legible; Baudrillard believed that society has become so saturated with these simulacra and our lives so saturated with the constructs of society that all meaning was being rendered meaningless by being infinitely mutable. Baudrillard called this phenomenon the “precession of simulacra”.

In the Absence of the Sacred

Jerry Mander (1992)

In his critically acclaimed Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, author and social critic Jerry Mander proclaimed that television, by its fundamental nature, is dangerous—to personal health and sanity, to the environment, and to the democratic process. With In the Absence of the Sacred, he goes beyond television to critique our technological society as a whole.

In this provocative work, Mander challenges the utopian promise of technological society and tracks its devastating impact on native cultures worldwide. The Western world’s loss of a sense of the sacred in the natural world, he says, has led us toward global environmental disaster and social disorder—and worse lies ahead. Yet models for restoring our relationship with the Earth exist in the cultures of native peoples, whose values and skills have enabled them to survive centuries of invasion and exploitation.

Far from creating paradise on Earth, technology has instead produced an unsustainable contest for resources. Mander surveys the major technologies shaping the “new world order”—computers, telecommunications, space exploration, genetic engineering, robotics, and the corporation itself—and warns that they are merging into a global mega-technology, with dire environmental and political results.

Manufacturing Consent

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988)

We normally think that the press are cantankerous, obstinate, and ubiquitous in its search for truth. In Manufacturing Consent Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky show how an underlying elite consensus largely structures all facets of the news. Far from challenging established power, the media work hard to discover and mirror its assumptions. The authors skilfully dissect the way in which the marketplace and the economics of publishing significantly shape the news. They reveal how issues are framed and topics chosen, and contrast the double standards underlying accounts of free elections, a free press, and governmental repression. The authors conclude that the modern mass media can best be understood in terms of a ‘propaganda model’. News and entertainment companies dedicate themselves to profit within the established system. Their interests require that they support the governing assumptions of state and private power. The propaganda model provokes outrage from journalists, editors and broadcasters, but twenty years after first publication, Manufacturing Consent remains the most important critique of the mass media.

The Codes of Advertising

Sut Jhally (1987)

This book examines the commercial speech of advertising as a cultural phenomenon whose social significance far exceeds its economic influence. Jhally argues that by selling viewing time to advertisers, television converts audiences into laborers who “work” for the media in the same way that workers do in a factory. By watching commercial messages on TV, viewers actively create symbolic meaning, but also generate profit for the media in return for the wage of entertainment.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman (1985)

Postman distinguishes the Orwellian vision of the future, in which totalitarian governments seize individual rights, from that offered by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, where people medicate themselves into bliss, thereby voluntarily sacrificing their rights. Drawing an analogy with the latter scenario, Postman sees television’s entertainment value as a present-day “soma”, the fictitious pleasure drug in Brave New World, by means of which the citizens’ rights are exchanged for consumers’ entertainment.

The essential premise of the book, which Postman extends to the rest of his argument(s), is that “form excludes the content,” that is, a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas. Thus rational argument, integral to print typography, is militated against by the medium of television for this reason. Owing to this shortcoming, politics and religion are diluted, and “news of the day” becomes a packaged commodity. Television de-emphasises the quality of information in favour of satisfying the far-reaching needs of entertainment, by which information is encumbered and to which it is subordinate.

The Rise of the Computer State

David Burnham (1983)

An award-winning reporter documents case after case of the computer’s threat to our privacy, legal procedures, and the democratic process, providing clear evidence of the present and probable dangers of computer technology.

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television

Jerry Mander (1977)

A total departure from previous writing about television, this book is the first ever to advocate that the medium is not reformable. Its problems are inherent in the technology itself and are so dangerous — to personal health and sanity, to the environment, and to democratic processes — that TV ought to be eliminated forever.

Weaving personal experiences through meticulous research, the author ranges widely over aspects of television that have rarely been examined and never before joined together, allowing an entirely new, frightening image to emerge. The idea that all technologies are “neutral,” benign instruments that can be used well or badly, is thrown open to profound doubt. Speaking of TV reform is, in the words of the author, “as absurd as speaking of the reform of a technology such as guns.”

Pentagon Of Power: The Myth Of The Machine

Lewis Mumford (1974)

The Myth of the Machine is a two-volume book taking an in-depth look at the forces that have shaped modern technology since prehistoric times. The first volume, Technics and Human Development, was published in 1967, followed by the second volume, The Pentagon of Power, in 1970. The author, Lewis Mumford, shows the parallel developments between human tools and social organization mainly through language and rituals. It is considered a synthesis of many theories Mumford developed throughout his prolific writing career. Volume 2 was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

The “pentagon” refers to politics, power (in the sense of physical energy), productivity, profit, and publicity.

Although much of the volume explores the negative influence of centralised power and exploitative behaviour on the human condition, it finishes on a positive and optimistic note in the closing chapters. His final remark is:

“But for those of us who have thrown off the myth of the machine, the next move is ours: for the gates of the technocratic prison will open automatically, despite their rusty ancient hinges, as soon as we choose to walk out.”

Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development

Lewis Mumford (1967)

“In The Myth of the Machine, Mumford insisted upon the reality of the megamachine: the convergence of science, economy, technics and political power as a unified community of interpretation rendering useless and eccentric life-enhancing values. Subversion of this authoritarian kingdom begins with that area of human contact with the world that cannot be successfully repressed – one’s feelings about one’s self.”

In the Prologue, Mumford defines his purpose here as “to question both the assumptions and the predictions upon which our commitment to the present forms of scientific and technical progress, treated as ends in themselves, have been based.”

Mumford dates the emergence of the “Machine” from the pyramid age (primarily with reference to Egypt, but also acknowledging other ancient cultures in that era which produced massive and precisely engineered structures). He uses the term ‘Megamachine’ to describe the social and bureaucratic structure that enabled a ruler to coordinate a huge workforce to undertake vast and complex projects. Where the projects were public works such as irrigation systems and canals or the construction of cities, Mumford referred to the “labour machine”, and where they involved conquest he used the expression “military machine”. The term “Megamachine” connoted the social structure in its entirety.

The Society of the Spectacle

Guy Debord (1967)

The Society of the Spectacle (French: La société du spectacle) is a 1967 work of philosophy and Marxist critical theory by Guy Debord, in which the author develops and presents the concept of the Spectacle.