Tuesday, January 20, 2015

#20 / Among The Disrupted

An essay appearing in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, on January 18, 2015, ran under the illustration above.

iPhones, iPads, Nooks and similar digital devices are putting "books" to the test. How long will we even continue to have books? Technology is disrupting a world once taken for granted, and books might be displaced. Essayist Leon Wieseltier, who up until recently was the Editor of The New Republic, writes that "there is no more urgent task for American writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life."

Since I am teaching a course at the University of California, Santa Cruz called "Privacy, Technology And Freedom," I take heart from Wieseltier's comment. The Week online magazine has named Wieseltier "the last of the New York intellectuals," and his sentiments confirm my suspicion that I am not off base in proposing a critical view of technology and its impact on both privacy and freedom to the Legal Studies students in my class.

Actually, I was convinced to be critical of technology long ago. Does anyone remember reading  The Technological Society by Jacques Illul? That book, published in 1964, is still worth reading. So is Wieseltier's essay, "Among the Disrupted," published just last weekend.

Wieseltier portrays technology as the potential enemy of "humanism," which is somewhat puzzling, given that "humanism," historically, has battled with "religion," and is allied with a "secularist" approach to life. Technology is nothing if not human-created, and is thus part of the "secular" world; yet Wieseltier's fear is that technology is profoundly undermining what it means to be human. 

If that tension between technology and humanism is real, could that be because "technology" is a work of our own creation, and is thus inherently separated from the World of Nature we do not create ourselves?

In fact, to the extent we are separated from the demands of the Natural World, including its final demand that we die, in order that life may continue, don't we lose contact with what makes us human in the first place?

Image Credit: 


  1. I will continue to have and read books for the rest of my life. My day is incomplete without a book in my hand. I plan to be buried with at least one book, which one(s) to be decided on my death bed.

    Jacques Ellul was and remains a visionary, whose extensive writing provide a much needed perspective on modern technology and society in general.

    Gary, I am so pleased that you continue to teach at UCSC. I'm becoming increasingly disturbed by the intellectual vacuity of academe evidenced at some local colleges. You give me hope that all is not lost in the ivy covered halls.

    1. Michael, thanks for these nice comments! I do enjoy teaching, and the students in the class this Quarter do seem sincerely interested in confronting the complex interrelationships between "Privacy, Technology and Freedom."

  2. Wieseltier seems to be talking about digital technology's influence on journalism, not book media. The one time he mentions media embodiment, he seems pretty much opposed to paper for it's expense in "volume" [1]. I think his point is that standards of evidence and argument and style used to be of higher quality before everyone with a twitter account suddenly became part of the 24-hour news cycle. He's right.

    The evidence from book sales supports his premise. The community of independent ebook authors now earns more than traditional ebook authors [2]. Ebook are poised to surpass printed book sales [3]. But printed books aren't endangered for the same reason TV didn't kill radio. All media have their place. Market disruption isn't a bad thing. It's progress.

    Wieseltier himself says "humanism is not the antithesis of religion" [1]! I don't think he or you make any useful point about technology and humanism. But I have one. Technology is a tool which can be wielded for good or ill. Independent ebook authorship is an example of the humanist (and liberal!) value of distributive justice. Seekers of rationalism and empiricism who have Internet access have at their fingertips the greatest library of critical thinking and evidence the world has ever known. Trouble is, so do Luddites, quacks, charlatans, pseudoscientists, and woo-peddlers of all sorts. What could be more humanist than to entrust each human with the reigns to lead themselves to any conclusion that works for them?

    1. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/books/review/among-the-disrupted.html
    2. http://blog.smashwords.com/2014_03_01_archive.html
    3. http://ebookcomments.blogspot.com/2011/03/january-2011-ebook-sales.html


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