Different and alone

Courtesy of striking French air traffic controllers, I had a longer journey back from Toulouse than I’d expected today, and managed to read the whole of Olivia Laing’s thought-provoking book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

It wasn’t what I’d expected from the reviews, which made it seem like a kind of travelogue about her having some time alone in New York and reflecting on modern urban life; I’m a sucker for books about sitting in foreign cafes feeling a sense of anomie while writing in one’s notebook. Instead, The Lonely City is more a sort of successor to Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor with a soupcon of Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Through her research into the work and lives of four artists who engaged with and battled with loneliness, but also with poverty, rejection, AIDS, Laing actually gives us a profound discussion of society’s inability to tolerate difference.

She also reflects on the role of our use of digital contact through social media and always being online – using it as a shield against human contact and at the same time a means of human contact. Laing notes the trajectory of Sherry Turkle’s assessment of digital tech through her trilogy, The Second Self (1984), Life on the Screen (1995) and the far more pessimistic Alone Together (2011).

Andy Warhol, one of the artists discussed by Laing, predates Twitter and Facebook. What would he have done with them, I wonder?

Digital and democracy

I’ve been dipping into Digital Keywords edited by Benjamin Peters. This is in the chapter ‘Democracy’ by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: “Attempts to assess the effects of digital technology use on political participation have again and again found only modest effects and often a ‘reinforcement’ tendency whereby the digital technology use may correlate with political participation, but mostly in ways where already-engaged groups are even more engaged and less-engaged groups are no more engaged. Digital technologies offer easier access than anything else, but for many, apparently, access is less of a barrier to political participation than inclination (or confidence that even trying is worth one’s while).”

Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture (Princeton Studies in Culture and Technology)

The circumstances in which click-ability leads to a reduction in transactions costs or barriers, and those in which it doesn’t, is surely worth some research. But while the above argument is plausible, it does seem worth worrying about the way the filter bubble can reinforce social and political chasms. This by Tom Steinberg puts it eloquently.

Forthcoming books – more to read

It’s catalogue season and the latest to arrive at Enlightenment Towers is the Fall catalogue for MIT Press. There are some intriguing-looking books ahead. Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment by Michael Smith and Rahul Telang will be one for anybody interested in viable business models in the entertainment industry – it promises big data techniques for finding out what viewers will pay for. Eric von Hippel’s Free Innovation is about how to enhance the social benefits of all the work done for free eg open source software.

Streaming, Sharing, Stealing: Big Data and the Future of Entertainment  Free Innovation

The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy by Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz looks fascinating. I’ve always been intrigued by the social aspects of concepts of property (when I go to a restaurant I know I’m buying the food but not the plate) and clearly digital delivery of intangible versions of goods such as books and even physical delivery of tractors with software in them means these social norms are in flux.

The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy (The Information Society Series)

Among the non-econ/business titles, Information edited by Sarah Cook looks interesting – an “art-historical reassessment of information-based art in relation to data structure and exhibition curation.” I don’t understand that but the sound of an art-historical perspective on something tech and economics people talk about so much sounds promising.

A century on

The Great War still has the power to move us, 100 years on from the start of the Battle of the Somme. Listening to the coverage of the events and the memorial ceremonies (including this evocative report by Allan Little) sent me back to Paul Fussell’s outstanding 1975 book, The Great War and Modern Memory. The book is an exploration of that lasting emotional hold, traced through the wartime and post-war writing and culture which mythologized the conflict.

The Great War and Modern Memory

This section on Marc Bloch’s description of the pervasive scepticism among the soldiers seemed particularly resonant, for obvious reasons, when the book fell open at these pages this morning. Fussell quotes Bloch: ” ‘The prevailing opinion in the trenches,’ he wrote, ‘was that anything might be true, except what was printed. … governments reduced the front-line soldier to the means of information and the mental state of olden times before journals, before news sheets, before books.’ The result was an approximation of the popular psychological atmosphere of the Middle Ages, where rumour was borne by itinerant ‘peddlars, jugglers, pilgrims, beggars’. ”

Unfortunately we seem to be again in a world of rumours and lies peddled by mountebank politicians. And yet, as Zola insisted in the context of a different crisis: “La vérité est en marche….”

Money Changes Everything

I just started reading Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible by William Goetzmann. It will take a while as it’s too heavy to carry on trains, but I’m already loving it. This from the introduction:

“Markets taught people about such things as the limitations of the capacity for reason and the dangers of miscalculation. These complex conceptual frameworks augmented and stimulated the development of problem solving, but they also set up a conflict between traditional and quantitative modes of thought. This conflict is heightened during periods of financial innovation and financial disaster. Not only did financial architecture challenge traditional financial institutions, it also challenged traditional conceptual frameworks for dealing with the unknown. … Understanding and managing this conflict reman important challenges to modern society.”

I’m now deep in the opening chapter on Uruk, accountancy and cuneiform.

Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible