Book Thoughts: January 2012

It’s a popular mantra: We’re becoming slaves to technology. Many people, most above 30, say that instead of living in the real world, we’re glued to our devices. But this notion is a knee-jerk reaction that ignores a powerful trend.

Since humanoids showed up, they have developed technology to makes their lives easier. From the rock-wielding apes in A Space Odyssey to the passengers on steam-powered locomotives, technology has consistently given us the ability to make unpleasant tasks more efficiently. The Internet and personal computing comprise a microtrend rolled up inside this larger epochal arc. We are not “slaves to technology”. We are living in an age where technology frees us from unnecessary errands faster than ever before. To deny this progress is counterproductive.

In the late 90s search engines started to really get good for general research. I can’t remember the last time I opened a physical encyclopedia. It’s not surprising considering the amount of work that would entail. I can’t fathom driving to a library, finding the reference section, looking for the correct volume, and thumbing through pages for a specific topic. It would be completely nonsensical to do this instead of typing the word into my browser’s URL bar.

Fastforward to the early 2000s when the pace really starts to pick up. Napster obliterated the record store. The last piece of physical music media I paid for was Smashmouth’s Astrolounge on casette tape. Today all ~30,000 of my songs live on Amazon’s cloud. I really can’t believe people still have CDs littering their homes.

5 years ago Netflix started to put a dent in movies and television. Watching a good TV series commercial free years after its debut is a wonderful experience. Streaming a film within 45 seconds of learning it existed is even better. When cast in this light, there were only three good things about Blockbuster:

  1. You ran into people you knew in your neighborhood.
  2. For a while you got to play Pokemon Snap on that N64 they had in there.
  3. I can’t remember the third thing, but I will put it here if I do.

Anyway, recognizing this unstoppable march of information technology isn’t rocket surgery. Friedman would likely consider the aforementioned examples as legitimate “flattening”. You can’t stop it, so don’t stress out about letting go of old inefficiencies.

I’m free from going to the post office, free from going to the library, free from going to the record store, and free from going to blockbuster. I have a finite amount of time on this earth and I don’t intend to spend it en route.

Whovians may find the Cybermen to be a better metaphor.

You will become upgraded!

Why is this rant in a post of book reviews?

I came home on New Year’s Day to find a Kindle Touch in my mailbox. I then downloaded one thousand books for it.  Check bookstores and libraries off the to-flatten list. They’re toast.

Here’s what I actually read.

Decoded by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter

This book did two worthwhile things: 1) Makes an effective case for rap as a legitimate art form. 2) Establishes Jay-Z as a cohesive personality. To be honest I didn’t need a ton of convincing on either of these points. I was a fan long before this book was written. But I would recommend it to people on the fence about rap.

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

If I’m trying to read as many books as possible, this was a poor choice. At 900 pages, it took me a while. Regardless of politics, this book is important. Contemporary histories do emphasize hero figures rather than the experiences of the common folk. Summary: things have been pretty terrible for most people for a long time. Zinn explores a weird utopian fantasy at the end, but it’s still a great read. And as a bonus, check out this 2005 Daily Show interview with Zinn. I think Jon likes him, but keeps his distance because of the whole communism thing.

The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead 

This book shows up on Amazon as “also purchased” by people who bought Robopocalypse and Ready Player One. Unfortunately, this one didn’t do it for me. The satirically preachy style just wasn’t as funny as critics make it out to be. It’s worth noting that I only read the first 2/3. I didn’t see it getting any better.

The Innovator’s Cookbook edited by Steven Johnson

This is an enjoyable collection of essays. A few feel like much business literature in that they express very obvious ideas with invented jargon. But on the whole I like the book because it generally confirms what I already believe: creative people and creative spaces are absolutely vital to developing vibrant cities and successful companies. Save yourself the time and read the best article on the rise of the creative class.

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