Books as Hardware

My nookI subscribe to the Atlantic. I have off and on over the years. Most recently, my subscription is digital. I receive the latest issue each month on my tablet from Barnes and Noble. I’ve wrestled with ebooks since my first experience with them, but magazines make much more sense to me digitally. They feel less permanent by nature. Recently, however, I went back to reference a great article that I had read in the Atlantic, only to discover that issues past a certain date were no longer available.

As it turns out, this is an apparent choice on the part of the magazine, as all of their articles are available on their website after a period of time. I actually think that this is an excellent choice on their part, although I am frustrated that I can no longer access those issues when I want.

My discovery led to other disclosures, also, and these were much more disturbing. I can no longer download purchased ebooks to my local drive for backup or archival purposes. Barnes and Noble has intentionally removed the ability to do so, as has Amazon. What’s more, I can no longer open previously downloaded books. This is strikingly different from music and movie purchases from, for example, iTunes, which I can easily backup and archive. This decision on the part of the booksellers forces us to trust their clouds with our purchases instead of being able to have what we’ve purchased to read whenever we like. The opportunity for active censorship of what we have available to read in this scenario should make your hair stand on end.

Books aren’t software. What’s concerning about this trend is what it reveals. We hold books in lower regard than other mediums. We view them as fleeting, ephemeral–no more important than a blog post. Yet, it is in them that we preserve our cultural identity, in them that we experience other points of view and begin to wrestle with the most important aspects of our human condition. Our books contain such a vital piece of our humanity, because we’ve entrusted that to them. In devaluing them in this way, we’ve devalued our own human-ness, as well. We’ve declared that it’s expendable, that it’s only data…that we are only data.

Can we be surprised, then, at the way our civility devolves around us? I don’t think that we can.

 

Divesting Facebook

"Facebook." Photo of a woman holding a plain blue book in front of her face. Used under Creative Commons.

I suppose that I was a relatively early adopter of social media. I remember when Twitter functioned primarily by text message, but my roots go back even further. While I never boasted a MySpace account, I joined Facebook during grad school, when it was only available to students and faculty. I’ll be honest…I joined because one of my colleagues told me that it was a great place to meet girls.

Turns out that she was right: I met Karen on Facebook. As it expanded and grew, I found, or was found by, more and more old friends from the past (oddly, though, never anyone from my undergrad days). I posted to those friends updates to our 24-hour labor experience when our first daughter was born. Facebook was a huge part of my life for a long time.

As I became more and more aware of how carelessly the network regarded my privacy, though, my use of it waned. My profile sat for four years with no use, save the occasional professional necessity. Facebook was obviously becoming a rough neighborhood, even before recent scandals, so, a little over two months ago, I finally followed through with what I had wanted to do years prior. I deleted Facebook.

I wasn’t careless. I exported my data, I confirmed that what I wanted to keep was present, I sorted photos to make certain everything was there. Karen wanted to preserve our chats from when we were dating and engaged, but those were sadly unavailable…apparently Facebook doesn’t keep messages beyond a certain point. Then, I clicked delete.

For those of you considering this, Facebook gives you 30 days to change your mind. All you have to do is log back in! And certainly I was tempted…so much of my life was invested there, recorded there. I held firm, though. I didn’t need the noise in my life.

I was then forced to return to what I suppose would be considered an older way of doing things. I still ascribe to the belief that you should never delete anyone from your address book, personal or professional. Perhaps this comes from the fact that I am old enough to remember keeping a hand-written address book. I intentionally reviewed many of those contacts to make certain that I had them…the groomsmen from our wedding, for example. I’m also still connected to several of these people on other networks…LinkedIn, or Twitter…but there are some that I realize now that I missed. I mourn that I may have lost connection with those people, one the person who recommended that I join Facebook in those early days, the person one could say was responsible for Karen and I meeting.

Even more do I mourn the fact that we have permitted a state of affairs in which losing contact with loved ones is as easy as leaving a social network. We’ve allowed someone else to hold that most valuable part of ourselves for their profit, certain to lose some or all of our connectedness unless we choose to be complacent to their nefarious motives. I wish that we had kept this, were intentional about caring for one another deeply enough to make certain that we know how to keep in touch with each other….and then following that with the action of doing so. As revolutionary as social networking was, and as ubiquitous as it has become in our daily landscape, the effort of keeping addresses, and even of writing letters, meant that we truly stayed in touch.

I hope that I can find the space in my life for that intentionality once again.

Image attribution: Alatr0n under Creative Commons.

Scientifically Creative

Lately, I feel as though science and the humanities are placed into conflict. It sends me into a defensive posture if I let it, immediately pushing back on the diminution of the arts in favor of STEM as an ultimate educational goal, wondering at how competent use of our language seems of secondary importance to a child learning how to code. We cling to what is most natural to us, after all, and, while I work in the technological world, the humanities remain my first love.

Even in that statement, though, I’m taking the bait, because I’m categorizing them in opposition to each other. I don’t for a moment think that they should be. I’m a believer in interdisciplinary pursuits, and it’s only in relatively recent Western culture that we’ve began to see the humanities and sciences as even somehow separate, to say nothing of being mutually exclusive.

Still, I’m troubled by how I see science elevated to an ultimate concern, and find no small amount of irony in how we treat it as an absolute truth….that thing that our culture considers a reprehensible concept philosophically, but clings to scientifically with what borders on desperation. It’s dangerous to establish an absolute authority on a house of cards. Pseudoscience was once regarded as fact, after all, until it wasn’t. Prior to a specific point in history in which we had the technology and insight to say otherwise, living on a flat planet seemed a plausible theory to some, despite its basis in nonsense. While it would be considered blasphemous to say this in many circles, what we regard as scientific fact today always seems irrefutable until the underlying hypothesis behind that fact is discovered to be nonsense. As much as science likes to plant its flag of certainty into evolutionary theory, it seems to forget that it is, itself, evolving as a practice and discipline.

Think of how, in just your lifetime, theories have shifted on what is healthy to eat or not eat. A small example of exponential importance.

If, then, an underlying scientific principle should be discovered to be false, how much confidence in our society crumbles? When one’s ultimate concern falters, after all, the effects are wide reaching. This is a where faith comes in, but faith is seen as out-dated, something for the ancient or uneducated. And so our house of cards collapses.

I appreciate what a reader said in a recent issue of the Atlantic:

“Hardly anything in science is for keeps….That’s how the scientific method works…ultimately granting us not a measure of truth so much as a better approximation of reality.”Letter to the Atlantic, November 2018 issue, p. 15

Something that faith gives us is a love for mystery, a recognition that what we don’t…and, indeed, can’t….understand is far more beautiful than what we can. The belief that there is a reality beyond what we can measure and touch and visualize is integral to the human condition. To say that in the negative, refusing to believe in anything that we cannot see, touch, hear, taste or feel limits us as humans, places blocks on what we have the potential to be.


This weekend, as the holiday festivities came to a close, I took our oldest daughter to a science museum to which we have a membership. She’s quite the artist, our oldest, but equally loves the natural world, fascinated immediately by any new animal about which she has not yet learned. No one has told her that artistic scientists aren’t supposed to exist, and she is happy to be both.

As we walked around the new exhibits, I saw some changes from the last time we visited the museum a few months ago. Photography exhibits were on the walls, showcasing beautiful and artistic explorations of the scientific principle in place for the children to explore. In another exhibit, instead of a detailed and technical description of what was happening, a simple poem adorned one wall.

The two worlds had met. Our daughter took it all in, considering it natural.

As for me, I walked away with hope.

On Seinfeld and Wake-Up Calls

Photo of the restaurant used in the series "Seinfeld." Used under Creative Commons.When Karen and I moved into our current apartment, we reversed a decision that we had made only a couple of months into our marriage: we purchased cable. The reason was not actually that we wanted to, but that we received a better deal on our Internet package by doing so. For the first several weeks, we did nothing with it. Eventually, however, I connected the equipment, because why pay for something and not use it?

This decision has met with mixed results, but occasionally there is good. Stumbling onto occasional Seinfeld re-runs when staying up late is one of those unexpected positives.

I was enjoying one of those late night positive Seinfeld experiences last week. The episode centered it’s comedic digression around Elaine using a wake-up call service. Essentially, she paid someone to call her at a given time each morning and wake her up with conversation instead of an alarm clock.

Does this sound familiar? The premise might, if you’ve been around long enough. We used to do this at hotels, and you’ll still see it occurring in movies that we might now refer to as “classic.” When was the last time that you requested a wake-up call at a hotel, though? Some readers may see this as a completely foreign concept, something that they had never done. We have no need of this now, after all. We carry our alarms with us, in the personal computers in our pockets, likely also using them to track our sleep patterns while we’re at it. After all, health is important.

I think that the wake-up call service depicted in this episode of Seinfeld would have been a “disruptive” industry then, similar to ride-sharing now. Similarly, I know people to whom calling a cab is an alien idea, for whom “Uber” is a verb. Indeed, in the episode in question, Elaine be-friended her wake-up caller, and I often strike up friendly conversations with my Lyft drivers. These aren’t far apart, and these sorts of cultural changes are often a good thing. Of course, conversely, the wake-up call service also assumed a landline telephone, considered a concept of antiquity in many homes today.


For all of the excitement that accompanied my first mobile phone (a huge bag phone in my car that required an external antenna mounted on the back glass), I also remember the gift of my first landline telephone to connect in my high school bedroom. It was bright red. I remember calling friends. I remember using a post-it note to keep the request number of the local radio station next to the phone.

I also remember using physical maps and directions written on scrap paper to navigate long road trips to places I had never before seen, and wonder today if that part of my brain has atrophied, as the idea of asking for directions doesn’t even occur to me. I simply reach for my phone.

I read a post recently in which the author expressed longing for the days when we discovered blogs organically instead of by social media algorithms. I miss those days, too. I miss a different era more, though. This was an era of landline phones and computers that were luxury items instead of necessities. An era in which we thought about things before shouting them out, in which getting from one place to another required intentionality, not whimsical abandon. An era in which we looked for the thoughts with which we wanted to engage, and were not willing to have others make those choices for us.

This was a Seinfeld sort of era, a radically modern era at the time, too quickly left behind in our frantic scramble for the next new thing.

It’s one to which we can never return.

“The frantic abolition of all distance brings no nearness.” Heidegger, “Poetry, Language, and Thought” p. 163

Image attribution: dnorton under Creative Commons.

Non-Social Networking

Photo of a conference keynote presentationI usually go to two professional conferences per year. One is a smaller weekend conference here in Boston that requires no travel on my part. As with most tech conferences, all of the talks are posted on YouTube within about a week, so that conference attendees can catch the talks they couldn’t get to at the event (you frequently end up with good ones overlapping each other), but also to make the information available for everyone else. There’s always great presentations at these conferences, accompanied by the belief that everyone should be able to benefit by it being available to the world. So, the real value that you get for the admission price is the networking.

Being an introvert, networking has never come easily for me. In fact, I had to be taught how to do it while I was in school. That thing that extroverts do when they work the room and exchange cards and handshakes, making professional connections that will benefit them later in their careers? That’s completely alien to me. And, honestly, it’s completely alien to most writers and programmers. Both fields tend to be largely dominated by introverts, in my experience. Still, though, we have to network because the world is built to work the extrovert way, so….we suffer and move forward.

It’s not that we don’t like people. I love meeting new people. The concept of being in a crowd or group of people that I don’t know, however, and needing to interact with them at any sort of meaningful level, is completely exhausting. Like most introverts, I need hours of quiet time after to recharge my batteries.

This weekend, two things struck me about my conference attendance. One was that, by lunch, which is the prime networking opportunity, I was already drained. I retreated to an outside park bench on the school campus at which the conference was being held, on a beautiful Boston afternoon, and ate alone. I even saw some colleagues across the way that I hadn’t seen in a year, but I just couldn’t get into the head space of talking to them.

Honestly, though, those sorts of moments just happen when you’re an introvert. Even though you might gear up for one of these events as an athlete would for a game (which is required when we’re to have a lot of people contact), sometimes you still just can’t pull it off. It happens.

There was another moment, however, that struck me as particularly apropos of our time in a bad way. Another conference-goer and presenter followed me on Twitter after liking something that I had tweeted.

This happens a lot. For tech conferences especially, it’s another way of networking. The conference always has it’s own hashtag, and developers especially tend to hang on out on Twitter, so you end up connecting with people there. This one grabbed my attention because this person’s profile claimed a lot of geographical similarities to me. So, the confluence was sort of cool. What was telling, though, is that I passed this person later in the vendor area. We looked at each other, but exchanged no verbal greeting at all. We just kept moving.

Now, some of this could be that awkward moment when you’re not certain if that is who you think it is based on a profile photo. In fact, I could have been completely wrong that it was who I thought, but I doubt it. I also don’t think that acquaintances that begin virtually are always shallow or nonexistent in this way. I’ve experienced quite the opposite, and, lest we forget, I met my wife on Facebook. I just think that, from a professional networking standpoint, it’s telling that these sorts of things happen. Perhaps networking professionally and social networking are alike in that they are both shallow events? The goal of professional networking, in my experience, is ultimately to advance one’s own career, after all. Rarely do I intuit the motivation to be selflessly giving back.

Perhaps I’m being curmudgeonly on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Perhaps this was just an awkward introvert moment. Perhaps, though, our networking should be less about connections made than relationships entered. There would be exponentially fewer of them, but the relationships that existed would be much less virtual and much more substantive.

Or, perhaps that’s just an introverted way to look at things.