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The best books on Negotiating the Digital Age

recommended by Nick Harkaway

The challenges – and opportunities – of our times have never been greater. Everything from our models of political participation to the very architecture of our brains is at stake, says the novelist and technology blogger Nick Harkaway.

Interview by Alec Ash

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Have things changed so much in the age of information that we need to re-examine “being human in a digital world”, as runs the subtitle of your book?

We don’t necessarily want to be human in the first place, in a certain sense. Each and every one of us is descended from a long line of incredibly successful evolutionary killing machines. When we talk about being human, what we really mean is to be empathetic, and to try to function in a way that we would wish to be seen to be – not trying to be a saint, but having a sense of a fair society, a stable life and a world of opportunity.

So I’m wary of that term the “digital world”, because there isn’t one really. It’s an overlay of the physical world. But in terms of digital technology, the suggestion is that we have lost a sense of identity in terms of face-to-face meetings, making friends and so on. I find that idea infuriating. I think that because of technology you actually have new ways of meeting people, making friends and having an exchange of identities and feelings. They’re not mutually exclusive.

I’m certainly fed up with articles about how Facebook is changing our relationships, in the wake of its IPO.

Our environment seems to be constantly filled with moral panics. When you open the newspaper, there’s always a piece about how the digital environment is making us stupid or paranoid, but so little of it has any basis. There was a piece in The Guardian the other day about how behaviour on Facebook was linked to socially aggressive narcissism. You had to go six paragraphs into the story to find out that the link wasn’t causal. It was just as possible that Facebook was the canary in our coal mine, telling us that our society was aggressively narcissistic in general – which I don’t find terribly difficult to believe. So even in a respectable broadsheet newspaper, it was more attractive to make the Internet into a monster than to talk about what was actually going on.

Thinkers like Nicholas Carr and Susan Greenfield argue that new technologies are changing our brains. And it is demonstrably true that what we do all of the time alters the shape of the brain and our capabilities. That is how we learn to play ping-pong – we develop a neural structure that is good with space and timing and tactics. I imagine the brain of an Olympic ping-pong player would look slightly different to ours. So with technological advances we are moving into a different way of being in the world. But even if that were a negative thing, I don’t think it would overtake us all at once and lock us in so we can’t change back.

From ping-pong to Pong, you have written that you were born at the start of the digital age when the first video game, Pong, came out in 1972. Is there a clear-cut divide between the digital and non-digital generations?

People talk about digital natives – those who have grown up with digital technology their entire lives and assume the existence of email, geolocation, mobile phones and so on. I come before that, born in 1972 while mobile phones only began to be commonplace in the early nineties. Google really made the web searchable for the first time only in 1995 or 1996. Those were defining moments. And absolutely people have different expectations now. Again it is demonstrable that in the computer literate strata, when someone asks a question which you don’t know the answer to, your first reaction is to Google it or ask about it on Twitter. But that’s not so devastatingly different to asking your friends or checking the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Will you introduce Predictably Irrational for us? We have had Dan Ariely on FiveBooks himself before.

Predictably Irrational is an examination of the way in which we make decisions irrationally, and how that irrationality can be predicted. I find it absolutely fascinating. In some ways it is a handbook for behavioural self-defence. There are governments and corporations which have a high skill level of decision-making judo. If you don’t at least have a basic knowledge of it, they can push you around like a chess piece. Predictably Irrational is the book that can make you more aware of yourself as an irrational decision maker.

How do you connect the book to the information age? Haven’t we always been irrational?

We have always been irrational, but good decision making is the core skill of the digital age, because the digital world allows people to gather information on an unprecedented scale. There was recently a slightly crude study which collected data from Twitter about mood. They showed a mood cycle which is pretty much ubiquitous. You are get-up-and-goish on Monday, delighted on Tuesday, a little unhappy on Wednesday, and the graph goes down until you get to the weekend. Mood cycle is immensely important when you launch a product, depending on what the product is and how you want people to feel about it. So if you combine that with the information about individuals which you can find on Facebook or Google, you have an awareness of what people are thinking which probably reaches above what they’re aware of themselves.

This is important because there is a trend towards choice architectures – nudging – in liberal democracies and in the idea of liberal paternalism. A choice which is deemed to be desirable by the group in power is pushed upon you using a series of options, which are either awful, socially shameful or the option which they want you to pick. One example of this is organ donation, which has always been opt in. There have never been enough organs, and there is obvious societal good in securing people’s consent for organ donation, so you can very simply improve the organ donation rate by making it opt out.

The trouble with that, apart from anything else, is that it diminishes our ability to make decisions. Decision making is a skill which you have to practice, retain and do consciously, cognitively and thoughtfully. It is the central tenet of a democratic society that people make good decisions, vote on them and drive good leadership in the process. If you make sure that the electorate is never presented with a difficult decision…

…you end up electing Boris Johnson as mayor of London again?

Indeed, why bother having an election at all at that point? You’re not doing democracy any more, you’re doing something which looks like democracy but is actually puppeteering.

Next on your list is Tweets from Tahrir.

Tweets from Tahrir is a document that could not have existed before the digital age. Even if you went to all of those people in the aftermath of Tahrir Square and asked them to write down what they thought at the time, they would write down something different, because recollection always colours events differently. This is a genuine live stream of what took place.

We talked about Nicholas Carr, and the idea that deep reading is fading away. The theory is that you are distracted by hypertext links and no longer read in the conventional way – and that that alters your whole mood of reading, so your engagement level suffers. You’re not reading properly, you’re becoming lost in a maze of online distractions. The reality, I think, is rather different. When you look at a stream of tweets with the TV on in the background, you are synthesising the story. Your perception of events will be different from anyone else’s in the world, because you will light on different things. That is invaluable in not accepting the authority of a single news source or information source, but assembling your own understanding out of individual perspectives.

In the digital age one of the most overused phrases is: “This is a Gutenberg moment.” That was the moment when the printing press took away the Church’s monopoly on information, and suddenly anyone who had an idea or opinion could be distributed. The only Gutenberg moment that I have come across today is this one. Here you have a situation where the same kind of distribution is possible. It’s no longer the case that if you want to know what happened you have to go check the BBC. Because the BBC could be wrong, as could the individual who is telling you what they saw. But if you are following 300 or 400 people in Tahrir Square who are tweeting about what they are seeing in front of their eyes, and at the same time watching the BBC or Al Jazeera, you can weave together a picture of the situation for yourself.

It’s synthetic reading rather than subordinate reading – the drawing together of a number of narratives to create an understanding of your own. I think we have diminished respect for the authoritative statement. If the digital age means anything at all, it means the age of participation. People no longer want participation, they assume that they will be given the right to participate. And that is going to affect our politics more than anything else.

Why did you choose The Wealth and Poverty of Nations?

This is an enormous book, which I read from the index backwards. It is a powerful and interesting analysis of the entire flow of the world. The digital debate which is going on now takes place in the context of the last 400 or 500 years. We live with the consequences of changes from rural living to urban living, of the granting of suffrage to women, the arrival of labour-saving devices, or the decline of the Church and the family unit as the centre of life.

And these grand changes that took place over the last few hundred years are playing out right now in the way that we live. If we’re in crisis now, it’s because of that progress rather than the Internet having changed everything. David Landes, for example, argues that the most significant invention for the last 800 years was the mechanical clock. Because until you have the mechanical clock and can reliably subdivide time, you can’t have capitalism. How can you sell your labour by the hour if you don’t know what an hour is?

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is filled with wonderful sketches of things like that, which are old but incredibly relevant now. There are truths about the development of our society, and the ties between economy, society and technology. Whatever you think of the conclusions of the book as a whole, the analysis as it goes along is pretty gripping, and relevant to the digital period. The things which drive social change today are very often things which were buried 150 years before. The discussions that people are having right now about how the digital age has changed everything very often should go back to what happened in 1880 or 1920. What The Wealth and Poverty of Nations treats with are the underpinnings of the world that we live in, and the solid ground on which any discussion of the digital arena must stand.

Tell me about John Ruskin – I’m curious how this fits into our framework.

I’m a little bit obsessed with John Ruskin at the moment. He had the idea that mass-produced items – the perfect precision of stones made with machines, for example – were un-Christian and diminished the soul of man. “You must either make a tool of the creature,” he wrote, “or a man of him.” You can’t do both. That means you either create someone who can express an identity, or create a cog in a machine.

For me, I don’t share Ruskin’s faith but I think it’s worth asking these questions. He looks for hand-crafted items – and by extension he wants the soul of a person to be important rather than machine tooled. In the context of the digital world, where we use a lot of mass-produced digital technology, we have to ask ourselves whether the uniformity of what we use is diminishing who we are and who we might otherwise strive to be.

Once you start a conversation about Ruskin, though, you also have to discuss all the people who loathe Ruskin. Modernists say that Ruskin’s perspective was degenerate, and that ornamentation in design was a sign of a society that was backsliding towards barbarism. That debate is very central, and On Art and Life is a very short, Penguin Ideas book about Ruskin which will bring you into it. I think you can view the little smart slabs of plastic and glass that we carry about with us as statements of our lack of individuality. We are sold these items as the backend to whichever media company wants to show us content – and they assert a corporate identity of which we become a part.

Finally, what is the setting of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon?

Cryptonomicon is a real humdinger of a novel. Stephenson is a hugely enjoyable writer of action and comedy – I find him a joy to read. This is a thriller set in the present day, about the establishment of a data haven, and it explains the significance and practice of cryptography to the modern world. It goes right back to its digital roots and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, like Alan Turing. It is a romp through the birth of the computer into an age where control over data and understanding of its flow are vitally important. And in the midst of all that, there are wars and pirates and love affairs. It’s an immensely enjoyable book.

What you think is just over the horizon in technology and the digital age?

It’s a question about what might happen, rather than what will. There are already people putting magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners to novel uses, like lifting low resolution images directly from the visual processing part of the brain. There is a project that is trying to read images and meaning from the sleeping brain – from dreams. And all kinds of civil liberty implications are thrown up from being able to read images direct from the visual cortex, which raise interesting questions about where the boundaries for what is appropriate for the state lie. I think we have to have those kinds of discussions before the moment comes.

We’re already grappling with various ethical and political implications of new technology.

I think it never stops. In a way we are still dealing with the implications of the industrial revolution. And it’s worth bearing in mind that we are not sitting on a platform of reasonable, effective government, positive financial control over the vagaries of the market or indeed a perfect relationship with our planet’s environment. The challenges we face are, as always, not technological but whether we as a society are capable of making the right decisions. You have to think about digital as part of the rest of the world.

In the mid-eighties, when people started to think about graphic interfaces, William Gibson wrote Neuromancer, [the film] Tron came out and we first got the notion of the space behind the screen – a foreign land. When the Internet came along, it was the extension of that foreign land into our lives. We could now participate in that nebulous, piratic, free-speaking space that existed in no country and owed allegiance to no court and no crown. But that place never existed. It was never a separate space. Coincident with the arrival of the iPad and other touch-screen technologies where you can actually put your hand on the data, we have begun to understand that what is on the Internet is just what’s in our heads, and what we carry around with ourselves all the time.

Interview by Alec Ash

May 23, 2012

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Nick Harkaway

Nick Harkaway

Nick Harkaway is a British novelist and technology blogger. His first novel The Gone-Away World came out in June 2008, followed by Angelmaker and the non-fiction book The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World in 2012. His latest book is Tigerman.

Nick Harkaway

Nick Harkaway

Nick Harkaway is a British novelist and technology blogger. His first novel The Gone-Away World came out in June 2008, followed by Angelmaker and the non-fiction book The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World in 2012. His latest book is Tigerman.