So I’m in the middle of my Ph.D candidacy right now. Sorry, the lack of posts is not for lack of trying! Anyway…Books books books. Everyone likes books, right? Durn kids and their vidyagames and iTablets. Next thing you know they’ll want some robots to play with. Speaking of that, let’s talk about two book that explore what it is to be (in)human. As a reminder, I only have two ratings: deserves a read or missed the mark.
Machine Man – Max Barry
A friend of mine told me a few months ago that good books tell a story, but great books make us tell stories about ourselves.
I love having the perfect tool. I only write using Uniball Micro Vision pens in Moleskine notebooks. I shave using a Merkur Double-Edged Safety Razor; goodbye crappy, expensive Schick/Gillette razors! I love my Logitech keyboard and mouse. My Henckels knives make cooking a breeze and, sometimes, a joy. This may all sound like product placement, but I promise I’m not lining my pockets with thousands and thousands of sweet, sweet advertising dollars. I’m a fan of form and function, and can appreciate the beauty of something simply working. In Machine Man, all Dr. Charles Neumann wants to do is make his body into a more perfect tool; I can relate to that. I saw a little itty-bitty smidge of myself in him.
But, at what point does “upgrading” become pathological? Can we reduce a human to a collection of parts, or are we more than the sum of our parts? Do we lose parts of our humanity by replacing parts of ourself? Can we truly understand the human condition anymore when we live in a non-human body? If any of those questions sounded interesting to you, this is a book to read. On top of that, the writing itself is just glorious. Barry’s ability to make each character unique, fleshed-out, and real makes Machine Man a joy to read. When reading, it is so easy to get a sense of what a character is like that you can practically hear their voice in your head. Even more laudable is Barry’s knack for ascerbic dialogue. Even in a book about a man losing his leg in a horrible industrial accident, I found myself laughing – until I stopped cold on the next page, that is. Any book that manages to be both a laugh-riot and a heart-breaker deserves a read.
Alone Together – Sherry Turkle
I’m walking down the street, and I’ll feel the sudden urge to pull out my cell phone. Maybe one of my old friends texted or emailed me. Nope, it was just one of those reflexes again. I feel a little sad, and a little alone. Ohh, change is a-comin’ down the tracks, and we’re only just seeing the beginning now. That’s what Alone Together is all about. It’s terrifying, it’s humbling, it’s hopeful.
This book is about technology: disruptive technology that, for better or worse, is changing the way we connect with others and think about the human condition, aging, life, and death. If that sounds like hyperbole, then you need to read this book more than you currently think. It is divided into two parts, one on robots and the other on social and communication technology. Turkle’s main point is that as we become increasingly connected by technology, we become seduced by easier and more risk-free interactions (text messaging, for example) that sap us of genuine human interactions. (In Intimacy, New Solitude) As we become increasingly cowed by technology and isolated from other people, the pull of non-human companions who can “understand” and “care” for us becomes stronger. (In Solitude, New Intimacies) Turkle explores how these developments enable narcissism, objectification, fear, anxiety, and confusion if not handled properly. The core of her argument is as follows, which is an excerpt so revealing and sharp that it must be quoted here:
As we live the flowering of connecting culture, we dream of sociable robots. Lonely despite our connections, we send ourselves a technological Valentine. If online life is harsh and judgmental, the robot will always be on our side. The idea of a robot companion serves both as a symptom and a dream. Like all psychological symptoms, it obscures a problem by “solving” it without addressing it. The robot will provide companionship and mask our fears of too-risky intimacies. As dream, robots reveal our wish for relationships we can control.
Surprisingly enough, this bedrock excerpt is from over half-way through the book, which cuts to the heart of my complaints about Alone Together: you have to dig to find the good stuff. (At least in the first half of the book.) Turkle’s arguments are compelling, but often weighed down by cumbersome repetitions of evidence. “I get it, Sherry. Robots are seductive. I’m convinced.” I would go as far as to suggest skipping the sections in the first half that seem like a re-hash, because you’ll probably be right. The second half, however, is both genius and concise.
On my first read-through I was ready to give Alone Together a “missed the mark.” However, as I began to go through my reading notes I realized that there was a lot of good stuff in its pages, so much that I would be doing a disservice by not recommending it. Turkle’s vision, grains of epiphany-level clarity, and profoundly affecting anecdotes more than make up for the bloat. With a keen eye for repetition, Alone Together deserves a read.