Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Reading :: Writing Machines

Originally posted: Tue, 28 Mar 2006 21:16:08

Writing Machines

By N. Katherine Hayles

Writing Machines was recommended to me by a colleague, who sees Hayles as an extremely important theorist in computers and English studies. Many do; I've seen Hayles cited many times and in many different bodies of literature. And this particular book has the virtue of being relatively recent (2002) and quite thin.

Unfortunately, I was not impressed by it. I wasn't impressed by the design, which seemed to be ripped off from Wired circa 2000. I wasn't impressed by the autobiographical elements, which Hayles inexplicably seemed to think would be rendered less rather than more pretentious if she recounted them in the third person with another person's name attached; I wasn't impressed with the analysis, which tended toward close textual readings of artifacts with very short shelf lives and little intrinsic interest for me. I certainly wasn't impressed with Hayles' narrative style, which attempts to approximate strong affective writing by piling on adjectives.

But I'm not sure if I can render a good evaluation of the book. It's clearly a work of literary criticism, describing Hayles' "long-standing interests in technology from a literary point of view" (p.7), and literary criticism doesn't have any intrinsic interest for me. I respect it as a field, like anthropology, economics, or materials engineering, but it's less applicable to my work than the other three. I think that the orientation of Writing Machines toward close reading of texts has a lot to do with the discipline it's in, and I'm not sure I'm well qualified to judge the work within that discipline. Perhaps it's the norm to laboriously explain the most obvious puns, which Hayles does throughout Chapter 4, for instance.

On the other hand, Hayles does broaden the notion of text in productive ways. Sounding a bit like Latour, she describes inscription technologies:

In print books words are obviously inscriptions because they take the form of ink marks impressed on paper. The computer also counts as an inscription technology, because it changes electric polarities and correlates these changes with binary code, higher-level languages such as C++ and Java, and the phosphor gleams of the cathode ray tube. To count as an inscription technology, a device must initiate material changes that can be read as marks. Telegraphy thus counts; it sends structured electronic pulses through a wire (material changes that can be read as marks) and connects these pulses with acoustic sound (or some other analogue signal) associated with marks on paper. Additional examples include film, video, and the images produced by medical devices such as X-rays, CAT scans, and MRI. Even nanotechnology slouched its way toward inscription when scientists arranged molecules to form their company's logo, IBM.

It would be easy to read this passage as a sort of land rush, a move to claim even more texts under the aegis of literary criticism (and a move with which we rhetoricians are familiar). But I think Hayles deserves credit here for seriously considering what Bakhtin called "low genres" and what Latour maintains are vital ways to transform assemblages. (In fact, I can now see why their names are sometimes linked.) By taking these multiple inscriptions seriously -- and by resisting the urge to make "interpretation" a central part of the definition of inscriptions -- Hayles deserves a lot of credit.


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Reading :: An Army of Davids

Originally posted: Tue, 28 Mar 2006 22:11:56

An Army of Davids : How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths

by Glenn Reynolds

Glenn Reynolds is the University of Tennessee law professor behind the wildly popular libertarian-leaning blog Instapundit. For years now, his blog has been a sort of central clearinghouse of information, particularly serving the right half of the blogosphere. And now he has written a popular book -- not about the website or even the phenomenon of blogs, but the greater shifts he is seeing in how work, lives, and culture are being distributed, shifted, remixed, rearticulated, and reauthorized. The overall theme of An Army of Davids is that the "Davids" -- individuals with limited resources but access to networked information technologies -- are able to take on the "Goliaths," the massive corporations and governments that used to have a lock on production and coordination work. Reynolds draws on the sorts of examples you might expect, such as the Rathergate incident, but also discusses manufacturing, music production and distribution, publishing, and the service economy.

The book is, I emphasize, a popular book, and consequently there's not a lot new here for people who have been assiduously following knowledge economy developments. In fact, there's a lot of simplification and glossing. Reynolds, for instance, rearticulates the thesis that Thomas W. Malone pushes in his popular book, that organizations are changing primarily because the cost of communication has decreased dramatically. He draws on examples that Hugh Hewitt used in Blog, such as Rathergate and the Trent Lott incident. And he touches on themes of individual empowerment that have been a staple of new economy/knowledge economy literature, while eliding the sorts of criticisms that occur in more critical, scholarly works. An Army of Davids tends to give a positive, enthusiastic view of the possibilities generated by widespread, inexpensive access to networked technologies, and it is clearly influenced by its author's libertarian views.

But what's wrong with that? The book doesn't pretend to be scholarship, and it accomplishes its mission of laying out -- in clear terms, with well told narratives -- the promises and possibilities of networked technologies. It gives plentiful examples of how things are changing the way we work and think today, concretely, and speculates about how those changes might be carried forward in the next five, ten, or twenty years. Few people have thought as much about the cultural impact of these technologies, and few people have absorbed and written about so many instances of them. An Army of Davids is not critical scholarship, but it doesn't aim to be and it doesn't have to be. I would recommend it over Blog, The Cluetrain Manifesto, or any other popular book I've read about the subject. But read it in close proximity with Castells.

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