Friday, October 5, 2012

Book Triad VII: Digital Humanities and Genetically Modified Rickshaw Girls

There's been a decline in posting recently.  I blame the economy.
Today, we'll be looking at:

The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information by Alan Liu.
Light by John M. Harrison.
How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis  by N. Katherine Hayles
Reviews after the break.

The Laws of Cool.  Alan Liu argues that an emphasis on coolness is a response to the modern office workplace and the proliferation of the Internet. At length, he suggests that the way we move beyond the superficialities of coolness is to engage them with arts and the humanities, and make the academy more relevant in the broader scheme of things. It's a book of four parts, and each part is a fairly in-depth study of its own (and can, to a certain extent, be read separately from the other parts). First is The New Enlightenment, which explores what's meant by "knowledge work," in terms of class, subjects, and, particular for businesses, teams. The second section, "Ice Ages," studies the culture of the modern office. It starts with the automation of the workplace, in terms of how it transcends alienation and turns work into something more impersonal and systematic--a cold existence rather than a hot "us vs them." Liu builds on this foundation by adding informating (collecting information about this automation) and networking (turning the collected information into a self-perpetuating network). Section 3 is The Laws of Cool, and how coolness as ethos, style, feel, and bad attitude are simultaneously correct and incorrect ways of describing the response of the average worker in the face of such automation and the cyber-potential. And section four argues for what humanities and the arts can do to bring greater awareness and meaning to this coolness. It's a very long book, but its modular nature helps the reader keep track of things. Some of section three is rather outdated (it's hard to talk about cyber-stuff in 2004 in a way that's relevant in 2012) and while the analysis in section 4 is very good, the humanities + technology argument is nothing that hasn't been done elsewhere. But the early stuff on business culture is some of the best theorizing about the subject I've seen. If you ever want to do a theoretical reading of the Office, or Office Space, or just want to see a cultural critique of office work, this is the book I'd recommend.

Light is a story of three individuals: a physicist/serial killer named Michael Kearney; Seria Mau Genlicher, a human turned sentient spaceship; and Ed Chianese, a twink--a guy who deliberately puts himself into a sort suspended animation every time he gets. And each one is drawn in a different way to the light of the Kefahuchi Tract, and three objects: an abandoned spacecraft, a human skeleton, and a pair of bone dice. Some sci-fi novels start with one big concept, and play the rest of the story straight, extrapolating what society would be like if such a thing (usually a technological innovation like mass market cloning or space travel) became possible. And often, they play it straight right up until the end where they pull the rug out from under the reader by a series of incredible events. I always felt that such a book was cheating--if you're going to create a new world with new rules, you need to stick with those rules. Light, to its credit, doesn't commit that sin by virtue of it being insane from beginning to end. There's genetically modified rickshaw girls, empathic alien ether, and aliens that modelled themselves on distorted notions of human pop culture. While the ending is extremely high concept, and maybe even a little deus ex machina, the book started off the same way, so I feel like it earned such an ending. What it's lacking, though, are sympathetic characters. It's not just that all three of the protagonists do fairly despicable things--Peter Watts' Starfish, for example, had a lot of despicable yet still compelling characters. Rather, it's that they came across to me as somewhat one dimensional and cartoonish, rather than people whose wellbeing I was invested in. There's some really compelling ideas and symbolism here, but the overall book fell a little flat for me. 

How We Think.  The first book I read by N. Katherine Hayles, "How We Became Posthuman," described what humanities and digital technology have to offer each other. This book, "How We Think," describes what humanities and digital technology have to offer each other. So at least she's consistent.  All right, I'm being glib; whereas Posthuman was in large part a discussion of how discussions of AI and technology progressed from Weiner to Maturana and beyond, How We Think is a much more nuts-and-bolts discussion of what the two disciplines have to offer each other. In particular, the first three chapters of the book explicitly describe what that fusion looks like, by going through a number of relevant projects. Hayles' main argument is a familiar one to those in digital humanities: modern society has been irrevocably changed by digitech, from our grand theories to the very way we think and process information, and the humanities has fallen behind the curve. The difference between this and many other approaches is that Hayles backs up her description with cognitive science, and offers what digital projects can do to bridge the gap. It's somewhat ironic, then, that the rest of the book is a fairly traditional close reading of a number of texts--but instead of literature, the texts are works that she believes speak to that gap. First up is Steve Tomasula's electronic multimodal novel TOC, and how it demonstrates how techics ala Simondon affect perceptions of time. Next is another chapters on technics, but by way of telegraph code books. It's really fascinating, and a glimpse into an entire way of thinking that is now entirely obsolete; it's really top-notch media history. The final section of the book, and the last three chapters, are on narrative and the database, an old digital media topic that Hayles borrows from Lev Manovich, but updates with discussions on how the split applies to modern geography, Steven Hall's Raw Shark Texts, and Mark Z. Danielewski's Only Revolutions. The book's end is rather abrupt, and the focus on texts in the second and third sections seem to violate the spirit of the earlier chapters. But for the most part, it's a very hard-hitting evaluation of technology and the humanities that manages to sell the value of both.

I'm afraid I fell out of the 2 nonfiction /1 fiction pattern around when I was reading Light; as a result, there's been about a month and at least three other fiction books between it and the time I finished How We Think.  And as a direct corollary of that, I've forgotten nearly everything about the book that wasn't what I wrote above when I sketched out the review.  I guess what strikes me in afterthought is how well everything in the book hung together.  It starts off almost incoherent in the way it jumps from character to character, and never really settles down, but it still manages to culminate in something meaningful.  There's also a theme of broken families which I think I failed to really emphasize before; it's not quite enough to offset the unsympathetic characters, but it does provide a probable cause for why they act the way they do.  The Liu book and the Hayles book complement each other well; both are, at their core, meditations on what it means to be a digital culture.  In fact, Hayles references Liu quite a bit, though she's generally referring to works of his more recent than The Laws of Cool.  It's a popular topic in digital humanities, and one that it might be best suited to explore (especially if we follow up on the methods and processes Hayles describes).  Oddly, my reaction to the Hayles and Lui books are almost opposite; I felt Lui's "case study" stuff regarding workers and the modern industry was inspired, but that his plea for the value of the humanities was a little standard boilerplate (although I acknowledge he was writing a while ago, when it was a little more fresh).  Hayles, on the other hand, had one of the best arguments for digital studies and the humanities that I've ever come across, but her case studies seemed very familiar; replace them with a chapter on literature from How We Became Posthuman or vice versa, and it would be hard to notice a difference (except with the Only Revolutions book, which is a much more quantitative analysis, an approach that wasn't as fully advocated in Posthuman).   Still, I'd recommend both of them (and Light, for that matter) so there you go.

Later Days.

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