Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book Triad IX: Digital Unfathomables. And more Leafs.

We've got an eclectic set this time around.  A Leafs book, a digital media book, and a sci fi.  Let's get to it.
 We're looking at:

Leafs AbomiNation: The dismayed fan's handbook to why the Leafs stink and how they can rise again by Dave Feeschuk and Michael Grange
Blindsight by Peter Watts
Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation by Beth Coleman

Reviews after the break.

Leafs AbomiNation.  Feschuk and Michael Grange evaluate exactly what has brought the Leafs franchise to its current low point, and what could potentially bring about a different future. "Leafs AbomiNation" is a twist on the term "Leafs Nation," the legion of self-professed Leaf fans. The title is a good indication of Grange and Feschuk's tone: unsubtle and snarky. For example: "fans were given white T-shirts bearing the Leafs' new corporate slogan--'Spirit is Everything!' (Vince Lombardi, the late NFL coaching legend who once famously declared that 'Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing,' must surely have vomited in his grave.)" If the thought of vomiting corpses somehow doesn't appeal to you, this may not be the book for you. And, on occasion, Feschuk and Grange's fan opinions seem to get in the way of their journalistic points, as when they decry the Leaf policy regarding jersey retirement, and the brief tirade against Matt Sundin. For the most part, though, the book is an impressive, in-depth investigation of the Leafs: their (at least relatively) glorious past, the interference of Ballard, the coaching and GM moves of Imlach. And, more recently, actions of John Ferguson Jr as coach, Peddie and Tanenbaum as owners, and the Teachers' Pension Fund, as well as some hope in Brian Burke. They also place quite a bit of blame on the Toronto fans; a good fan, of course, supports their team in good times and bad, but if they're doing that, what motivation does the team owner have to improve things? At the core of the book is a question at the core of many sport franchises: what does it mean to manage a team? Should winning games or economic success be the main focus? As the Leafs' track record as most profitable franchise and long streak of Cupless seasons demonstrates, they're not the same thing. Feschuk and Grange's solution is a little farfetched--they basically propose supporting the current GM Burke, and putting some fan pressure in the form of box office towards getting Teachers' to realize that a win is a necessary goal, not an unnecessary risk. But as a piece of sport journalism, it's a nice summary of how the Leafs got to this point, and what could change things, with comparisons to other sport franchises.

 Blindsight.  Watts' book is science fiction in the best sense of the word, using existing science and its projectory to not only envision the future, but consider what it means to be human in the here and now. The book's narrator is Siri Keeton, a jargonist. As a child, Keeton underwent a hemispherectomy to cure his severe epilepsy; the operation left him unable to respond emotionally to others. To compensate, he learned to respond consciously to people's signs, and became a jargonist, expert in reading the "surfaces" of sentient beings. As such, he is recruited to be part of a first contact mission. The rest of the crew, like him, present variations on what it means to communicate with others. Bates, the military officer, is famous for her empathic prisoner technique. Susan James, the linguist, has multiple personalities and is constantly in communication with herself. Szpindel, the biologist, has his sensory perception replaced with machines. Jukki Sarasti, the captain, is also a vampire, a predator from an extinct race resurrected to serve humanity; highly intelligent, but also with a tendency to see other people as prey. Throughout the book, scenes from Keeton's past are juxtaposed with the crew's attempt to communicate with the alien vessel they track. Given Keeton's skill set, I originally thought that this book was sci-fi for semiotics; a better comparison, though, is systems theory. Systems theory is the study of how system--whether it's an industry or a person or a computer--organizes itself to interact with the universe around it, and indeed, it's the question of how this organization works that the book returns to time and again--Siri goes so far as to think of himself as a human Chinese Box, ala Searle's thought experiment. It's a book that's almost a philosophical allegory, and, as such, the story sometimes takes a second seat; conveniently, as jargonist, Siri's job is to observe the others rather than interact with anyone, which connects thematically to the main plot, but also makes things a little static. All in all, though, it's an extremely thoughtful, lucid book.

Hello Avatar.  This book left me with something of a conundrum. Previously, I had read a description of Coleman's book, which was heavy on words such as "identity," "networked media," "avatar," and "virtual"--basic buzzwords that made me dismiss the book as not having anything worthwhile to say. Then I heard Coleman lecture in person, and decided to come back to the book. So, the question is, did the reading justify my impression that this was old words on new media? Or do I have to eat crow? Let me put it this way: these feathers are really hard to swallow. Granted, the book takes a while to come into its own; the first two chapters recapitulate a lot of what I was already familiar with in terms of avatars and the human tendency to assign agency to things. What Coleman really brought to the discussion was a focus on variance: x-reality, or a continuum of difference rather absolute difference between real and virtual, and a recognition that virtual similitude comes more from the confluence of a wide variety of multimedia rather than visual fidelity. Chapter three, though, is where things really come into their own, as Coleman bases the chapter around her interview with a virtual cannibal in Second Life--a man who messaged back and forth with interested others about cooking others and eating them--in order to make the point that these people sought to make the virtual real not through technological means, but by bringing existing real-world BDSM practices into the virtual space. Chapter four continues this discussion with the topic of networked presence and avatars, and the conclusion uses ARGs and other new media engagements to argue that the x-reality is here. One thing I found particularly interesting in the book is that Coleman rejects the postmodern take on identity in digital identities, saying that we're not fragmented, but unified between virtual and real forms. While Coleman is most definitely not proposing a return to essentialism or modernism, she does seem to be promoting some concept of the human in the digital. Considering that a lot of the popular theory I'm reading at the moment seems to be trying ways to go beyond or at least around the human (Object Oriented Ontology, posthumanism, animal theory), it's something of a novel approach.

Like I said, it's another set that really don't share a lot in common.  I've been reading the Maple Leaf stuff for a while now, but this was the first "recent" thing I had read.  I think I'm even less impressed by the relative lack of professionalism in some of the jokes the two authors pull.  It's odd--I *like* authors who feel free to joke with their material, but some of their stuff just felt a little juvenile and mean-spirited.  (I mean, honestly: vomit in their graves?  Are we in a South Park sketch? ...and now I feel even more Puritan for using that comparison.)  In case you were wondering what I was talking about when I mention that I looked at the Coleman book before, I was referring to what I wrote about it here.  In my defense, "the walls between the virtual and the real are coming down" still doesn't sound like a particularly revolutionary idea for a digital studies book.  But Coleman really makes the most out of it.  I had borrowed the book from a friend and was going to give it back yesterday, so I spent a few hours writing down quotations that I might want to use from it some day.  In the process, I basically speed-read through it again, and it fit together a lot better on a second reading.  I also didn't mention above that the book had a very striking visual design (the yellow sticks with you, and the footnotes appear in the margins, which makes them easier to refer to in the flow of the book for some reason), as well as a timeline and interviews with Jaron Lanier, the aforementioned cannibal, and others.  And on Blindsight... I think this was the book that finally warmed me on the value of OOO.  Thacker's book came close, but this was the first time I looked at something, and thought "This would benefit from an OOO perspective--and would benefit OOO theory as well."  A while ago, I reviewed Harrison's Light, which also dealt with some big issues on the nature of humanity, and technically went a lot further in depicting strange new futures for humanity.  But I think that Watts did a much, much better job presenting the arguments and philosophies behind his principles that he wanted the reader to think about, and framing them in a narrative fashion.  If I had time to write papers on literature these days, I'd right one on Blindsight.  (Although I suppose technically, if you count this review, I kind of did.)

The Leafs book was definitely the weak one in the set, but this was a good set of books.   See y'all next set.

Later Days.

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