Recent Reads

Interior_view_of_Stockholm_Public_LibraryI’ve found myself returning to posts on my “Reviews” page to refresh my memory of certain books, and I realize once again that this blog has, in a sense, spoiled me. If I think, “I’ll just keep a reading journal with pen and paper,” it doesn’t happen. This is where my reading is centralized. It’s not a commonplace book, the notes are not extensive, it’s not a “complete” picture of my thoughts on every book. But it is Reading Central for me just the same. And those reviews, even if they aren’t totally complete pictures of my opinions and experiences reading, do act as triggers to other memories of the books.

So here are a few capsule reviews of books I’ve visited/revisited over the last few months:

1. Reclaiming Conversation, by Sherry Turkle. I checked this out a few months ago and didn’t finish it; more recently I checked it out again, and I still haven’t finished it.

The reason is this: it is depressing, and somewhat repetitive. I say this hesitantly, because I like Sherry Turkle very much as an author. Her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other was an excellent, thorough examination of what our devices do to our relationships. But Reclaiming Conversation seems to revisit the same territory — granted, with different, more up-to-date evidence, but still the conclusion is all too similar: Our devices are changing us, handicapping us in some ways.

What is interesting about Sherry Turkle is that she is someone whose opinions of technology have evolved over the years. In her early work, she felt cyberspace was a great place to explore identity and therefore was a positive force in mental health. But as more and more data has rolled in, her views have changed. In this book, she focuses on the generation that has grown up with iPhones — and parents glued to their iPhones — and offers piles of evidence that our relational competencies, our capacity to learn and know and think, our interactive ethics are all changing for the worse. One gets a general picture of people trapped in a web — aware of it, but unsure what to do about it.

I think for a first-time reader of Turkle, this is the book I would recommend, because it focuses on the most current technology and the most current data. The basic point (again, I have not finished it, so this is an in-progress impression) is that face-to-face conversation, though increasingly avoided in favor of texts and emails because of the intimidation inspired by the mere idea of the unedited self, is one form of salvation in the age of devices. There are dimensions of knowing that can only be learned through the failures, stops and starts, clumsinesses, even dead spots — as well as the soaring moments — of face-to-face conversations.

I strongly recommend listening to one or more interviews with Turkle as she discusses her book. Interviews (and reviews) can be found here, on her website: Sherry Turkle Reviews and Interviews.

2. Men of Iron (Howard Pyle) is one of the books recommended to supplement our history study this year. The plot concerns Myles Falworth and his quest for knighthood, and it was a page turner. I enjoyed the dialect, the drama, the description, and the well-paced plot. The place in my heart that has always loved tales of knights and castles was completely satisfied by this classic book for young adults.

3. The Help (Kathryn Stockett) was a reread. I felt much the same as I did the first time, and I enjoyed it every bit as much. This time I also went online afterward to see if the author has produced another book yet — no luck. I also discovered some interesting facts about a lawsuit filed after the book was published, Stockett’s personal story, and books on similar subjects (such as this one) that might help to flesh out the picture.

4. Out of the Silent Planet (C.S. Lewis). This is a reread as well, but it has been so long since my first reading that it felt like a first-time read. Of the three books in the space trilogy, I’ve reread That Hideous Strength most frequently (review here). Despite the fact that Perelandra is responsible for reviving my interest in reading as a college student, I have never tried to reread it; maybe this comes from a sense of reverence for the book, and for what it inspired. Sad to say, I have tried lately to reread Perelandra, but it is progressing slowly, and more out of a sense of duty than pleasure. Maybe I should have left it alone!

But Out of the Silent Planet was interesting enough. It does have a somewhat cerebral, slow-moving quality for science fiction, but I was able to read with patience and interest as Ransom made his voyage and delineated all his many reactions and adventures on Malacandra (Mars). I was left with a general impression of chill and cold, not entirely hospitable beauty. It lays out the theological vision of the universe that forms the groundwork for all three books, including the idea of a fall on earth (the “silent planet”) long before life even existed there. Such a fall would help to explain the existence of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, even before the fall. But of course the trilogy is an imaginative, speculative project, not systematic theology.

In any case, I am not giving up on Perelandra. Perhaps if I reread all three books in succession, That Hideous Strength will be entirely comprehensible to me at last!

5. Come Thou Long Expected Jesus (Nancy Guthrie) is a collection of readings for the Advent season. I read it on the Kindle, and though I liked it at the time, I find I’m unable to recall much about it now. Some of the sermons (and sermon excerpts) were excellent. At the time, the book helped me to focus my thoughts on Christmas — something I have an increasingly hard time doing as I get older, and the holiday develops an ever-longer list of obligations and commitments. It seems paradoxical that I was able to bask in the season much more fully and freely when I had only myself to think about!

Steve Jobs

jobs-cover-250Though I’m neither an especially tech savvy person nor an Apple devotee, lately I’ve been hearing about Steve Jobs everywhere. He seems to be the one people like to quote, especially his comments about designing not the products people want, but the ones people would want if they knew they existed. When my husband watched a documentary about Jobs a few weeks ago and told me about it, that settled it. I had to read this bio by Walter Isaacson.

The book offers a readable portrayal of a very complicated personality. Jobs is in some ways the quintessential American hero. He’s an orphan, not a child of royalty. His adoptive family was middle class, not a place of privilege. He dropped out of college. He made it big using his brains and ingenuity, without any help from an Ivy League transcript or a famous benefactor. Though he died of cancer a few years ago, the company he co-founded (with Steve Wozniak) is still tremendously successful. When it comes to fitting the pattern of the self-made man, Jobs pretty much nails it.

But there is a dark side to this mythology, too. Jobs was equally famous for his brutal honesty and explosive temper. Even those closest to him wondered at times if he simply lacked the filters that bear witness to shared humanity, but his use of meanness was so strategic that it seems to have been intentional. He was legendary for his intensity and drive for excellence, and he forged a company the goal of which was to create great products. His success at building an “A Team” despite his often boorish behavior testifies to what many have called his “reality distortion field” — his insistence on what seemed an impossible standard of performance that, through the sheer force of his personality, he enabled others to believe in and achieve.

I admired Jobs’s simple, elegant design aesthetic, but he came across as the ultimate control freak with his belief in end-to-end design — creating every element of a product from the design of a device to its operating system and software to its user interface. Though he started out as a hacker himself, he scorned “open system” philosophy that promoted licensing products to multiple users. Though being able to “mix and match” elements of a product encourages competition and gives consumers more choices, the idea of contaminating any Apple product with “outside” elements was heresy to Jobs. He viewed the world in binary terms; people were either villains or heroes (his terms are more profane than I want to quote here), and products were either amazing or total garbage. It’s hard not to hear a contempt for consumers: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” he declares. He was so protective of his creations that eventually even the screws were hidden and the batteries were inaccessible in his devices. No one could even look inside and see how they worked.

I found myself disturbed and angry at how much this controlling tendency translated into megalomania. It’s sobering to consider how much our lives are affected by people we don’t know at all, whose beliefs and values don’t represent us. Jobs transformed six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. This affects how countless Americans experience their lives every day. But more troubling is the glimpse we get of his influence into politics, news, and education. Isaacson provides us with an extended experience of the world of an industry giant operating in a sphere most of us don’t get to see.

I was struck again by how the power base in our country seems no longer to be elected political office, but big business. A college drop-out, Jobs was not well educated himself, and he was filled with intellectual eccentricities. What business does he have advising the president on what American education should look like? (Not surprisingly, Jobs’s view involved eliminating the human element as much as possible: “All books, learning materials, and assessments should be digital and interactive, tailored to each student and providing feedback in real time.”) What business does any single individual have advising Rupert Murdoch on what news venues should exist or not? (Jobs advised him to give Fox News the axe.) What business does a CEO with personal interests have offering to create the ads for the president in his 2012 campaign? (He grew annoyed and didn’t do it when the president’s chief of staff was not totally deferential.) We didn’t elect Steve Jobs — or for that matter, any of the other tech giants who met with Obama in February 2011 to strategize about what was best for the country.

That session appears to have had an effect. The suggestion the president liked best was Jobs’s idea of producing more “engineers”:

These factory engineers did not have to be PhD’s or geniuses; they simply needed to have basic engineering skills for manufacturing. Tech schools, community colleges, or trade schools could train them… If you educate these engineers, we could move more manufacturing plants here.

“Engineers”? Or worker bees? In any case, I read this against the backdrop of the president’s recent proposal of taxpayer subsidized community college for everyone, and it’s not hard to connect the dots.

We didn’t elect these business leaders to run the country — or did we? It strikes me that we vote more with our consumer choices than with our ballots. What we buy — and perhaps become dependent on — is more powerful than who we vote into office when it comes to shaping the future. We know crony capitalism exists, but in these pages we get a closer look, and I found it deeply offensive.

“Like many great men whose gifts are extraordinary, he’s not extraordinary in every realm,” Jobs’s wife explains. “He doesn’t have social graces, such as putting himself in other people’s shoes, but he cares deeply about empowering humankind, the advancement of humankind, and putting the right tools in their hands.” One admires the evangelistic zeal of a person who seems not to be in it for the money. But ego isn’t much better as a motivation, and it makes me uneasy to think about what “advancement of humankind” means to a man who seemed unable to recognize the fundamental value of individual human beings or the richness of a diverse, free world.

The sad thing is that Jobs originally saw himself as a revolutionary. This 1984 ad for the Macintosh depicts his company as the sole independent spirit in a world dominated by influential, established businesses that turn out mediocre products. His company was the hope of the world, the only one empowering the average person to own an elegant and effective pc. But by the end, one wonders if the face on the screen is a better fit.

Convenience? Convince me.

This story about the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was on NPR while I was making supper last night. I laughed a cynical laugh.

The story is a giddy pep rally for using “biometric data” — retinal scans, fingerprints, face recognition — to increase tech security by making passwords obsolete. (The Borg, anyone?) It comes on the heels of a week when I’m increasingly aware that technology really does not deliver on its promises because it malfunctions much of the time. Just in the last week, I have:

  • tried to create a connection between my Yamaha keyboard and my laptop; I followed the directions perfectly, everything installed correctly, and then… it failed to work. Files I wanted to save to the computer didn’t get saved.
  • set up a new website on which the software does not work correctly. In the process of trying to figure out the bugs, an update appeared on the dashboard that turned out to be an empty file. So there it is, a place where you can push buttons that are supposed to perform certain tasks… but they don’t.
  • sat down to watch a movie using Chromecast, given to us for Christmas by a relative. 45 minutes later we gave up and watched the movie on the laptop. Chromecast had worked perfectly the day before, but not this day.
  • paid some library fines because two emails sent me by the library to notify me of upcoming due dates did not make it to my mailbox. They’re not in my spam folder either, and other emails from the library have arrived safe and sound before and since. 30 minutes at the mail help site was altogether useless. I’ve discovered that several other emails from other parties also never made it to me.

In each case, hours were lost — hours of my life that could have been spent doing something productive rather than futile, something involving my whole body and mind rather than sitting couchbound staring at a screen. I thought computers were supposed to be MORE rational than people. But this is irrational, altogether capricious activity on the part of machines. “There’s a reason why they do these things,” my husband laughs. “The machines aren’t conspiring against you.”

Said reasons escape me, and the machines aren’t talking. (Yet.) When some merely mechanical device in our home breaks — car, washer, furnace — you can call someone and get them fixed. (This doesn’t happen very often, because they usually work. I don’t have to troubleshoot daily or weekly to get clean clothes.) To do that every time a computer malfunctions would break the bank, but in the abstract world of software, self-diagnosis if often a losing proposition. Which only serves to highlight the basic reality that my life has become involved, sometimes dependent, on technologies I don’t understand at all. And the folks who do understand them are getting more and more of my personal data, and more and more of my money, more and more often — thanks to planned obsolescence.

The two reporters discussing the joys of biometric security conclude with a reference to how “incredibly irritating” it is to remember passwords. But passwords are the easy part. I’d like to keep my fingerprints and retinas to myself, thank you very much. What happens if when I turn that all over to the tech companies and then get hacked? Various sci fi movies come to mind in which sinister characters steal body parts to gain access to biometric security systems.

More to the point, though, is the feeling of selling one’s soul. These security measures are billed as privacy protectors. But they are taking our private data to achieve it. And you can bet they won’t work flawlessly, as promised.

How long will it take before the projected scenarios are based on anything close to reality — rather on the assumption that everything will work as planned, with no unforeseen glitches, and no vulnerabilities? It’s easy enough for the techie to point out that I obviously enjoy some technologies. I’m writing this on a computer; I love my car, my oven, my washer and dryer, etc. But that doesn’t mean I have to love every new development that comes along, or that I shouldn’t do a little personal cost-benefit analysis before signing on to the latest and greatest. A little wise skepticism seems to be in order regarding the  sunny biometric future projected by the Consumer Electronics Show.

More work…?

If we have such an effective attentional filter, why can’t we filter out distractions better than we can? Why is information overload such a serious problem now?

For one thing, we’re doing more than ever before. The promise of a computerized society, we were told, was that it would relegate to machines all of the repetitive drudgery of work, allowing us humans to pursue loftier purposes and have more leisure time. It didn’t work out this way. Instead of more time, most of us have less. Companies large and small have off-loaded work onto the backs of consumers. Things that used to be done for us, as part of the value-added service of working with a company, we are now expected to do ourselves. With air travel, we’re now expected to complete our own reservations and check-ins, jobs that used to be done by airline employees or travel agents. At the grocery store, we’re expected to bag our own groceries and, in some supermarkets, to scan our own purchases. We pump our own gas at filling stations. Telephone operators used to look up numbers for us. Some companies no longer send out bills for their services — we’re expected to log in to their website, access our account, retrieve our bill, and initiate an electronic payment; in effect, do the job of the company for them. Collectively, this is known as shadow work — it represents a kind of parallel, shadow economy in which a lot of the service we expect from companies has been transferred to the consumer. Each of us is doing the work of others and not getting paid for it. It is responsible for taking a great deal of the leisure time we thought we would all have in the twenty-first century. (Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind)

OrganizedMindI initially excerpted this passage here to agree with it, but by the time I’ve finished typing it out, I find more areas of disagreement than agreement.

For one thing, the whole passage is overstated. “More [work] than ever before.” Seriously? More than settlers who had to hunt and dress game, clear fields, tend livestock and gardens, wash clothes by hand, deliver their babies and remedy their own illnesses, and build their homes? Does accessing my account online — a process that takes well under five minutes — even compare?

And for each of these fairly trivial tasks we may now need to do ourselves, others are released: balancing the checkbook, calling or driving to the travel agent’s office, writing out checks and envelopes and buying stamps to pay the bills vs. paying online or via automatic deduction. I suspect the net result is that we’re doing less than ever before — certainly not more.

Are we really “expected to” bag our own groceries and pump our own gas? We have these options but are not forced to choose them.

There is an implicit snobbery in the passage as well. “Each of us is doing the work of others and not getting paid for it.” Who defines which kinds of drudgery we’re entitled to think of as “the work of others”?

The “shadow work” the author complains that we should expect from companies is transferred to us because the companies themselves, in many cases, are leaner in their use of human labor, thanks to the increasing automation of the workplace. This is something that Nicholas Carr writes about in The Glass Cage, and he’s rightly troubled. The possibilities for job creation are shrinking dramatically because machines are, even considering the initial expenditure of implementing them, cheaper than people. But in any case, automation explains the increase of “shadow work.”

I find this passage less compelling than I did at first reading. But nevertheless, the reason I perked up my ears was the sense that we are increasingly “busy,” and seem to have less to show for it. I’m interested in exploring why this is, and I think this book may have something worth hearing on the subject before I’m finished with it. It’s certainly gotten my attention in its summary of the increase of information, and the stress our daily decision-making load puts on our attentional faculties. It could help to explain the fatigue I’ve become aware of in myself — part of the reason my reading has dwindled so much, and this blog has been so silent for so long.

The Glass Cage

The-Glass-Cage-book-coverA few years ago, I read Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, which studied the effects of social media on our relationships. Though I really liked the book, I couldn’t relate as well to the earlier portions that focused on the development of robots. “What does this have to do with me?” I wondered.

I feel differently now. A few weeks ago, I saw a headline about developing robot nurses to treat Ebola patients. Last week I saw another headline, this one about a Google computer that programs itself. Drones regularly appear in headlines (and even in YouTube videos when they become the hapless prey of cruising red tailed hawks). More and more, problems I didn’t know I had are being solved through various electronic devices. Where is it all headed?

When I heard about Nicholas Carr’s new book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us in this interview on NPR, I was intrigued. Several times as I read it, I remembered Carr’s comment in The Shallows that he missed his less distractible, pre-internet brain. Clearly he’s found it again. A more thoroughgoing discussion of the inroads automation is making in our lives (even those of us who don’t think of ourselves as “techies”) is difficult to imagine. From the autopilot capabilities of the aviation and automotive industries, to the computerization of the medical industry, to the software used by architects, to the GPS on our iPhones and the auto suggest when we perform a Google search — and more — Carr unpacks the question of what reliance on machines does to us.

There are several things I liked about the book (though the picture it gives us is quite sobering). One is Carr’s balanced perspective. He is not anti-technology, but rather a proponent of thoughtful engagement with it. A devotee of the technology-centric approach to life would be hard-pressed to find reasonable evidence that Carr is a strident neo-Luddite and can therefore be dismissed.

The factual content of the book makes it a fascinating read. Though I felt dismayed by many of the developments discussed in these pages, I learned a great deal and found it unfailingly thought-provoking. Whether I was reading about Inuit hunters, Robert Frost poems, airline accidents, Google Glass, or the contrast between human-centric and technology-centric design,  I kept wanting to put the book down and think about it. Carr’s discussion is insightful and encompasses the personal, intellectual, physical, and moral dimensions of automation, leaving us with plenty to think about.

Some of it made me mad. For instance, I read that the Rand corporation did a study using a simulator around ten years ago and reported giddily that medical care would be greatly improved if it transitioned from paper to electronic records. Millions of taxpayer dollars were immediately poured into the process only to reveal a few years later that it wasn’t panning out after all. We can’t go back. We have to live with that — even though it seems to be resulting in worse patient care and higher costs.

Some of it made me sad. When I read that the younger generation of Inuit hunters, legendary for their navigational skills using cues from nature, are becoming dependent on electronic GPS and consequently experiencing more accidents and even deaths, I thought about how quickly the inheritance of knowledge and wisdom can die out — only to be replaced by something vastly inferior.

Some of it made me feel hopeful because it vindicated my own hunches. For instance, did you know that those who use paper maps (vs. electronic GPS) actually grow more gray matter? Did you know that they age better? Well, okay, those weren’t hunches…. but I have felt that my iPhone’s GPS frustrates me by giving me such a small segment of the picture, and making me a blue dot in the center. (It’s similar to the way my Kindle strands me on a single page, without a tactile sense of the context among other pages or an easy way to flip backward and forward.) I’m apparently not alone in my attachment to paper maps.

Edited to add: Today (Nov. 8), I see a news story about how in 2025, 50% of today’s occupations will no longer exist. Before reading The Glass Cage, I would have probably laughed this article off. But the book does include discussion of the impact of technology in the workplace, and in fact automation does replace people. Maybe I’m glad to be in the humanities after all. Robot humanities faculty would be a contradiction in terms… wouldn’t it? In any case, the article exhibits typically rose-tinted glasses regarding the way technology frees people from the monotonous and the mundane so that their work can be more interesting and creative. We’ll just hope that’s not code for “collecting unemployment.”

I suppose that you could put this book in a nutshell by saying it’s an extended development of the familiar mantra “Use it or lose it.” Highly prized skills and capabilities can atrophy when we are reduced to merely monitoring the screens in our lives. But ultimately The Glass Cage exhorts us to think about what it means to be human, and how we can preserve wholeness, risk, creativity, physicality, moral reasoning, and mastery over the gadgets and systems so solicitous to provide friction-free lives before we even ask. Dependence on technology is really dependence on the human entities behind it — entities that may be quite sincere in their belief that they are improving our quality of life, but that have a strong personal interest in commercial success and may not share our values and beliefs. We are better off in the long run if we interrogate the “improvements” that stream our way and think about what really gives our lives meaning. We may find we don’t want so much labor saved after all.

Anonymusing

We were working on our salad when he seemed to change the subject and asked, as we all sometimes do, about the role of moral authority in restraining a person from doing wrong. That is, how much do people rely on the physical proximity of others to influence their ethical behavior? We agreed that if some sense of collective vigilance influences our behavior, whether it be financial or physical — some awareness of physical community that makes us do right or wrong — then the sense of anonymity accompanying most Internet-based transactions can skew our behavior to a potentially dangerous point. (William H. Davidow, Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet)

computer-room-2-1237883-mI remember this question about the bodylessness of online discussion coming up even in the early nineties, when I was in graduate school. In one of my classes, we would skip meeting together in the classroom once in awhile and answer a discussion question via computer instead. Back then it was on mainframe computers located at certain points on the University campus. The computer changed the dynamics of the discussion because all of the inhibitions of being physically in a room together were absent. Quiet folks became dominant, sometimes even profane, when reduced to keyboard-only mode. It was a revelation.

I haven’t ever pursued this question about moral authority, but it’s occurred to me in one form or another at different times. Something I’ve noticed about law-abiding folks is that they tend to want to be less anonymous online. When I started blogging, it was under the totally anonymous nom de plume “writer2b.” But eventually I revealed my name, a trend I’ve noticed in other bloggers as well. No one made us do it; we felt compelled, perhaps by a sense of responsibility, perhaps by a desire to realize more fully the feeling of online connection with others. I think it does put constraints on what one is willing to reveal, and it raises the standard in terms of civil discourse.

But it’s still not as strong a regulator as physical proximity to others. This can have its liabilities, but it can create some unique opportunities too.  Maybe that’s why many of us feel that some of our blog friends know us differently or better than our real-world friends. We are able to develop and present our thoughts in writing more completely than we have either the time or the opportunity to do in person with others. Anyone patient and gracious enough to read them has a better idea of where we’re coming from than those we know in our all-too-rushed and infrequent offline conversations.

Vanishing Privacy

I heard this report the other night while I was making dinner. It’s about Facebook changing its privacy policy (again) and users’ discomfort about it (again).

The article is worth reading, but what jumped out at me was the remark by one user that Facebook really isn’t optional anymore. I’m not on Facebook and have lived to tell about it. It’s not that I don’t consider starting an account from time to time. But so far I remain Facebookless. What keeps me from it is the desire to clutch my remaining shreds of private life around me. So I’m one of many living testimonies that it is indeed optional.

The other remark that jumped out at me was a user’s comment about how personal the information on Facebook is, and how therefore it should be regulated. It may sound unsympathetic, but once a person put him- or herself completely out there, they can’t go back. It was a choice to entrust personal information to, essentially, a corporation — or really, to another individual, under the watchful eye and the control of a corporation. Now the only way to cry foul is to ask for yet another institutional entity to enter the equation and regulate the first entity.

A boy at church, listening in to my conversation with his mother a few weeks ago, was aghast to hear that I’m not on Facebook. It’s one of the givens of life for this generation. I felt like a real dinosaur!

I am surviving all right without Facebook. But I wonder: in what other ways have I sold my soul?

Technology in school?

Jess posted a link to this article about a technology-free school where tech execs send their children. Very interesting — definitely worth a look.

I’ve been thinking about showing my 5th grader how to use MS Publisher, but this article makes me think I might be rushing it. It also gave me a tip on how to get my 2nd grader to learn her multiplication table — by turning into a human lightning bolt.

The Lost Art of Reading

David Ulin’s Lost Art of Reading has been a thought-provoking little book. Described as a “ruminative essay,” this compact reflection on the distinctiveness of reading, and its role in an increasingly networked information age, doesn’t really make an argument against technology or predict the death of reading. But it does acknowledge some ways books and reading are being changed by technology, and makes a case for being proactive about finding ways to preserve the immersion act of deep reading.

This author has very different tastes in books than I do, and when he talks of his own literary autobiography — his experiences with various books that have shaped him in the course of his life — I’m rarely familiar with the authors and don’t relate very well. But we all have our own stories of books that have been important to us, and experiences of reading that we treasure.

Ulin makes reference to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (as well as other sources), a book I read and liked very much last year. But where Carr makes a thorough examination of the effects of the Internet on our brain “circuitry,” Ulin’s focus seems more personal. How should we respond to the distractibility we develop when we spend time online? Ultimately his conclusion is not all that remarkable: “I sit down. I try to make a place for silence. It’s harder than it used to be, but still, I read.” There is a pleasure in the journey, though, as Ulin’s observations about why reading matters, and what we come up against as we seek to get lost in a book, strike many familiar chords. I really liked his analysis of reading on the Kindle, something he has mixed feelings about (as do I). It was an affirming read in this sense.

As I neared the end, I found myself paying closer attention to my own online habits, and it’s not pretty. The main thing I notice is how many times I feel the urge to go to the computer for something, and then I tend to drift out into Internet-land for much longer than I intended. So I started to challenge that urge by setting a time for computer work, closing the laptop, and keeping a notebook and pen close by to write down anything that occurred to me to do online: check the weather; check email; see if Jessie Wise has a 5th grade grammar book coming out; track the packages that should be arriving this week; check on some blogs; visit the IEW website to see if my feelings have changed about that writing program’s approach; blog post ideas; et cetera...

I saved these tasks till the designated time, then sat down with my list. It felt good, and it worked pretty well; I closed the laptop again when I was done. I’m going to keep doing it. (Not even New Year’s yet, and this sounds like a resolution.) It was a small thing, a small boundary, but it helped to keep me more fully available to my offline life, which includes important (loved) people and things to do, along with some drudgery — and some reading time. I used it to finish up this book. I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read The Shallows. Otherwise, start with that one. Like this one, it’s not a polemic, but it does establish a foundation that makes a more narrowly focused book like this one more meaningful.

Facebook and blogging

Over the last year I’ve read of several fellow bloggers who’ve left or put limits on their Facebook involvement. One is Deb; another is Jess; most recently, Pastor Dennis. I find something I can relate to in all of them. And I’ve found myself returning from time to time to my own post about Boundaries with Technology, where I “had my full say.”

Since writing that post in which I come down very strongly against Facebook, I should admit that I’ve tried it again. It was back in the early summer, when I decided that I shouldn’t be so judgmental and should make myself available “where everyone is” — on Facebook. It lasted a few weeks before I deleted my account, this time permanently.

While I probably still believe what I wrote in my “Boundaries” post, like many practices it has metamorphosed into something simpler. Instead of “Facebook is bad,” it’s more like, “It’s not my thing.” I just never discovered the appeal. It was one more thing that added noise to my life, and it didn’t add an iota of relational enrichment. I found that the things I learned about people there weren’t the things I wanted to know. I’m more interested in what you think and feel and believe. Somehow those things don’t grow in the climate of Facebook. I can see that some people like it or value it as an informational tool, and that’s fine. It just wasn’t my thing, and I don’t miss it.

I do, however, really enjoy blogging, and have since 2007. What’s the difference? At times, I’ve really struggled with spending too much time at it, or with silly things like which theme or which header image to use. A few times I’ve dug in and tried to be “ambitious,” wresting it into a niche — making it exclusively a book blog, or listing it here or there, or even, once, creating a Facebook page for it. (Another very brief tryst with Facebook.) But it always morphs back into the rather shapeless, eclectic creature it now is — a “whatever I happen to be thinking about” kind of blog.

Though I’ve struggled with giving it too much importance, I’m comfortable with where it is right now. My publication rate is not terribly consistent; some weeks I post a lot, some weeks, not so much. But if I have something I want to work out in writing, I have come to really value this place for it. I like that there is a fairly complete record of my reading here; I go back and look at my thoughts on this or that book quite often, and I’ve kept this record more consistently than I’ve ever kept one offline. I also value this forum for keeping a record of nature study, mainly because I can post the photos along with the reflections here. I take lots of pictures, but our printer is such that I can’t print out many at all — the ink cartridge runs out after about 5 photos, and it’s expensive to replace. Here is a place I can put some of them.

Even though I don’t post every day like clockwork, this blog has fostered a regular discipline of writing — moreso, and for longer, than any paper diary ever has. It has made the concept of “audience” immediate and real, too. There is always some degree of shooting my thoughts out there into the vague “blogosphere,” but there are some distinct faces in the crowd, people who have left comments pretty regularly and whose blogs I read. These things have helped me to develop as a writer because they help to keep me writing.

It’s not a diary. It’s not a place to record the innermost thoughts of my heart or the personal details of my family. That’s just as well; those things are reserved for my prayer life and my friendships. It’s not really “social technology” either; blogging is a self-publication platform, not a place that exists to “find friends.” But I have developed and value some online friendships here in the blogosphere. They’re not the same as face to face friendships, but they have a certain depth because this forum allows us to develop and exchange our thoughts. These friendships exist somewhere in the space between the verbal and the physical, between the printed word and the human voice. I’m not sure how to define them! But they are real, and I have come to value them (you) very much.

I’m not sure I can pin down the difference between Facebook and blogging, or that I need to. But while Facebook isn’t my thing, it appears that blogging is, and I’ve grown comfortable with that.