First Monday

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Steven Johnson. Best technology writing 2009 Steven Johnson (editor).
The best technology writing 2009.
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009.
paper, 224 p., ISBN 978 0 3001 5410 8, $US17.95.
Yale University Press:



A fasinating collection of 19 essays, these articles provide a snapshot of opinions about the impact of the Internet, and especially the Web, on everyday lives. These stories were selected from diverse sources, ranging from the precious and precocious Onion to traditional sources such as the New York Times and Atlantic.

There is certainly an undercurrent of several themes in these essays, but the most significant seems to be about reading. How has access to terabytes of digital information altered the way we read? Nicolas Carr — in his essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” — argues ultimately that we are all becoming like HAL, feeling our minds going like the infamous computer in 2001. Carr solemnly ends his work by stating simply “our own intelligence flattens into artificial intelligence.” The Onion supports this notion in its absurdist way with the story of Philip Meyer, an “eccentric” who actually finishes an entire book (Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird). Not surprisingly, the Onion reports that psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Schulz calls Meyer “a classic case of deviant behavior.” Seriously, there are other examples of support for Carr in this collection, such as Dana Goodyear’s insightful description of keitai shosetsu or cell–phone novels. Millions of these novels are literally changing Japanese publishing — and reading habits.

A second theme in this book might be simply called unsung heroes of the Internet, or defenders of the digital age. These individuals are certainly not supercharacters in the Hollywood sense, blessed with an abundance of special and unusual genetic mutations. Indeed, some might not call these heroes heroic, but rather those cursed with a certain kind of inflexibilty. Julian Dibbell describes griefers in Second Life, those with a mission to derail the all–too frequent deadly seriousness of some citizens in virtual worlds. Griefers might not be too heroic to many, but they certainly make it clear that reality is not a pixelated screen. A more geekish superhero might be Dan Kaminisky, described by Joshua Davis in his “Secret Geek A-Team Hacks Back, Defends Worldwide Web.” Kaminisky discovered vulnerabilities in DNS, leading to a massive effort to patch the problems with a “source port randomization solution.” danah boyd is certainly heroic in her essay in this work, calling on all of us to help at–risk young people online, the targets all too often of bullies and predators.

How can we make a difference, you ask? Well, it is a matter of “the will and the want” as boyd notes (p. 105). We have the tools. We certainly have the time. In the last essay in this collection, Clay Shirky points out that many of the brilliant products of the Internet over the past decade are a product of a cognitive surplus. Some 200 billion hours a year in the United States are spent watching television. Shirky calculates that this cognitive surplus could be spent instead on new digital tools, creating the equivalent of 2,000 Wikipedia projects. Or, I might suggest, helping online some of those at–risk, as boyd suggests.

One could argue for the inclusion in this work of many other essays, reports, editorials, and musings — especially from many less traditional sources than the Atlantic, New York Times, New Yorker, and Wired. Johnson truly skimmed a thimbleful of thought–provoking content with this collection. Nevertheless, these essays will certainly resonant with you for quite some time, encouraging you to discover some gems hidden in the crevices of the Internet. — Edward J. Valauskas. End of article

Copyright © 2009, First Monday.

Book review of Steven Johnson’s Best technology writing 2009
by Edward J. Valauskas.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 9 - 7 September 2009