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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

September 6, 2014 at 8:00 PM

How my summer tech book binge changed the way I think about tech

Browsing through books at Seattle's Ada's Technical Books on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Monica Guzman)

Browsing through books at Seattle’s Ada’s Technical Books on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Monica Guzman)

I lost myself in people’s minds this summer and wound up changing mine.

Back in June, I announced my summer tech-book binge. With the help of local techies, authors, librarians and you, I picked 11 books to read at the pace of one a week through the end of August (confession! I haven’t finished Neal Stephenson’s 1,056-page “Reamde”).

theshallows

The goal: to dive deep into our technological moment. The reason: I was reading only articles, tweets and emails.

“Reading texts is not the same as reading a text,” New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote soon after a January Pew study showed that 24 percent of American adults hadn’t read a book in the past year.

“There is no intellectual equivalent to allowing oneself the time and space to get lost in another person’s mind, because in so doing we find ourselves,” he said.

Here’s what I turned up:

smarterthan100

Our values are also technology’s values. Punctuality wasn’t a thing before the mechanical clock, and there are levels of productivity, efficiency, immediacy and precision only the smartphone and its apps can help us achieve.

Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows,” calls the values a technology promotes its “intellectual ethic,” and I’m looking at everything now — Google Glass, wearable devices, driverless cars — wondering what its ethic will be.

Old stuff rocks. “The Shallows” was published in 2011, but when people pitched titles 10 years old or more, I looked for reasons not to include them. That’s the value a world swimming in tweets, posts and streams of new stuff had taught me: Old views stink.

hackers100

“To remain ignorant of what came before is to remain a child,” Cicero said, a while ago. And you know what? He’s still right. Novelty is not everything. And as Neil Postman put it in “Technopoly” — a 1992 critique so timeless and insightful I’ll never judge a tech book by its age again — we can’t “confuse information with understanding.”

The history books on my list woke me up.

Steven Levy’s 1984 classic, “Hackers,” took me to the 1960s labs at MIT, where the student geniuses of the Tech Model Railroad Club injected mainframe computers with an openness and collaboration that’s now part of all computers’ DNA.

technopoly100

Where Wizards Stay Up Late,” by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, traced the origins of the Internet to not one but a dozen people, each building off another in the kind of collaborative network they made global.

Which leads to an old belief of mine that’s now pure steel:

Tech serves us best when we create rather than consume. Where Carr saw the worst of tech’s impact, Clive Thompson, in “Smarter Than You Think,” saw the best. One difference was that Carr — in arguing, for example, that the rise of short, fast media makes our contemplative muscles weak — all but ignored how tech boosts creation. It’s a common oversight: We’re transitioning from a world where public creation was difficult to one where it’s a cinch.

secondmachine100

The same goes for public collaboration. Great things happen when we swirl together and build. Think Wikipedia. Blogs. The Internet itself.

But channels for public thinking get jammed when those in power wield huge tech advantages to get more power than they should. Think government surveillance, corporate data mining and the slow, profit-seeking creep of tech companies themselves.

I used to think this an overstatement, but now I’m convinced:

itscomplicated100

More tech power above must be met by more tech power below. The point is driven home in Cory Doctorow’s science-fiction novel “Little Brother,” Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s “The Second Machine Age,” and even danah boyd’s “It’s Complicated,” about the social lives of networked teens. Public thinking needs public protecting.

One last thing. In almost every debate about the goodness or badness of tech, two camps emerge. One thinks tech is a tool that does what we say. The other thinks it’s a living, overpowering force.

Both are right. Technology does change the world, often in big ways we can’t predict. But avoiding it denies us any grip on its power. It’s when we roll up our sleeves and tinker that tech bends to our will, and the world follows.

At least, that’s what the minds I toured this summer make me believe.

I plan to visit many more.

Find the entire tech book binge list here.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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