Brain Pickings

7 Must-Read Books on the Future of Information and the Internet

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From retrofuturist media prophecies to the cognitive consequences of mobile-everything.

We’re deeply fascinated by the evolution of media and the sociocognitive adaptations that go along with it, but perhaps even more so by the intellectual debates surrounding this ever-swelling topic of increasing urgency and controversy. The past year has been particularly prolific in varied takes on our shared digital future, contextualizing our current concerns in fascinating media history and exploring the potential consequences of our modern media diets. Collected here are 7 of our favorite books investigating the subject from dramatically different yet equally important angles.

I LIVE IN THE FUTURE & HERE’S HOW IT WORKS

From our good friend and New York Times writer Nick Bilton comes I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted — a provocative look at how new media models are shaping the future of cross-platform storytelling. From the next chapter in journalism to the porn industry’s legacy of technological innovation to the sociocultural power of video games, Bilton examines the future from the lens of the past to deliver an intelligent, layered and — perhaps most importantly — optimistic blueprint for the where our digital universe is going.

THE SHALLOWS

Though we don’t agree with many of Nicholas Carr‘s arguments in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains — redundant and reductionist, his view is the contemporary equivalent of Futureshock, the techno-paranoid vintage series narrated by Orson Welles — we recognize the book as an important read, if only as a way to understand and contextualize these all-too-common fears that many seem to share with Carr.

My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or lengthy article… Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” ~ Nicholas Carr

HAMLET’S BLACKBERRY

Even if Carr is right and the Internet is taking a toll on our brains, it doesn’t have to. In Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, William Powers offers a toolkit of refreshing remedies for our chronically multitasking, digitally distracted selves, collected from historical figures that lived long before the digital age. From Thoreau’s “Internet Sabbaths” to productivity apps from Shakespeare, Powers blends the advantages of constant connectivity with the caution we need to exercise as we engage with the world in these new ways, extending an invitation to subvert our media routines in a way that prioritizes happiness over blind efficiency.

TOO MUCH TO KNOW

In Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, Harvard historian Ann Blair explores the history of contemporary media concerns like the impact of the internet on publishing, information overload and remix culture, tracing their roots to uncannily similar practices and concepts from the Renaissance and the Middle Ages.

During the later Middle Ages a staggering growth in the production of manuscripts, facilitated by the use of paper, accompanied a great expansion of readers outside the monastic and scholastic contexts. ~ Ann Blair

YOU KNOW NOTHING OF MY WORK!

No biography of iconic media futurist Marshall McLuhan could possibly be about the future of the internet per se — he lived, after all, a good half-century before the web as we know it existed. But Douglas Coupland’s excellent new almost-biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, which we reviewed last week, is full of insights on the evolution of media that presage many of our modern concerns. From information overload to the rise of what McLuhan calls “electronic inter-dependence,” the book offers a fascinating lens not only on the technological revolution of the past century, but also on the complex shifts in social cognition that it continues to beget.

One must remember that Marshall arrived at these conclusions not by hanging around, say, NASA or I.B.M., but rather by studying arcane 16th-century Reformation pamphleteers, the writings of James Joyce, and Renaissance perspective drawings. He was a master of pattern recognition, the man who bangs a drum so large that it’s only beaten once every hundred years.” ~ Douglas Coupland

IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK

Last month, we looked at the annual questions by iconic sci-tech futurism journal EDGE, which has been asking contemporary luminaries to answer one big question every year since 1998, then publishing the responses in a book the following year to serve up a fascinating and illuminating timecapsule of the intelligencia’s collective conscience. This year’s edition, Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?: The Net’s Impact on Our Minds and Future, offers a fantastic compendium of responses by iconic contemporary thinkers like Chris Anderson, Esther Dyson, Howard Gardner, Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno and 167 more.

You can also read the answers online, but whatever your chosen medium, we highly recommend you take a look.

COGNITIVE SURPLUS

Clay Shirky may just be the Marshall McLuhan of our day, only with saner vocabulary and less of a penchant for LSD. (At least as far as we know.) His Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, one of our top books in business, life and mind for 2010, takes a fascinating look at how new media and technology are transforming us from consumers to collaborators, harnessing the vast amounts of free-floating human potential to build on humanity’s treasure trove of knowledge and bring about social change.

For a taste of this absolutely essential book, don’t miss Shirky’s excellent TED talk:

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Life Looks for Life: A(nother) NASA Tribute

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Last month, we featured The Frontier Is Everywhere — one space fan’s breathtaking NASA tribute, remixing Carl Sagan’s iconic words with spellbinding images of the cosmos and our quest for its secrets. This month, he’s back with the second installment in the series: Life Looks for Life. Watch, breathe with the awe, and keep an eye on the project’s Facebook page for the next episode.

For more of Sagan’s glorious vision for the future of mankind in the universe, don’t miss this fantastic 9-minute animated adaptation of Pale Blue Dot.

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You Deserve a Medal: Honors on the Path to True Love

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We’ve been fans of designer Stefan G. Bucher every since his wonderful ongoing storytelling experiment, Daily Monster. This month, he’s back with what’s easily his most thoughtful project yet: You Deserve a Medal: Honors on the Path to True Love — a poetic, wonderfully illustrated homage to the many braveries of modern love, with all its romantic trials and tribulations. With 40 witty, beautifully designed medals that honor the small and significant feats of relationships, the book is an absolute gem of humor and humility.

A “love medals glossary” breaks down the design and iconography behind the insignia, and three of the medals — “The Worst-of-Days Medal for Heartbreak Survival,” “The Molten Medal for Overwhelming Sex Appeal,” and for “The One-in-a-Million Medal for True Love Recognition, Appreciation, and Reciprocation” — have actually been produced as physical medals, sculpted and stamped out of metal.

But what makes the book most fascinating and precious is that beneath the tongue-in-cheek tone lies not the usual cynicism about love but a genuine yearning for its rich complexity and its subtle manifestations.

It’s not about winning medals, it’s about doing something that will make somebody else happy, and THEN winning a medal for it. Think of the thing that makes your cynical self cringe with embarrassment, then do exactly that.” ~ Stefan G. Bucher

The project did start in the wake of a breakup. I had fallen into a difficult long-term relationship. After it ended and I got my bearings back I turned to the online personals. In the process I met a lot of amazing people who were baffled by love, too. It just became clear that we should get some damn awards for all this effort.” ~ Stefan G. Bucher

Playful as it may be, with its gamification and Foursqaurification of love, You Deserve a Medal gives us pause about the complicated dynamics of modern romance. After all, as much as we try to convince ourselves and our therapist otherwise, we all play the games of love, but we also long for that deeper connection underneath — might as well get some tangible rewards for it.

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5 Must-See Talks from Google Zeitgeist

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What the resilience of books has to do with the media arts and recasting the political limelight.

It’s no secret that we’re big fans of meetings of the mind here at Brain Pickings. Not included in our two lists from last year of cross-disciplinary conferences, however, was Google’s Zeitgeist series. These invitation-only events gather global thought-leaders to describe the current moment — a kind of Weltanschauung according to Google — and now the online giant has created a deep library of talks from three years of its elite twice-annual get-togethers. Served by YouTube, natch, the Zeitgeist videos have been handily broken down into chapters so that viewers can drop in on specific sections.

Plenty of TEDsters are among the offerings, including Cameron Sinclair, Hans Rosling, and Rives; often the speakers share the stage in interview-style format and panel discussions. Since the conference is hosted by a NASDAQ behemoth, multinational CEOs and heads of state make up much of the list of 231 speakers to date. The result is a kind of behind-the-scenes view of the inner architectures of power — what author William Gibson termed the world’s “order flow” in his latest book.

Running from eight minutes to an hour in length, we’ve waded through the library to pick our five favorites. (In our number-one choice wait for the priceless story about Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin punking their current CEO Eric Schmidt.) We hope you enjoy these perspectives on how the zeitgeist looks from Mountain View.

ERIC SCHMIDT WITH LARRY PAGE

Perspective from Google 2009, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in conversation with Google Co-Founder Larry Page:

So to give you all sense of how we work together. So Larry and Sergei called me into their office, they have one office together. And they said, we’re depressed And I said, like, why. They said, well, we’re bored. Well what do you want to do? They said, we want to get into the appliance business. And I said, oh, computer appliances, notebooks, that sort of stuff. And they said, no, no, no, no, refrigerators. And so we had this ten minute conversation about the economics and capital structure of managing refrigerators, which of course, as you know can be computer controlled and managed by Google for your benefit, before I realized that they were completely fooling me, and that we are NOT getting into the refrigerator business at the moment. Remember that? He won’t admit it. It’s true, trust me.”

THE GREGORY BROTHERS

Auto-Tune the News, The Gregory Brothers:

“We wanted to release shorter videos more frequently, and we wanted to shift the limelight from the already famous newscasters and politicians and sort of pick out everyday people who we thought had that amazing unintentional star singing quality that we’re sort of always on the hunt for.”

LEE CLOW & ALEX BOGUSKY

Advertising: Stories or Games, Lee Clow and Alex Bogusky:

I call what we do– I hate the word advertising, but unfortunately it is the name of my business. But I like to believe that we’re in the media arts business. We try and take every media that a brand uses, and try and make it artful, smart, and lovable.”

SEBASTIAN JUNGER

Human Connection, Sebastian Junger:

There are social and political factors that cause wars that can simmer for decades and be ignited literally in an afternoon. One of my jobs — one of the things I do in my job is to explain how that catalyst worked or try to predict when it’s going to happen again. It happens all the time.”

CRYSTIA FREELAND & SALMAN RUSHDIE

Literary Thought in the Information Age, Crystia Freeland and Salman Rushdie:

I don’t know, I think you know the death of the book has been forecast almost since the birth of the book. And it’s an oddly resilient technology.”

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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