Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Internet is Not the Answer by Andrew Keen

We live in a world where anyone with a computer can have a platform for their opinion, start a business or download any type of media that they're interest in, often at low or no-cost. But what have been the consequences to people left out of the internet boom? And what lessons can we learn now that the internet has become so tightly integrated into all of our lives? Andrew Keen, the Christopher Hitchens of technology writing, uses his new book The Internet is Not the Answer to act the contrarian to today's full-speed ahead approach to the internet and to ask the important questions that often get pushed aside in our quest for the newest cool thing or the next Google.

The book's backdrop is San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which Keen observes have become increasingly divided been haves, who attend exclusive clubs that claim to cater to all types, and have-nots who live on the streets in front. What concerns Keen beyond the destruction of the middle class that has accompanied the internet economy, as jobs have simply vanished (with desolate Rochester, New York, the home of the dead film industry provided as an example), is the fact that internet "gurus" and their acolytes keep preaching job creation and freedom when evidence points to the demolition of entire industries. While the early history of the internet is based philosophically around a sharing economy, Amazon has accumulated enough power to put retailers out of business and to run modern sweatshops. Meanwhile, Uber is one of the hottest businesses around, and while it has created some jobs it has also put traditional taxi drivers out of work. And what will be the effect when driverless cars appear on the landscape? And are jobs really being created when a successful company like Instagram gets purchased by Facebook for a billion dollars when it has only thirteen full-time employees?

Keen also ponders the new narcissism of the Facebook/Instagram internet "selfie" existence, in which we all become celebrities in our own minds to a small circle of likeminded friends. Paired with a world where online journalism is defined by the self-publishing of Huffington Post while professional newspaper reporting is seemingly slipping into extinction, we have to wonder whether the internet that was supposed to open our world has actually trapped us in boxes in which the only opinions that matter to us are ones that mirror our own and we cease to exist if we are not sharing our faces and location with our friends. Our online lives themselves are becoming commodities for companies offering free services and between our willingness to share everything and a world where the government can potentially track our every online and physical movement, perhaps it's time to take a step back and consider how connected we actually want to be.

Keen even tackles the current "maker" craze, wondering whether the potential for people to create goods in their own homes is just a repeat of previous empty promises of every musician being able to have an equal platform on the internet, when the current situation of music streaming that pays artists almost nothing is much more complicated than originally envisioned. Could 3-D printing mean the end of sweatshops, as fabrics become easy to create in the home, or the end of an industry, displacing thousands of workers? Obviously the answers are not simple but at least someone is asking the questions. However, as the title of the book states, the internet itself is not the answer to anything.

Often The Internet is Not the Answer comes off as a humorless screed but that does not diminish the importance of Keen's writing. As a parent, I have often found myself wondering if the current enthusiasm in STEM education needs to be accompanied by an equal reemphasis of philosophy, ethics and critical thinking, and this book does nothing to change my opinion. In the meantime, this book will certainly get you thinking about the potential societal impact of the next Amazon purchase or Uber ride.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music by Andrew Grant Jackson

A few years ago Bob Dylan was quoted in an interview saying "I guess the Fifties would have ended in about '65," and Andrew Grant Jackson, in 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, sets out to lay out the reasons that this is the case. In roughly chronological order, Jackson sums up the year in politics, civil rights and (of course) music and shows us how the country pivoted in this tumultuous year. It's an ambitious task that Jackson is not quite up to, but the book remains a fun read of a year of change in music and culture.

The book is divided into four sections, based on the seasons of the year. 1965 began with the recording of The Rolling Stones' early self-penned numbers The Last Time and Bob Dylan's transitional Bringing it All Back Home album in January and ends in December with The Beatles' experimental Rubber Soul and the heavy debut by The Who (as well as A Charlie Brown Christmas special, to which Jackson points out the oddness of launching a neurotic cartoon character with jazz accompaniment to massive appeal).

Naturally, there are a number of names that loom largely over the year 1965's music. Bob Dylan shifts from protest singer to rocker when controversially bringing out an electric backing band at the Newport Folk Festival (and later attacks the folkies with Positively 7th Street). The Rolling Stones were transitioning from an R&B group to one that favored exotic instrumentation in its hard rock hits. The Beatles try LSD for the first time in March and mix new Dylan influences with sitars and string quartets. Brian Wilson brings the Beach Boys to a new experimental level as he shifts from surf to Pet Sounds. James Brown creates a new kind of funk. The Byrds bring jangly Dylan covers to the masses. All in all it was not a bad year for music!

Lurking in the background of these musical changes are the societal crises that influenced a new kind of musician and music consumer. 1965 was the year of the Selma to Montgomery march, the assassination of Malcolm X, the escalation of U.S. forces in Vietnam (and protests spurred in response), new sexual freedom and increased drug experimentation. The author tries hard to make sure that we know the background behind the changing sounds.

Jackson works hard to integrate these threads into the overall story, and while they are essential to know about, they don't necessarily fit his chronological structure. Likewise, while it's great to hear about the development of the various subgenres of music that rose during the year, many of the sections of the book come off as long, interesting sidelights. But while Jackson probably bit off more than he could chew in trying to link politics and music, it still remains an enjoyable snapshot of a particularly eventful year.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey

When I think of black diamonds, I think of the black gem stone, not coal. But coal and coal mining is the subject of this account of the aristocratic Fitzwilliam family and their Yorkshire coal mines. This fast-paced social history shows how coal gave this family its fortunes yet also caused its rapid downfall.

The family owned not only a vast estate but most important, the mineral rights to the coal below ground. The villages the coal miners lived in, the schools, hospitals, stores, everything that touched the miners' lives was dependent on the Fitzwilliam family. By all accounts they were decent people to work for and the mines were productive and successful. When the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam died in 1902 he left an estate among the richest in England.

The family lived in the 300-plus room Wentworth House, once the largest privately owned house in England. But the politics that emerged after the great wars changed the family's fortunes in a spectacularly short time. The Labour government that came to power after the first World War levied massive taxes on the great landed estates; the government nationalized the country's mines following World War II. Today the Fitzwilliam estate is a wasteland and the once great Wentworth House a ruin.

Bailey writes books about the British aristocracy and their failings and foibles. In this fascinating book she lays the family's affairs, politics, deaths, alcoholism, illegitimate children, the cutting off of heirs and its ties to the Kennedy family bare for all to see. The story of their spectacular downfall reads like a novel. I found it fascinating.