Digital Punditry Overload

We're awash in books about the high-tech future. How do you separate the good stuff from the junk? Here are three easy ways.


Scott Rosenberg
February 6, 1997 2:32PM (UTC)

nothing about the digital world upsets technophobes, neo-Luddites and even computer-friendly humanists more than portents of the "death of the book." Never mind that "the book" is quite well, thank you. When futurists talk about "e-books" and hypertext and online libraries, book people bristle.

Ironically, however, one of the most tangible and abundant products of the current wave of technology hype is a groaning bookshelf's worth of old-fashioned tomes. Far from killing off books, our decade's obsession with digital technology has kept the printing presses working overtime, producing futuristic volumes with see-through plastic dust jackets and innovatively unreadable typography. Recently, it's even begun to spawn whole new publishing houses like Wired's HardWired line and HarperCollins' new imprint, HarperEdge.

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There are far too many books of techno-futurism, techno-boosterism and techno-skepticism for anyone to keep up with. There are tour guides to the glorious digital future and compendiums of nightmare scenarios. There are books that promise to comfort the terrified and clueless, and books that threaten to trouble the wired and smug.

In one way, at least, the bibliophiles are right to worry. A disturbingly high percentage of the new technology books are plain bad poorly organized, ill-informed or numbingly dull. Something about writing about the digital future seems to turn writers' brains to mush. Or maybe their computers are to blame.

Consider Clifford Stoll's "Silicon Snake Oil" and Nicholas Negroponte's "Being Digital," two of the books that helped popularize this field in 1995. Their attitudes couldn't be more different: Stoll thinks digital technology is stressing and alienating us, whereas Negroponte sees the world of bits as invigorating, empowering and liberating.

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Both books are alarmingly similar in one respect: disorganization. Stoll's text is a vast conversational jumble, as if the author had spilled his mind over several nights into an online conference and his publisher then took the unedited ramblings and put a binding on them. Negroponte's book is essentially made up of bits in the pre-digital sense: It's a cut-and-paste assemblage of his columns from Wired magazine, more analytical in tone but no more clearly arranged than Stoll's work.

And so the first important question to ask about any book of high-tech punditry is a simple one:
Is it a book at all or an unedited text file?

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I'm not prepared to ascribe the raw, undigested quality of many technology books to the baleful influence of technology itself; there were badly written books long before there were word processors. Computers simply amplify the good writer's skill and the bad writer's clumsiness.

But the world of digital technology does change at an astonishing speed that the poky world of book publishing with its lag time measured in years hasn't adapted to very well. Some of the mediocrity of technology books results from a rush-into-print mentality; stop to rewrite and your information may get out of date.

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This threat of instantaneous obsolescence leads some digital pundits to take refuge in a dazzling yet vague distant future full of miraculous wonders just beyond the horizon. Someday when chips are fast enough, bandwidth wide enough, operating systems intelligent enough, computers invisible enough this millennium will arrive. In the meantime, buy the book and read all about it.

It's easy to fill hundreds of pages, as Bill Gates did in "The Road Ahead," with blandly utopian visions of "smart houses" and electronic commerce and home-entertainment nirvana. But after you read a few such books, all their digital futures start to look eye-glazingly identical.

A much more difficult but rewarding strategy is for an author to plunge into today's digital world and write about it, with all its promises and frustrating limitations, from the inside. The value in New Yorker writer John Seabrook's new "Deeper" lies precisely in this approach: It's neither infatuated with the future nor afraid of the present tense.

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Seabrook, a self-described words-on-paper man, doesn't sit back in his armchair and pen elegantly fearful essays about the decline of literature in an electronic future as Sven Birkerts did in his popular "The Gutenberg Elegies." He leans forward toward his monitor and allows himself to be enthralled by what's rich about the online world and appalled by its barbarities.

Our second scale of quality, then, places a premium on engagement with the realities of today's technology over the lazy punditry of generic prediction.

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We have the right to expect every author of a new book of techno-punditry to have some actual field experience with the digital world time spent online, hands-on experience with today's computer hardware and software, conversations with experts and everyday users. Such experience not only helps inoculate against cluelessness and utopian vapidity; it inevitably pushes writers, whether they are inclined to love technology or hate it, to give up their preconceptions and think more originally.

Right now too many technology books take confining positions along the Negroponte/Stoll divide. Books arrive with clear ideological labels: If the author's name is George Gilder, you know you're going to receive a paean to the new digital paradise; if the book's title is "Data Smog," you know you're going to read a tally of the social costs of the information age. In most cases you don't need to read the book at all to know exactly what arguments it's going to make.

This polarization is crippling. Even authors who believe they are taking a balanced view are rarely able to achieve one. At the beginning of MIT professor Michael Dertouzos' new "What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives," you'll find the following promise: "I will tell it like it is ... debunking the hype out there, helping you see through the haze of opinions, public relations, press stories, and advertising so you'll be able to judge for yourself what is important and what isn't."

That must have sounded great in Dertouzos' book proposal, but in the final product it remains utterly unfulfilled. "What Will Be" turns out to be one more computer scientist's ride on the old "here's what's wrong with today and what'll be great about tomorrow" hype-mobile. Dertouzos tries to work some dark streaks into his portrait of the "Information Marketplace" of the future, but mostly it's painted in Panglossian bright neon.

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And so our third scale of value for technology books runs from the predetermined and predictable point-of-view whether it is for or against technology to open-mindedness. It is the difference between a writer who has made up his mind before he begins his research and one who is willing to allow the complexity of the subject to inform and even alter his stance.

"What Will Be," like the forthcoming "Data Smog," is one of the first titles from the new HarperEdge imprint. In a recent piece in Netly News, HarperEdge editor Eamon Dolan thoughtfully chided "the digerati" for "relentlessly boosterish coverage of tech that obscures its real impact on our daily lives." Dolan is too gentlemanly or coy to say it, but he's plainly taking a shot at his competitors at HardWired, and particularly their "Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber-Elite," a nauseatingly pompous and self-congratulatory tome.

In
"Digerati,"
superagent John Brockman (referred to by his publisher as "The Michael Ovitz of the New Intellectual Elite," which I suppose is intended to be complimentary) interviews a bunch of pundits many of whom are his own clients about the future, festooning them with labels like "the Buccaneer," "the Saint," "the Oracle" and "the Coyote."
For all its pretensions, "Digerati" is the archetypal disposable book, shaped by deal-making rather than ideas and if there is any justice destined for the remainder heap.

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In addition to "Digerati," HardWired has so far produced one coffee-table book of repurposed Wired magazine pages ("Mind Grenades"), a volume of Wired's copy-editing style ("Wired Style"), and a somewhat more substantive compilation of expert predictions of the future ("Reality Check"). Wired's publishing arm has also made news by first signing and then essentially rejecting a book by Paulina Borsook offering a critical view of the politics of the technology industry (Broadway Books has since signed it up).

What we have not yet seen at all from HardWired or the somewhat more substantive HarperEdge is the editing and publishing of thoughtful, well-researched volumes about the digital revolution that will stand the test of time that readers might still be recommending to one another in 10 or 20 years. Isn't that why we bother to publish words between hard covers, anyway?

There is precedent for such writing, even about as transient and dynamic a subject as the digital realm. Steven Levy's "Hackers" 23 years old and still in print provided one fine model of how to write about digital culture, long before that phrase was coined. Tracy Kidder's 1981 "The Soul of a New Machine" a behind-the-scenes account of a programming team working on a minicomputer operating system that bit the dust years ago remains highly informative and readable. Stewart Brand's "The Media Lab," an early account of new media research at MIT, presented Nicholas Negroponte's ideas far more cogently in 1987 than Negroponte himself was able to manage nearly a decade later.

Each of these books scores high on our three scales they're intelligently organized, actively researched and able to embrace more than a simple love-it-or-hate-it stance toward technology. Few of the digital guidebooks published in the last two years are likely to last half as long or age half as well.

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Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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