Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Postman, Neil (1985): Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

What is it about?

The book is a critical social commentary on public discourse, which is highly critical towards the television in particular with regard to the generalized epistemology of sorts it promotes. The point of comparison for Postman is the book - or more generally the print culture - which in his assessment compares extremely favorably to the current television-centric culture.

While Postman may be argued to overdo his main arguments - at least with regard to the contemporary media landscape and public discourse in the Scandinavian countries (i.e. his commentary is probably more apt in the USA), both then and now) he seems to have a point here. The point is nicely - though not fully - captured by the following two passages:

"How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would not otherwise have taken, or provides insight into some problem you are required to solve?"

"Of course, in television's presentation of the "news of the day," we may see the Now...this" mode of discourse in it's boldest and most embarrassing form. For there, we are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment."

Thus, in Postman's assessment, we are (already were in 1985) on our way to a Huxlean world where people are rendered politically incapable through enjoyable complacency rather than Orwellian state-induced control.

Was it good?

The book is beautifully written - Postman is an unambiguous master of language and rhetorics. Moreover, the basic line of argumentation if credible with regard to its main concerns. However, the conclusions drawn may be somewhat far-reaching for a Scandinavian reader, though their accuracy may be somewhat different in the USA. In any event, such social commentary as this book is indispensable in that they 'direct one's gaze' and encourage to raise it to meta level from the daily routines and actions. In this, the book excels superbly.

It would be highly interesting to read a sequel to this book in which Postman would apply his critical analysis to our current social media-heavy media landscape. I bet he would have a thing or two to say about Facebook and Twitter, for example, and the (traditional) media which report public discourse taking place on such platforms.

The main take-away for me?

As noted above, the main take-away for me was the refreshing point of view which prompts one to consider our media landscape, public discourse and ultimately the premises of knowing - and acting upon - anything (i.e. epistemology) from a distance. Thus, the book serves a purpose for anyone even though one would not subscribe to the conclusions Postman puts forth.

Who should read the book?

I firmly believe that anyone with any intellectual curiosity would be quite well-served in reading the book. Moreover, it seems to me that even though the book was written more than three decades ago, social commentary related to media and media-mediated epistemology is currently even more relevant than at the time the book was written.

The book on Amazon.com: Amusing ourselves to death

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Orwell, George (1945): Animal Farm

What is it about?

As is widely known, the book tells a story about a farm run by animals after they successfully have ousted the human farmer away from the farm.

As is equally widely known, the story is an allegory of a soviet-style communist society, where the analogies are apparent: human=capitalist, animal=member of the working class, animalism=communism and so on.

The story ends at the state where the ruling class, the pigs, have managed to hoard significant powers and privileges to themselves and manage to oppress all the others while being able to maintain a revinisionistic line of a argumentation according to which all this is entirely consistent with the principles of animalism.

Was it good?

Without any doubt yes. As in the case of 1984 by Orwell, this book also is one of the most masterful pieces of social commentary of the 20th century. Perhaps its staying power is not as great as that of 1984 taking into account the 1990s upheaval in the Eastern Europe and its circle of influence but nonetheless, this too - like 1984 - is a book which I very much enjoy reading again every two or three years.

The main take-away for me?

The main take-away of the book for me is somewhat similar to that of 1984. Namely, Orwell nicely highlights the role of argumentation - i.e. Wittgensteinian language games in a sense - in creating, maintaining and reinforcing a social order. Perhaps here Orwell would have been able to construct the story even more subtly, but the message is quite clear nonetheless.

Who should read the book?

As in the case of other Orwell's works, and 1984 in particular, this too is one that should be a part of everyone's basic corpus.

The book on Amazon.com: Animal farm

Orwell, George (1948): 1984

What is it about?

It feels a little unnecessary to introduce such a widely known and appreciated book as 1984, but here goes. It is a dystopian novel which describes an authoritarian society Oceania. In this one-party society, surveillance is everywhere - i.e. the 'Big Brother' is always watching - and public opinion is heavily regulated and manipulated.

While the description of such a society is a significant merit in and of itself to capture our imagination concerning what it would be like to live in a society like or even closely resembling it, in my opinion the vastly greatest merit of Orwell in this book is in describing the means with which such a state of affairs is created and maintained.

Was it good?

Without doubt yes - and the word 'good' can't even begin to do justice to the book. In my list of the best or most important books I have read, this one would easily be in the top three, perhaps even number one. The embedded political commentary is just stunning and the literary elegance with which it is put forth is second to none. I seem to keep coming back to this book every other year or so.

The main take-away for me?

The main take-away for me was - once again - the means with which the dystopian society was put and is held together. The reason for this is that this allows one to reflect back to one's real-life societal context and see whether there are emerging or ongoing initiatives or trajectories that could point to Oceania.

For example, the notion of 'newspeak' (a language from which 'politically dangerous' words are being consciously removed in order to remove the possibility to speak and eventually even think about subversive ideas) is a very powerful reminder for us about the way words (concepts) are used to construct reality. While the 'strength' of this mechanism is subject to debate in academic linguistics and related disciplines (see e.g. here), I'm quite ready to subscribe to its basic reality. Here, consider for example the concepts 'racism' and 'immigration criticism' and their current usage.

Similarly, the notion of a 'thought crime' - a real crime in Oceania - is quite a powerful notion and can quite readily be reflect against current discourse about 'incorrect' socio-political opinions or mindsets. I emphasize here the notions 'thought', 'opinion' and 'mindset' - it's a different story altogether as to how or whether one acts upon one's thoughts.

Who should read the book?

Everyone, absolutely everyone. Moreover, this is a book everyone should read one every few years.

Indeed, in my opinion, this book should be part and parcel of core reading curriculum in every school system everywhere.

The book on Amazon.com: 1984

Friday, March 11, 2016

Siegel, Daniel J. (2011): The Neurobiology of 'We': How Relationships, the Mind, and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are

What is it about?

The audio course (i.e. not a proper book) aims to explain how we - or, to be more precise, our minds - interact to create social relationships between us, that is, to construct 'us'.

I chose the  based on the main title and expected it to be 'hard science' (c.f. neurobiology), but it turned out to be a little bit softer. That is, the book is more 'lifestyle-persuading' than just 'here is the science'.

Was it good?

Well, the course was nice listening, but the author's take on the subject matter made me hesitate every now and then as to what's the scientific backing to what is being claimed. I certainly don't have the credentials or neurobiological expertise to challenge anything in the course, but the still I could not escape the feeling.

Thus, I would say that the course is more like 'why not, can't hurt really' than 'must to know'.

The main take-away for me?

Actually, the main take-away for me did not really relate to the subject matter of the course but rather operates at the meta level. Namely, throughout the book I was thinking along the lines 'how and why we 'know' (or believe) anything we know'? This relates to the nagging feeling that I had throughout the course about whether I should believe what the author states or not while not having any relevant expertise to judge it myself. This applies to all kinds of knowledge about, say, fundamental physics or cosmology. In such cases we really have to use some contextual cues to judge the credibility of the information being assessed rather than the information itself - for example, the 'market share' of the idea among people who appear experts (like scientists with credentials in the field).

Who should read the book?

I think that the course 'wouldn't really hurt anyone' but I have hard time of thinking about who would be particularly fascinated by it.

The course on Amazon.com: The neurobiology of 'we'