It was maybe always this way to some extent: our lives are metered out by the time spent with either the natural world, or tools and – often – with the ways those two things exist together. The tools we make help us live in the world, both practically and intangibly. I’ve been thinking a lot about how the tools we use today are largely digital, and in some ways encapsulate their own universe, one that sometimes I think we navigate, but that just as often seems to steer us in certain directions. Certainly it is a mixture of those two things, not wholly one thing or the other, but it seems like a complex conundrum to consider. And it’s one I have been exploring in some books I've been reading lately. With the new (forthcoming) push from Apple to market a more prominent Virtual Reality product, it seemed like a good time to offer a few suggestions if you are also interested in the way we engage with technology, in creative, helpful, and possibly stressful ways.
More Than a Glitch: Confronting Race, Gender, and Ability Bias in Tech by Meredith Broussard
Published by MIT Press, this book is a deep dive into society’s (problematic) reliance on the notion that technology is neutral when considering ideas of race, gender, and ability. Because the coding for technology is written by humans, it is just as subject to biases and baked in discriminatory decision-making and practices. The author, Broussard, serves on the advisory board for the Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies and is a highly qualified person to explain the ways in which she navigates these ideas in her own research – presenting signposts that anyone reading would be able to spot as troublesome (to say the least). Some examples are sensors that are only trained to recognize lighter skin tones and the feedback loop when medical diagnostic algorithms are trained with “insufficiently diverse data.” An interesting, thought-provoking, and insightful read that comes from one of the leading experts on the topic. Highly recommend!
Another book on this topic that is also written by an academic, this one concerns itself largely with the idea of play and how video game technology has served enthusiasts for decades by providing a technological story over which a player can change the outcome. The book does a couple of nose-dives into ideas that are slightly different than the main conceit. Because of the author’s background, he talks a little bit about psychological studies and the only people I could imagine reading that are other psychologists. The real substance of the book comes in his exploration of video games (and technological play) as a way to connect with oneself and with a community (if one chooses to play with others). The way in which it allows players to make decisions and bear out the consequences (in a safer environment than the real world can sometimes be) is touted as essential. There is some discussion on the darker cultural implications of video games, but Etchells largely eschews those. Another book might be more even-handed. The best part of this book, aside from its thoughtfulness, is the way in which the author connects his own life to his gaming hobby/profession. If you like video games, it’s almost certain that you would enjoy this book!
Primitive Technology: A Survivalist's Guide to Building Tools, Shelters & More in the Wild by John Plant
Before the information revolution, our tools were mostly analog. To touch on that, as well as to explore back to the most basic function of tools: to make our lives better, this book reaches backward to explore primitive technology whose primary function is survival. Before we try to enjoy our lives, we need to survive our lives. This book is a practical and interesting presentation of how get by in the wild without digital technology by our sides. It’s almost the antithesis of the other books on this list, but somehow also the foundation on which they rest. The idea of tools had to come before progress leading to today’s world was ever to happen. If you like digital tech but also the idea of learning analog skills, this is a practical way to develop the ability to exist in a world that is solely dictated by a physical reality.
Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age by Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne
A thoroughly interesting take on how we are served and imperiled by technology. When things change so quickly, the rules for protecting ourselves (sometimes financially, sometimes in terms of our privacy) also need to change. By looking into the how and why we should be both excited by and (a little) scared by the progression of this digital age. Thinking about how companies use technology to connect to and exploit customers as well as how crime, inequality, and democracy itself are impacted by our rapidly shifting technological environment, this book was a best-seller for a reason. Out of all the books on this list, this one provided the most food for thought and covers the broadest range of ideas. If you’re looking for a comprehensive set of well-researched takes on the state of the world and its relationship to tech, this is a great resource to pick up. If you like the book, there is also a podcast of the same name currently in production, hosted by the author.
Finally, for this list of recommendations, The Future is Analog is a synthesis of the earlier titles, but arrives at a slightly askew conclusion. Sax, the author, blends together discussions of tools, the dangers and promises of technology, the personal impact of tech on our enjoyment of life, and play, as well as the less DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) minded aspects of technological evolution. His book deals considers, for example, the conveniences of the internet at the start of the pandemic, and how it made possible to move to a life of considerably less interpersonal contact and the way in which it was convenient, but also isolating. His thesis is about using technology to augment and improve how we experience life. His intent is something the other books on this list are often trying to get at, but I believe he arrives in a more focused and succinct way. Without as much academic sensibility, this book is for a generalist, or for someone who just wants something a little more accessible, a little more directed toward how to incorporate the lessons of the other books into their own life.
About the Author
Jen F. is an Adult Services Librarian at the MLK Library. When not at work, they enjoy listening to music, reading, learning more about camerawork and storytelling, going for walks, and baking.