As you know, I’ve been playing around with a new writing platform called Medium. A few days ago, I wrote up some thoughts on the platform in post titled, “Meta-Medium.” If you’re curious about the platform, give it a read. If you do, make sure to open up the notes by clicking on the small icon to the top right of each paragraph. Admittedly, I may have gotten a bit note-happy; I found it a very tempting feature. In any case, some important points are contained in them.
The Tourist and the Pilgrim is now available through the Kindle Store.
I’m grateful to those of you who’ve picked up a copy and spread the word.
A couple of observations: First, you all are generous. Almost everyone who’s picked up a copy at Gumroad has paid more than the asking price. Secondly, if you refine the category sufficiently, it’s apparently not that hard to crack a top 100 list on Amazon, at least temporarily.
Also, thanks for your patience as I do some self-promotion. I can barely stand it myself, but if I’ve put the thing together, I should at least make sure people know it’s out there.
UPDATE: Well, we’re movin’ on up …
A few days ago, I noted, thanks to a WordPress reminder, that The Frailest Thing had turned thee. I had little idea what I was doing when I started blogging, and wasn’t even very clear on why I was doing so. I had just started my graduate program in earnest, so I was reading a good bit and, in part at least, I thought it would be useful to process the ideas I was engaging by writing about them. Because I was devoting myself to course work, I was also out of the classroom for the first time in ten years, and the teacher in me wanted to keeping teaching somehow.
So I began blogging and have kept it up these three years and counting.
The best of these three years of writing is, I’m happy to announce, now available in an e-book titled, The Tourist and the Pilgrim: Essays on Life and Technology in the Digital Age.
Forty-six essays are gathered into eight chapters:
1. Technology Criticism
2. Technology Has a History
3. Technology and Memory
4. Technology and the Body
5. Ethics, Religion, and Technology
6. Being Online
7. Our Mediated Lives
Not surprisingly, these chapters represent fairly well the major areas of interest that have animated my writing.
Right now, the e-book is only available through Gumroad. Of course, feel free to share the link: https://gumroad.com/l/UQBM. You will receive four file formats (PDF, .epub, .mobi, .azw3). The .mobi file will work best with your Kindle. Some formatting issues are holding up availability through Amazon, but it should also be available there in the next couple of days for those who find that more convenient.
Each of the essays can be found in some form online, but I have revised many of them to correct obvious errors, improve the quality of the prose, and make them read more naturally as stand-alone pieces. Nonetheless, the substance remains freely available through this site.
Convenience and a few improvements aside, those of you who have been reading along with me for some time will not find much you haven’t seen before. You might then consider Gumroad something akin to a tip jar!
Finally, because I would not presume they would see it otherwise, I’d like to share the Acknowledgements section here:
Each of these essays first appeared in some form on The Frailest Thing, a blog that I launched in the summer of 2010. I’m not sure how long the blogging venture would have lasted were it not for the encouragement of readers along the way. I’m especially grateful for those who through their kind words, generous linking, and invitations to write for their publications have given my writing a wider audience than it would’ve had otherwise. On that score, my thanks especially to Adam Thierer, Nathan Jurgenson, Rob Horning, Emily Anne Smith, Alan Jacobs, Nick Carr, Cheri Lucas Rowlands, Matthew Lee Anderson, and Evan Selinger.
But I must also acknowledge a small cadre of friends who read and engaged with my earliest offerings when there was no other audience of which to speak. JT, Kevin, Justin, Mark, David, Randy – Cheers!
And, of course, my thanks and love to my wife, Sarah, who has patiently tolerated and supported my online scribblings these three years.
My thanks, of course, are owed to all of you who have stopped by along the way. While it may sound sappy and trite, I have to say there is still something quite humbling about the fact that when I offer up my words, which is to say something of my self, there are those who come around and take the time to read them.
There is a sense in which I’ve written for myself. The writing has helped me in my effort to understand, or, as Hannah Arendt put, “think what we are doing.” It is no small thing to me that in making that process public, some have found a thing or two of some value.
For some time now I’ve entertained the idea of compiling some of what I’ve written here over the last three years and turning it into an e-book. In part, I’m motivated by the desire to give the work I’ve put into this blog a more finished and enduring form – or, at least what would feel like a more finished and enduring form. I’ve also been intrigued by the process of putting together an e-book and thought it might be interesting to experiment with it. And, of course, it would be disingenuous of me if I didn’t also admit that I’ve wondered whether putting together an e-book might not help finance what remains of grad school. My expectations on that count are, I assure you, quite modest. In any case, entertain the idea is pretty much all I had done with it. Until recently that is.
I’ve been inspired by Jeremy Antley to finally undertake the project. Jeremy is a thoughtful and articulate scholar of Russian history, games, and digital culture who blogs at The Peasant Muse and has written for some of the same online venues I’ve contributed to over the last couple of years. His post on the process of putting together an e-book was tremendously helpful and made the whole thing seem easy enough for me to give a it whirl. I picked up his book at Amazon, and you can also find it at gumroad.
So I’ve been working on a collection I’m tentatively titling The Tourist and the Pilgrim: Essays on Life in a Digital Age. I’m hoping to make it available in the next few days. All of what will be gathered therein, at least in its original form, has been and will remain freely available on this site. But those of you who would appreciate a collection of the better work that’s passed through these pages and an opportunity to support that work, stay tuned, it’s forthcoming.
One more, possibly oddball thought. I imagine this is the sort of thing a publisher would traditionally do, so this might be a little weird, but, whatever, these are weird times: If you’ve been reading The Frailest Thing for awhile and would be interested in giving me a “back cover blurb” sort of endorsement drop me an email at LMSacasas at gmail dot com. Cheers!
Last year I wrote a few posts considering the motives that animate tech critics. I’ve slightly revised and collated three of those posts below.
Some time ago, I confessed my deeply rooted Arcadian disposition. I added, “The Arcadian is the critic of technology, the one whose first instinct is to mourn what is lost rather than celebrate what is gained.” This phrase prompted a reader to suggest that the critic of technology is preferably neither an Arcadian nor a Utopian. This better sort of critic, he wrote, “doesn’t ‘mourn what is lost’ but rather seeks an understanding of how the present arrived from the past and what it means for the future.” The reader also referenced an essay by the philosopher of technology Don Ihde in which Ihde reflected on the role of the critic of technology by analogy to the literary critic or the art critic. The comment triggered a series of questions in my mind: What exactly makes for a good critic of technology? What stance, if any, is appropriate to the critic of technology toward technology? Can the good critic mourn?
First, let me reiterate what I’ve written elsewhere: Neither unbridled optimism nor thoughtless pessimism regarding technology foster the sort of critical distance required to live wisely with technology. I stand by that.
Secondly, it is worth asking, what exactly does a critic of technology criticize? The objects of criticism are rather straightforward when we think of the food critic, the art critic, the music critic, the film critic, and so on. But what about the critic of technology? The trouble here, of course, stems from the challenge of defining technology. More often than not the word suggests the gadgets with which we surround ourselves. A little more reflection brings to mind a variety of different sorts of technologies: communication, military, transportation, energy, medical, agricultural, etc. The wheel, the factory, the power grid, the pen, the iPhone, the hammer, the space station, the water wheel, the plow, the sword, the ICBM, the film projector – it is a procrustean concept indeed that can accommodate all of this. What does it mean to be a critic of a field that includes such a diverse set of artifacts and systems?
I’m not entirely sure; let’s say, for present purposes, that critics of technology find their niche within certain subsets of the set that includes all of the above. The more interesting question, to me, is this: What does the critic love?*
If we think of all of the other sorts of critics, it seems reasonable to suppose that they are driven by a love for the objects and practices they criticize. The music critic loves music. The film critic loves film. The food critic loves food. (We might also grant that a certain variety of critic probably loves nothing so much as the sound of their own writing.) But does the technology critic love technology? Some of the best critics of technology have seemed to love technology not at all. What do we make of that?
What does the critic of technology love that is analogous to the love of the music critic for music, the food critic for food, etc.? Or does the critic of technology love anything at all in this way. Ihde seems not to think so when he writes that, unlike other sorts of critics, the critic of technology does not become so because they are “passionate” about the object of criticism.
Perhaps there is something about the instrumental character of technology that makes it difficult to complete the analogy. Music, art, literature, food, film – each of these requires technology of some sort. There are exceptions: dance and voice, for example. But for the most part, technology is involved in the creation of the works that are the objects of criticism. The pen, the flute, the camera – these tools are essential, but they are also subordinate to the finished works that they yield. The musician loves the instrument for the sake of the music that it allows them play. It would be odd indeed if a musician were to tell us that he loves his instrument, but is rather indifferent to the music itself. And this is our clue. The critic of technology is a critic of artifacts and systems that are always for the sake of something else. The critic of technology does not love technology because technology rarely exists for its own sake. Ihde is right in saying that the critic of technology is not, in fact, should not be passionate about the object of their criticism. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that no passion at all motivates their work.
So what does the critic of technology love? Perhaps it is the environment. Perhaps it is an ideal of community or friendship. Perhaps it is an ideal civil society. Perhaps it is health and vitality. Perhaps it is sound education. Perhaps liberty. Perhaps joy. Perhaps a particular vision of human flourishing. The critic of technology is animated by a love for something other than the technology itself. Returning to where we began, I would suggest that the critic may indeed mourn just as they may celebrate. They may do either to the degree that their critical work reveals technology’s complicity in either the destruction or promotion of that which they love.
Criticism of technology, if it moves beyond something like mere description and analysis, implies making what amount to moral and ethical judgments. The critic of technology, if they reach conclusions about the consequences of technology for the lives of individual persons and the health of institutions and communities, will be doing work that rests on ethical principles and carries ethical implications.
In this they are not altogether unlike the music critic or the literary critic who is excepted to make judgments about the merits of a work art given the established standards of their field. These standards take shape within an institutionalized tradition of criticism. Likewise, the critic of technology — if they move beyond questions such as “Does this technology work?” or “How does this technology work?” to questions such as “What are the social consequences of this technology?” — is implicated in judgments of value and worth.
But according to what standards and from within which tradition? Not the standards of “technology,” if such could even be delineated, because these would merely consider efficiency and functionality (although even these are not exactly “value neutral”). It was, for example, a refusal to evaluate technology on its own terms that characterized the vigorous critical work of the late Jacques Ellul. As Ellul saw it, technology had achieved its nearly autonomous position in society because it was shielded from substantive criticism — criticism, that is, which refused to evaluate technology by its own standards. The critic of technology, then, proceeds with an evaluative framework that is independent of the logic of “technoscience,” as philosopher Don Ihde called it, and so they become an outsider to the field.
“The contrast between art and literary criticism and what I shall call ‘technoscience criticism’ is marked. Few would call art or literary critics ‘anti-art’ or ‘anti-literature’ in the working out, however critically, of their products. And while it may indeed be true that given works of art or given texts are excoriated, demeaned, or severely dealt with, one does not usually think of the critic as generically ‘anti-art’ or ‘anti-literature.’ Rather, it is precisely because the critic is passionate about his or her subject matter that he or she becomes a ‘critic.’ That is simply not the case with science or technoscience criticism …. The critic—as I shall show below—is either regarded as an outsider, or if the criticism arises from the inside, is soon made to be a quasi-outsider.”
The libertarian critic, the Marxist critic, the Roman Catholic critic, the posthumanist critic, and so on — each advances their criticism of technology informed by their ethical commitments. Their criticism of technology flows from their loves. Each criticizes technology according to the larger moral and ethical framework implied by the movements, philosophies, and institutions that have shaped their identity. And, of course, so it must be. We are limited beings whose knowledge is always situated within particular contexts. There is no avoiding this, and there is nothing particularly undesirable about this state of affairs. The best critics will be self-aware of their commitments and work hard to sympathetically entertain divergent perspectives. They will also work patiently and diligently to understand a given technology before reaching conclusions about its moral and ethical consequences. But I suspect this work of understanding, precisely because it can be demanding, is typically driven by some deeper commitment that lends urgency and passion to the critic’s work.
Such underlying commitments are often veiled within certain rhetorical contexts that demand as much, the academy for example. But debates about the merits of technology might be more fruitful if the participants acknowledged the tacit ethical frameworks that underlie the positions they stake out. This is because, in such cases, the technology in question is only a proxy for something else — the object of the critic’s love.
*Ultimately, I mean love in the Augustinian sense: the deep commitments and desires which drive and motivate action.