Archives For Books

If you’re a “policy guy”, it’s easy to get buried by the present.  I put in full-time hours as a C-17 pilot and Assistant Director of Operations in my squadron, but still endeavor to keep up with what’s happening in my world.  That is not an easy thing to do, and the Internet age isn’t helping.  In addition to newspapers and the Economist and Foreign Affairs, I feel obligated to keep up with think tank reports, independent blogs, e-mail discussion groups, and Twitter feeds.  Drinking from this firehose is a full-time job, and a specialist who unplugs for even a day will find himself hopelessly behind.  With this much information to consume about the present, it’s hard to expand our time horizon fifty years in either direction–or even five.  Every moment spent studying history or pondering the future is a moment sacrificed in a demanding present.

But most of us know from our intuition and experience that history is incredibly important to those entrusted with keeping the world turning.  Somehow or another, we need to carve out the time to learn the lessons of the past.  I would argue that knowing a thing or two about the future is equally important.  No, we cannot predict events; strategist Colin Gray frequently and rightfully clobbers those who believe there is such a thing as the “foreseeable future.”  But by diligently thinking forwards, we can stretch our imaginations to envision a set of possible futures.  Such an exercise can only help us to be better thinkers and better planners; in fact, Air Force Lt. Col. Peter Garretson (who I cited last week) has even written article titled What our civilization needs is a billion-year plan.  For this kind of forward thinking there is no better resource than good science fiction.

Accelerando is one of the most ambitious forward-thinking novels I have ever read; it is a tale of humankind’s passage through “the singularity”, and spans the entire universe.  If you aren’t acquainted with written science fiction, you might not be familiar with the notion of the the singularity, which can be defined as follows: “a hypothetical future emergence of greater-than-human superintelligence through technological means.  Since the capabilities of such intelligence would be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend, the occurrence of a technological singularity is seen as an intellectual event horizon, beyond which events cannot be predicted or understood.”  The singularity is typically associated with the emergence of artificial intelligence or the technological augmentation of human intelligence; one possible future is the complete digitization of the human mind, which would allow human beings to be uploaded into software environments where almost anything becomes possible.

The singularity was popularized by futurist Ray Kurweil, who maintains a daily technology update that you can subscribe to for free at this link.  It was brought to life by science fiction author Vernor Vinge, and further explored by authors like Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross; their recent collaboration about the singularity is called Rapture of the Nerds

It’s important to understand one thing about the singularity: according to technology optimists, it’s coming faster than most of us can possibly imagine.  All of us are familiar with the exponential acceleration of computer and mobile technology, so it’s not inconceivable that this trend line could carry over into computer intelligence or biological/technological interfaces.  I’m not sure I share Kurzweil’s optimism that the singularity will arrive by 2045, but I do fully expect that my children will grow up in a world where teenagers “wear” the Internet in contact lenses or even some kind of implant, and where people interact with a world that is a fusion of real and virtual.  Google Goggles are just a clunky beginning.  I do think the futurists are right about one thing: if we ever do gain the ability to create genuine artificial intelligence or digitize the human mind, it will be the most disruptive event in our species’ history.

Accelerando is one imaginative journey into a post-singularity future.  It follows three generations of a dysfunctional entrepreneurial family through various stages of the great technological unfolding, beginning with augmented human intelligence and culminating in an interstellar journey to the very edge of the universe.  It is concerned with the life cycle and trajectory of intelligent species, the fate of our solar system, and the emergence of post-human and artificial intelligence.  The scale is such that entire star systems are dismantled to serve the projects of superintelligent agents.  It is a thrilling journey, and exceedingly well-written.  Most important for me, and unlike much science fiction, it is still a very human story about complex human beings working out their relationships in a runaway future.  If you’re not acquainted with science fiction, be forewarned: the book moves as fast as the future it envisions, and is laden with concepts and jargon that many of us can scarcely understand.  That is part of the ride, but I’ll admit that some of the time I had no idea what the hell was going on.  That’s part of the thrill, I guess.

Why the book matters to Building Peace: if disruptive technological change is really coming as fast as the futurists say, it will have epic ramifications for every dimension of human society.  A novel like this can help us anticipate what some of those changes and ramifications might be.

Goodreads

October 11, 2012 — Leave a comment
I recently discovered Goodreads and think it’s an amazing tool for keeping up with what friends are reading.  Unfortunately, not many of my friends are members so its utility is somewhat limited.  If you’re a book lover, I encourage you to take a look.

This morning I replaced Building Peace‘s “What I’m Reading” list with a link to my Goodreads page, which you can also view here.

If you’ve considered buying my political novel The Lords of Harambee, today would be a good day to do it.

I received a huge boost yesterday when nationally-known blogger Instapundit recommended the book.  In the past twenty-four hours I’ve sold enough copies to briefly make it onto Amazon.com’s list of bestselling political novels (currently #8) and science fiction adventure novels (#14).  After a couple months of struggling to draw any attention to the novel, I’ll admit that it’s pretty satisfying seeing my name next to Tom Wolfe, Joe Haldeman, Orson Scott Card, and George R.R. Martin.

Self-publishing has been an interesting experiment.  The publishing industry is rapidly changing and I believe that self-publishing will become an increasingly important part of the literary landscape.  However, the market is saturated with lousy self-published novels and there are few gatekeeping mechanisms to help prospective readers separate the wheat from the chaff.  To succeed, a self-published author must (1) write a good book and (2) help readers discover it.  Either that, or write a lousy novel and be a marketing genius.  Or write erotica.  About vampires.

I’ll leave it to my readers to determine whether or not my book is any good (free samples are available at the Amazon page).  I obviously believe in it.  The main reason I opted to self-publish is because my book is so far from genre norms that I anticipated trouble getting it published through traditional channels.  As the Instapundit plug noted, one reviewer disparagingly called the novel “Blackhawk Down in space”–which is exactly how I would describe it, except that I hoped it would be a selling point.

In any case, I’ve discovered that criteria #2–helping readers discover a book–is extremely difficult.  Breaking out is a chicken-and-egg problem.  A self-published book won’t be taken seriously without attention from gatekeepers, but the gatekeepers won’t pay attention to a self-published book unless it already stands out from the slush.  I’ve been scratching my head for the past two months trying to figure that one out.

But suddenly, for at least a brief time, the book is highly placed on a couple Amazon bestseller lists.  I would LOVE to keep that momentum going, so I encourage you to take a look at the product page on Amazon.  The book is only available electronically, but Amazon has free Kindle apps for almost every device you can imagine.  I am working on a print edition, which should be available within a few weeks.  If you did read and enjoy the book, tell your friends and consider writing a review on Amazon.com.  Thank you for all your support and encouragement!

My Novel is Available

August 1, 2012 — 3 Comments

Today I’m thrilled to announce the publication of my novel The Lords of Harambee.  It is available on Amazon for all Kindle platforms for $2.99.  Here is the plot summary:

The hostile world of Harambee was settled by refugees seeking a better life, with a little nudge from the Transsolar Corporation.  Now General Michael Sheridan commands an interstellar peacekeeping operation tasked with bringing order to a world torn apart by poverty, ethnic conflict, and foreign exploitation.  His estranged daughter Claire is an idealistic human rights lawyer who adamantly opposes the mission.  Njeri Omondi and Amazai Nebtomo are Harambean politicians of rival ethnicities, and secret lovers, who are trying to save their homeworld from implosion.  Their worst fears are realized when a coup topples the government and unleashes a horrific campaign of genocide.  These individuals must risk everything, and violate their most cherished principles, to stop the genocide–especially when Sheridan’s peacekeepers are ordered not to intervene.  As they strive to rouse an apathetic interstellar community, they have no idea how many great powers are manipulating the war to their advantage.  Among them is a utopian moon obsessed with achieving the Singularity–a technological leap forward into a posthuman future.

This is a huge event for me.  I spent a decade working on the novel, and have invested more heart and soul in it than any other project I’ve ever undertaken.  It has grown alongside me through my service and education as an officer.  I first conceived the idea while studying the Rwandan genocide as a USAFA cadet, and it has evolved to encompass many of my subsequent studies and interests.  Although fiction, it embodies my deepest reflections on human nature, international relations, and war.

Technically this novel is military science fiction, but it is substantially different from anything I’ve read in the genre and should appeal to anyone interested in history, politics, and war.  The story is set two centuries in the future, but it is really about the constancy of human nature and the eternal nature of war.  One reader told me it read like “Blackhawk Down in space”, which is exactly what I was striving for.

If you enjoy my writing, I invite you to take a look.  You can download a free sample before purchasing.  If you do read and enjoy the book, please spread the word–and be sure to let me know!  You can also help spread the word by liking the book on Facebook.

In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence is the classic White Savior: “a white person who comes upon, sympathizes with, and then ultimately rescues disenfranchised, victimized and/or brutalized people of color.”  In the military circles I run it, Lawrence is thankfully considered more critically, but he is still an exemplar: a brilliant military officer who used his deep learning and cultural expertise to help the Arabs fight the Ottomans and help Britain achieve its strategic interests.

When I went to Jordan, I wondered how Arabs saw Lawrence.  They certainly wouldn’t view him as the leader of their revolt.  I suspected they didn’t even view him as a tutor.  Did they view him favorably at all?

In the Wadi Rum desert I endured a tour obviously designed for Western tourists: these are the remains of Lawrence’s house, this is the spring where Lawrence got his water.  I asked my Bedouin guide how Jordanians view Lawrence and his place in their history, but got only a shrug.

I finally got one glimpse at university.  During a discussion of Western exploitation, one student delivered a blistering critique of Lawrence: he was an imperialist who only feigned friendship with the Arabs, so he could later exploit them in the service of British national interests.  He spent years living among them, learning their language, even wearing their clothes, but he was always a British soldier and colonialist.  The British government used his knowledge and his relationships to subdue the Arabs, deny their dream of an Arab state, and gain control of their lands.

The angry critique was alarming for this well-intended American military officer who was in Jordan to live among the people, learn the language, and build relationships.

I suspect this student’s view is typical.  When discussing this era of history, my Jordanian colleagues almost never referenced Lawrence or even their own victories against the Ottomans; what they referenced most was the secret Sykes-Picot agreement that partitioned Arab lands into French and British territories.

Yesterday, while reading King Abdullah II’s book, I discovered more clues about how Jordanians view Lawrence, although whatever truth lurks behind these quotes is diminished by the tepid tone one expects of a political memoir.  Abdullah discusses the filming of Lawrence of Arabia in Jordan, then writes:

The film was tremendously popular in the West, less so in Jordan, where it is viewed by many people as a partial and inaccurate retelling of history. And although Lawrence is seen today by many in the West as a romantic hero who played a key role in leading the Arab people to freedom, the view in my family of the historical record is considerably more measured. My great-grandfather King Abdullah I regarded Lawrence as a “strange character,” eager to mold people to suit his interests.

He then cites the memoirs of his great-grandfather, King Abdullah I: “[Lawrence’s] intrigues went as far as an attempt to influence me against my own father on the pretext that my father was obstinate… Lawrence appeared only to require people who had no views of their own, that he might impress his personal ideas upon them.”

Abdullah II then continues his treatment of the Arab Revolt with (naturally) a discussion of the Skyes-Picot agreement.

Is there a lesson here?  I think so.  Although Lawrence remains an important figure and is worthy of study, these disparate views should alert us to the dangers of mirror imaging, and of overemphasizing our own importance in the affairs of other cultures.

While looking for some light deployment reading, I stumbled across Robert Silverberg’s classic Lord Valentine’s Castle.  Years ago I had read an article in which Silverberg described how he created his spectacular world of Majipoor, so I decided to give the book a try.  The story opens with Valentine, the simple and good-natured protagonist, wandering on the outskirts of a city with no real memory of who he is or how he got there.  He happily falls in with a traveling juggling troupe.  During their journey together, Valentine begins to discover who he is… and realizes that he has been robbed of his rightful throne through an act of magic and treachery.  Valentine gains new purpose; he and his companions must cross an entire world to undo the usurper’s injustice and restore Valentine to his throne.

Lord Valentine’s Castle is a great book in its own right, one of the classics of the fantasy genre.  It is a long and leisurely stroll through a richly-imagined world, is filled with discovery, and is strong on characterization.  Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the story was diminished by my appreciation for the nature of war and international relations.  As Valentine reveals his true identity and gathers his army for the final battle, things fall into place far too easily.  He wins followers and unwavering loyalty through sheer charisma.  Although a bloody civil war could be in the making when he challenges the usurper, the leaders of each city wholeheartedly offer Valentine troops and provisions.  So successful is Valentine in winning back the “hearts and minds” of his people that the final showdown passes in the blink of an eye, with none of the bloodshed and toil I had come to expect.  For an officer who came of age during a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the book’s tidiness breaks the suspension of disbelief.  It is a good story, but one cultivated in the mind of a fantasy author–not a soldier or statesman.

That is why Lord Valentine’s Castle makes such an interesting contrast with another book I recently read: the nearly-forgotten classic Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem, who served in the Indian Army.  It is a gritty and tragic tale of the Roman General Paulinus Gaius Maximus, who is charged with holding the Rhine with a single legion during the twilight years of the Roman Empire.  The glory of Rome has passed, and Maximus is one of the few remaining Romans who embodies all that was great and terrible in the empire.  The Gauls are on the verge of an invasion, and Maximus stands nearly alone.  He has little support from his own Roman population.  Bickering politicians and clergy, who have no appreciation for the danger they are in, obstruct him at every opportunity.  Maximus must use every trick of cunning and ingenuity that he knows to raise troops, provision his army, and hold the line against a barbarian invasion.  The book can end only one way.  In moving but unsentimental prose, we witness the tragic downfall of this great leader and of Rome itself.

This is a wonderful novel for leaders, especially in an age when the United States is teetering at the summit of its greatness–and might face rapid decline if it cannot solve its most urgent problems.  In this book, we see how Maximus leads and inspires men against impossible odds.  We watch him win one impossible victory after another when defeat seems to be the only logical outcome.  And in the end, when Maximus is finally overrun by the inevitable, we see how a great man passes with dignity.

On December 30th, 2009 a Jordanian double agent traveled to a remote CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan for a meeting with his Jordanian handler.  Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a physician, claimed to be treating Ayman al-Zawahiri, the #2 figure in al-Qae’da.  It was one of the biggest breakthroughs of the War on Terror, and an abnormally large crowd of CIA agents and contractors had gathered to receive al-Balawi and hear his report.  That was a tragic mistake.  Moments after dismounting his vehicle, al-Balawi detonated a suicide vest.  Seven people died.  It was the worst loss in the CIA’s history.

Triple Agent tells the story behind these terrible events.  I picked up the book because I had a personal connection to one of the Khost victims, albeit a small one.  My wife and I knew the family of Darren LaBonte, a CIA agent who died in the attack.  He was stationed in Amman and was a close friend and associate of Ali bin Zeid, the mukhabarat captain who handled al-Balawi.  I never met Darren, because he was often traveling for work, but we had met his wife on a couple occasions and she had helped us with some arrangements when we got settled in Amman.  We didn’t know her well; just well enough that the news from Khost came as a devastating shock.  Until Darren’s death, we had no idea what he did for a living.

The events of Khost are well-known by now, documented and studied and analyzed to death by those who wanted to understand what went wrong.  So why read a new book on the subject?  I regretted not having had the chance to meet Darren; my wife, for her part, regretted not getting to know his wife better.  I hoped that the book would shine some light on this family we had briefly crossed paths with, and give me insight into the world they inhabited.  And that, really, turned out to be the book’s strength.  It tells the story of the individuals who were at Khost: Darren, Ali bin Zeid, Khost base chief Jennifer Matthews, targeter Elisabeth Hanson, and others.  The book uses this dreadful event to humanize and personalize the long war against al-Qa’eda.

The book is a riveting and dreadful read.  I kept hoping that a crucial warning would be heard, that a key decision would be changed, that somehow the tragic outcome would be averted.  But of course the end of the story was preordained.

For me, the most gut-wrenching moment in the book is when Darren LaBonte and Ali bin Zeid say goodbye to their wives in Amman before flying to Afghanistan for the fateful meeting.  They are worried.  Darren and Ali do not trust their own agent and are worried that things are moving too fast.  Darren’s wife has expressed fear that the agent might turn out to be a suicide bomber.  Despite their fears, these two women send their husbands off with courage so remarkable that it deserves special mention:

The women knew the men shared a fascination with ancient warrior culture, for the armies of Athens and Sparta. In ancient Greece the mothers of Spartan warriors exhorted their sons to bravery with the words that Fida Dawani and Racheal LaBonte now spoke to their departing husbands: “Return with your shields or on them.”

That sendoff reminds me of the final pages of Steven Pressfield’s historical novel about Thermopylae, when the Spartan King Leonidas meets a woman named Paraleia a few days before he leads the 300 off to battle.  Paraleia is about to be robbed of both her husband and son.  King Leonidas says:

“The city speculates and guesses… as to why I elected those I did to the Three Hundred.  Was it for their prowess as individual men-at-arms? … I chose them not for their own valor, lady, but for that of their women … When the battle is over, when the Three Hundred have gone down to death, then will all Greece look to the Spartans, to see how they bear it.  But who, lady, who will the Spartans look to?  To you and the other wives and mothers, sisters and daughters of the fallen.  If they behold your hearts riven and broken with grief, they, too, will break. And Greece will break with them. But if you bear up, dry-eyed, not alone enduring your loss but seizing it with contempt for its agony and embracing it as the honor that it is in truth, then Sparta will stand. And all Hellas will stand behind her.”

By telling their stories as accurately and honestly as possible, Triple Agent is a fitting tribute to those lost at Khost–as well as the loved ones they left behind.

Ever since I discovered the amazing translation by Robert Fagles, I’ve been a fan of The Iliad.  I also have a strong interest in the human dimension of war, particularly the way that good men and women come to grips with war’s moral ambiguities and horrendous suffering.  So I was pleased to stumble across a book that combined these two interests.  In Achilles in Vietnam, Jonathan Shay argues that The Iliad is really a story about Achilles’ combat trauma and the tragic undoing of his character. This is how he summarizes the tale:
Agamémnon, Achilles’ commander, betrays “what’s right” by wrongfully seizing his prize of honor; indignant rage shrinks Achilles’ social and moral horizon until he cares about no one but a small group of combat-proven comrades; his closest friend in that circle, his second-in-command and foster brother, Pátroklos, dies in battle; profound grief and suicidal longing take hold of Achilles; he feels that he is already dead; he is tortured by guilt and the conviction that he should have died rather than his friend; he renounces all desire to return home alive; he goes berserk and commits atrocities against the living and the dead. This is the story of Achilles in the Iliad, not some metaphoric translation of it.

What I enjoyed so much about this book is that it transformed my view of both subjects: The Iliad and post-traumatic stress disorder.  As much as I enjoyed The Iliad, I never much liked Achilles.  I saw him as a spoiled child who is unforgivably selfish, who ceases to care about his own army but explodes in killing rages to protect his own interests (it probably didn’t help my view of Achilles that he was played by Brad Pitt in the movie Troy).  My sympathies were always with Hector, Achilles’ quieter and more noble adversary who eventually sacrificed his life defending his family and his city.

Shay turned my view of Achilles upside down.  In Shay’s reading, Achilles is not merely selfish; he is not simply pouting because Agamemnon stole his woman.  On the contrary, Agamemnon’s act violates the moral universe that the Greeks inhabited.  It is a grave act of betrayal by Achilles’ leader, and it sets Achilles on a tragic descent into combat trauma that ultimately costs him his moral character.

The book also changed my view of post-traumatic stress disorder.  I have always associated PTSD with (to put it simply) seeing, experiencing, or doing terrible things.  But for Shay, who has worked extensively with Vietnam veterans who suffer extreme PTSD, something else is primary: moral injury, which is typically inflicted directly or indirectly by a soldier’s superiors.  Shay writes:

moral injury is an essential part of any combat trauma that leads to lifelong psychological injury. Veterans can usually recover from horror, fear, and grief once they return to civilian life, so long as “what’s right” has not also been violated.

This is an intriguing read for anybody who has a special interest in the psychological journey of traumatized veterans.  It is also of interest for those who enjoy Homer and wish to see his work in a new light.  Shay captures the timelessness of war and the constancy of human nature; he shows the enduring relevance of the ancient Greek tale to warriors today.

A Soldier’s Dream: Captain Travis Patriquin and the Awakening of Iraq tells the story of Travis Patriquin, an Arabic-speaking Army officer who lost his life while helping lay the groundwork for the Anbar Awakening.  The book caught my attention for two reasons.  First, as an Arabic-speaking military officer, I’m interested in how other Arabic-speaking officers have employed their abilities.  Second, I often wrestle with the question of how much difference one individual can make in a bureaucratic organization as cumbersome as the U.S. government.  So I was intrigued by the author’s premise that Capt Patriquin played a critical role in the Anbar Awakening.

This is an enjoyable book at several levels.  First, it’s a worthy tribute to a fallen soldier who did great things for his country and for the people of Iraq.  I’d read about Patriquin’s famous stick-drawing COIN briefing, but knew very little about the man himself.  I enjoyed coming alongside him and seeing the Anbar Awakening through the lens of his experience.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, the author did a great job using Patriquin’s story to highlight the heroism of the U.S. Army in general.  By telling his story, the author tells something of the story of every soldier who fought in Iraq.  Third, the book tells part of the history of the Anbar Awakening itself.

A couple tangential thoughts I had from the book:

1) As an Olmsted scholar, I had to think long and hard about why I was investing so much time in learning Arabic.  It wasn’t to communicate information; many Arabs speak better English than I do Arabic, and we have interpreters for the rest.   No; the real value of learning a language is building trust.  Patriquin’s story captures this so well.  His unit had interpreters who were perfectly capable of transmitting and receiving information, but Patriquin won the trust of key sheikhs because of his language ability and respect for Iraqi culture.  That trust allowed him to accomplish something that nobody else could.
2) Patriquin’s story shows the value of intensive immersion programs, which are obviously near and dear to my heart.  In addition to studying at DLI, he studied at Yarmouk University in Jordan–which is probably where he built a foundation for spoken dialect, which would prove so important in Iraq.  In my view, examples like Patriquin show why we need to circulate as many officers as possible through these programs.  We want a large pool of officers with this kind of training and ability, from which the next Travis Patriquin can emerge.  Unfortunately, these programs are often on the chopping block or are severely curtailed because of force protection concerns, which are paramount at the Embassy level.  I understand the responsibility that a Chief of Mission has to protect U.S. personnel in his or her country, but I also worry about the strategic consequences when institutionalized risk aversion makes full immersion almost impossible.  The U.S. government is incapable of creating a T.E. Lawrence; we’re very lucky it created a Travis Patriquin.

In my previous post I discussed my concern that being perpetually “plugged in” was hindering my ability to learn.  I’ve had other concerns, too.  I’m less productive than I used to be.  I have a hard time seeing projects through.  My relationships with friends have atrophied; one-line Facebook notes have largely replaced the long, rich e-mail conversations I’ve always favored.  Overall, I’ve had the nagging sense that being constantly wired has made my life less meaningful and satisfying.

That got me thinking a lot about the hazards of our information age, which we are mostly blind to.  After all, information is the medium we swim in these days.  We take it for granted and can hardly conceive how to live differently.  So this week I read two books that thoughtfully examine what the Internet is doing to us as human beings.

First, I liked Nicholas Carr’s Wired article so much that I bought his book.  Carr draws on modern scientific research to show how the Internet is actually rewiring our brains at a physiological level.  New technologies, he argues, fundamentally reshape how we think.  The birth of written language and the creation of the printing press didn’t merely put new information into the hands of the masses; these technologies  overturned centuries of oral culture and an education system based primarily on memorization. They changed how human beings think.  The Internet has done the same thing, and while that brings many benefits, it has risks.  The research is pretty conclusive that the Internet is a medium built around distraction.  While it makes a vast amount of information accessible, deep learning and creativity is hindered.

Some Internet apologists argue that we don’t need deep learning anymore, because we can look up anything we want instantaneously on the net.  Amazingly, Carr cities a Rhodes scholar studying philosophy who has given up reading books entirely.  These people argue that the function of human intelligence nowadays is to index information sources and know where to look up answers we need.  To some degree, that might be true.  But Carr cites scientific studies which show that deep learning is what creates the frameworks and scaffolding in our brains that we use to process and analyze information.  Our ability to synthesize information, place it into larger wholes, and think creatively depends to a large extent on the kind of deep learning that occurs when we read books.

Jaron Lanier’s book You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto attacks Web 2.0 culture, arguing that it is undermining us as human beings.  Lanier is no Luddite; he is the father of virtual reality and one of the pioneers of the digital age.  Lanier draws on his technological expertise to show the profound consequences that design choices can have on human society.  These design choices are not inevitable, but once the choices are made, they frequently get “locked in” and are impossible to change.  By atomizing human beings and reducing them to discrete properties that fit within tidy design patterns, Web 2.0 designs are sacrificing the uniqueness and creativity that make us human.

Lanier frequently compares Web 2.0 technologies to the MIDI music format, which was designed to digitally represent musical notes.  The technology got “locked in” early and acts like a straitjacket now, because MIDI has been so universally adopted.  The problem is that MIDI sounds… well, terrible.  The rigid digital format can’t capture any of the richness, subtlety, and nuance that makes for quality music.  Lanier argues the same thing is happening to human beings.

Lanier has other criticisms.  “Cybernetic totalists” are elevating the crowd (or hive) above human beings themselves.  These totalists tell us that the hive has more worth, creativity, and intelligence than individuals.  Thus a collaborative project like Wikipedia will somehow be superior to the contributions of any one individual.  The truth, Lanier argues, is frequently the opposite.  Passion, creativity, and real art spring from individuals.  Web 2.0 chops, dices, atomizes, mashes up, and resynthesizes these contributions into something less meaningful.

Lanier also believes that Internet business models–which flow directly from design choices–are destroying art and creativity.  A handful of information gatekeepers like Google make extravagant amounts of money, while artists, content creators, and producers get nothing.  Most Web 2.0 enthusiasts bash “old media” like newspapers and the music business, blaming them for being slow to adapt to changing technology.  Lanier argues that with our current designs, adaptation is impossible; there is no alternative business model that will help musicians or newspapers survive.

Whether one agrees with these authors or not, they do a great service by challenging conventional wisdom and asking hard questions about the digital age.  What is the Internet doing to us as human beings?  We are familiar with the benefits; what are the risks?  Are these inevitable or can they be redesigned?  How do we live effective and satisfying lives as human beings in response to these technologies?  These two books have given me plenty to think about.