During several recent workshops and conferences, I was asked for a reading list for those who want more information about digital technology and its impact. Here it is. The list provides an intro to code, the big four critics, the relevant philosophers, two lawyers you should monitor non-stop, and finishes with some (computer) scientists.
The Big Four
Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto was one of the first theoretical engagements with new technology and its integration with human life. Her work since that time has expanded and deepened her arguments about the integration of people and technology. Haraway is a highly creative scholar whose work is complex, but more as a result of a playful attitude to language and ideas than from abstract thought or language. Haraway is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
N. Katherine Hayles
Hayles is one of the best writers on technology and humanistic research. Hayles has a deep understanding of technology as it applies to arts and letters and leads a number of projects that provide examples to those interested in areas such as digital humanities, but also the broader cultural and intellectual implications of the shift from print to digital. Hayles work has been precise throughout the developmental stage of fields where many got lost down untested paths and it has made her a great observer of the ways in which digital technology can be used and misused in academe.
Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck is still one of the most read studies of the influence of digital technology on thought, relationships and creation. Her work is easy to read and contains a healthy dose of humour. Murray is a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and is a leading figure in the academic exploration of digital technology. She works on media and film as well as literature, offering new approaches to criticism and social studies.
Sherry Turkle has examined the social impact and implications for several decades. Writing in easy to read prose, she studies the ramifications of technology on individuals and social groups. Turkle is one of the most influential thinkers alive when it comes to digital technology and the ways our lives our changing. Her work has grown throughout the period of the digital revolution providing accessible analyses of key trends and developments. Turkle’s most recent work is on technology’s impact on intimacy, but all of her work is worth reading. She is a professor at MIT, but also appears regularly in the media.
Ian Bogost is a philosopher and game designer who has done a great deal of work trying to demonstrate the importance of a more robust engagement with computer code as a means to properly evaluate contemporary art and culture. He uses a great deal of humour in his work and is a lot of fun to follow on Twitter. Bogost publishes criticism, theoretical and social analyses and builds and sells games. He, along with Graham Harman (also on this list) are at the forefront of contemporary philosophy and the digital age. The most technically savvy scholar on this list he works to integrate programming and writing as a means to demonstrate and promote new approaches to scholarship, education and creative work. Bogost is particularly well known in the world of computer game design and study, and is a professor at Georgia Tech.
Harman is the leading figure in a group (that includes Ian Bogost who also appears on this list) that developed two new philosophical schools: Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology. The latter takes its name from computer programming and offers a deep engagement with the impact of digital technology. Harman is a complex thinker and writer, but he has a number of public lectures available online that can give you insights into his work and help you decide if you want to read some or all of his many books. (For my money Harman is the most important philosopher working today.) Harman’s work is at the forefront of philosophical thinking, and takes the restructuring of knowledge into account, while also making a strong case for the importance of literacy criticism and artistic creation. Harman is a professor at the American University of Cairo, but also holds several academic appointments at other institutions.
Mark Poster was one of the most influential thinkers of the late 20th Century. His early work focused on continental philosophy, theory and media, but towards the end of his life he turned his attention to the study of information. His final published essay highlighted a discovery he made that has powerful implications for society. Poster’s final co-edited book focused on the topic, and a series of public lectures detailed its importance. He died suddenly and shortly after that The University of California, Irvine where he worked created an archive of his work and the public lectures were removed from open circulation. His final essay, which is linked here, offers a synopsis of his final work. Poster pointed out that contemporary thinkers had entirely missed the analysis of technology at a time when technology was the most important development in the world. One way he made his case was to point out the lack of attention to Marshal McLuhan in the work of all major philosophers and theorists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His final books on the Internet and information technology are important books, but this last discovery may have been his greatest intellectual achievement, though he was not able to fully develop it. Mark Poster, “McLuhan and the Cultural Theory of Media,” https://mediatropes.com/index.php/Mediatropes/article/view/11931
Often referred to as the “Canadian Lawrence Lessig” (see next entry), Geist should be on every Canadian’s reading list. A professor at The University of Ottawa, he monitors developments in information law and regulation in our country and constantly sends out updates relevant to various sectors. Guest writes scholarly work, but also publishes in newspapers and magazines for general audiences. Geist is one of the most important scholars working today and may well be Canada’s most important academic.
Lessig is lawyer and philosopher specializing in copyright and the exploration of the public sphere of ideas. He has founded a number of the most influential organizations that fight for the public’s right to quality information (see for example: www.creativecommons.org) and is at the forefront of conversations about the Internet and its impact on law and society. Lessig is a professor at Harvard and is frequently interviewed in the media when issues relating to copyright and information are discussed. Lessig’s appointment at Harvard is in “law and leadership” indicating his influence over both policy and the broader realm of strategy in the public and private sectors.
The (Computer) Scientists
BJ Fogg may well be the most important thinker on the planet. He is a behavioural scientist that developed means for manipulating human behaviour. He is a top-notch scientist, whose work is known throughout the world and who developed his techniques in order to improve humanity. Unfortunately, they are mostly used by large organizations that seek to keep you looking at their apps or sites for longer than you would if you were able to exercise your own willpower. Understand Fogg and you will understand why we are more upset than ever even though all evidence tells us we should rejoice at the progress we are making…
Just as computers were beginning to make the transition from the lab to the home, a young Bill Gates wrote a short letter to the “Homebrew Club” a group of tech enthusiasts who met to build and improve their own computers. Gates’ argument was that “information” is capital, thus changing the conversation about capitalism forever, and leading to more recent declarations such as Jack Ma’s “data is gold.” Gates simple letter introduced a change to every aspect of regulatory and legal frameworks in the world. While most commentators continue to speak of capital in the Marxist, materialist sense, the majority of wealth and influence today exists in a realm that does not fit the earlier models. Gates is also someone to follow as a thinker as he has moved into a full-time role as a philanthropist and is directly responsible for saving millions of lives and is helping eradicate diseases from the planet. Academic and cultural critics tend to hate rich people, but until they can show me the millions of lives they have saved and the diseases they ae eliminating, I would suggest listening to what Gates has to say about the world.
Rosling is famous for a couple of TED talks that managed to get the world excited about statistics. They are well worth watching but digging into the projects he discussed is more rewarding. The work he and his family developed helped to demonstrate the importance of statistics and data representation when evaluating the world. His work is solid, and his dedication to helping people understand data made him a legend. In a world whose primary literacy is data, Rosling shows you how easy – and fun – it can be to learn how to read and interpret the numbers people throw at you.